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