my china :  of migration and mixed blood

When I was born in 1955, being Anglo- Chinese was still considerably  uncommon. The influences of having a Chinese father and an English  mother were subtle, woven into the details of our daily life; the  difference of my father’s expression whilst bending over a plate of  potatoes with a knife and fork, to that of emptying a bowl of rice with  his chopsticks, was clearly worlds apart.

Our house in the small village just outside Windsor, in the  southwestern part of England where I grew up was called Amoy. It was  named after the area in Southern China where my father was born and  raised. A climbing plant with pale delicate leaves wound its way around  the wooden nameplate on which the four letters were placed, diagonally  from top to bottom. In springtime, despite the struggle to survive in a  foreign climate, the plant produced small purple flowers. Each year the  blossom was brought to our attention. We would be called to breathe in  its unusual scent and once again absorb the story of how this plant  flourished in the Lin Family Gardens back home. I recall the peonies my  father had put great effort into cultivating in our front garden; their  otherness and the somehow misplaced enthusiasm with which he showed them  to the neighbors.

Letters periodically arrived at our house baring colorful Chinese  stamps. I kept those depicting things such as chrysanthemums, colored  birds, or painted bamboo, storing them neatly in a red silk box.  Sometimes packages would be delivered. The contents, whose Chinese  labels were illegible to me, were mostly things to eat. They were things  that I had not seen before, things that one did not find at the local  grocery; salted plums, star spice, dried miniature prawn, black  mushroom, powdered pork, ginseng root, moon cakes, foreign smelling  herbal medicines and teas in tall embossed canisters with pictures of  dragons, mountain landscapes or floating figures. At the sight of these  precious things my father seemed to transcend into another space and  time. Sometimes the packages would contain things for my mother;  embroidered pieces of traditional Chinese clothing, silk slippers,  tasseled purses, a jade pendant, a flower shaped mother of pearl pin,  brightly enameled bracelets or perhaps rings for small fingers. Still to  this day I wonder if she felt they suited her. All these things, gifts  from my invisible Chinese family possessed an intimate sense of  belonging to which I felt included.

This slow infusion of cultural heritage laid the basis for my own  sense of cultural identity; in an obscure yet profound way I felt part  of me belonged to China. When I was seven, my teacher at school asked me  to bring something Chinese to the geography class. Assuming to be an  authority on the subject, I took a bowl and chopsticks and gave a  demonstration on how to eat rice.

At the peak of the Communist revolution, my relatives fled the  mainland to Taipei. Despite losses, my father always presented a forward  thinking view that change in China was necessary and inevitable.  In1972, seventeen years of age and Mainland China still largely  inaccessible, I went to Taiwan to meet my family for the first time. A  large group of relatives was awaiting my arrival, curious to meet the  daughter of No. 3 son of the Third Branch. When they first saw me they  were shocked by my difference: although considering me as family, they  saw me not as a Chinese, but as a foreigner.

Where is my china, I asked myself?

Since those days, Mainland China has opened up. We are saturated with  the China boom bringing us sounds, smells, objects and information  about China: Chinese fast food, plastic Buddha heads, Chinese style  furniture and an inexhaustible list of goods made in China. As people  move and travel, mix and mingle, the definition of origin and cultural  identity is becoming increasingly complex:  I ask myself what kind of  cultural dialogue and exchange is evolving within today’s frenetic pace  of globalization?

From my own perspective, lasting cultural exchange is a slow process,  established through shared human experience over time. The mixing of  blood between cultures is perhaps the most permanent exchange of all,  transcending any one source, inherent of both.

Perhaps it is herein that my china lies: in the mingled roots  of two differing cultures, wherein the translation from one to the  other, back and forth, becomes in itself a language of its own.

Whilst painting I ask myself, does my china have anything to  do with the real China and what is the real China? The ambiguous zone of  cultural exchange and shifting identities evokes questions. I have no  answers as such, but through my work as a painter, hope to visualize a  process that once merely personal, has now become a common issue.

Angela Lyn 2008