What Modern Art Taught Me About My Family

And other thoughts on SFMOMA’s exhibit on Modern Chinese art

In 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre occurred where the Chinese government cracked down on student protestors in Beijing, killing somewhere between 200 to 10,000 students. The exact number of deaths is still unknown and the events of that day never appear in Chinese history books.

My parents were living in Texas during the massacre and watched from abroad as this horror unfolded in their home country. Soon after, they immigrated to Canada where my sister and I were born and raised.

A more detailed view of the “Map of the Theater of the World” by Qiu Zhijie, sketched in my header illustration

The topic of China and the government is one of contention in my home. Conversations teeter between murmured whispers to fiery arguments. I learned early on that the topic of modern China was polarizing and uncomfortable to discuss, even between my closest relatives. Some of my family members would shut down and retreat if the communist government or the Cultural Revolution came up in conversation while others would erupt in anger over the way they’d felt brainwashed in their childhood years.

As a result, I never knew much about the history of modern China. I started reading about it after moving to San Francisco when I picked up a book called “China in Ten Words” by Yu Hua. This short book opened my eyes to the scale of the Cultural Revolution, the government-created famine, and the surge of the communist party. This provided me with a tiny glimpse of the China that my parents grew up in.

My illustration of Chen Zhen’s “Precipitous Parturition”

Over the weekend, I visited SFMOMA’s exhibition titled “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”. There, I saw the ways that Chinese artists struggled with the government’s tightening of control after 1989. I watched how they grappled with censorship and feared for their lives while fighting for creative freedom. I also witnessed how artists like Ai Wei Wei fought for the truth on matters like the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Some artists managed to cleverly skirt topics like government control, hiding messages in their art so resistors would understand. There was a piece by Zhang Peili featuring a well-known anchorwoman in the 90s reading the definitions of water from the dictionary on a television screen, at the artist’s request. The well-known anchorwoman had previously omitted stories of military violence when discussing the Tiananmen Square massacre, showing her cards as a mouthpiece for the government. The word ‘water’ represented the forces that subvert our existence. In this repetitive and cryptic recording, Zhang quietly showed how the government controlled what people could say and think in China.

My illustration based on Zhang Peili’s “Water (Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary)”

I bumped into some friends at the exhibit and we talked about where our families were during the Cultural Revolution. One friend spoke about how his family fled to the mountains for fear of being targeted and killed. I told them how my great-grandparents had been harassed repeatedly and eventually lost their minds, a fact I only learned this past Christmas when I asked my mom for more details. Another friend realized that they’d never talked to their parents about the events of that period.

What was emotionally overwhelming to me was how many other Asian-Americans like myself were there and learning about the world that our parents grew up in. We all knew bits of pieces but never had a clear picture of what their generation lived through.

The explosive while hushed conversations at home suddenly made sense to me and I understood just how little I knew of my heritage. As young Asian-Americans, we often struggle with our identity. We’re sandwiched between the individualistic world of Americanism and our collectivistic Asian traditions. We feel pressured to assimilate while wanting to know where we come from. We often feel distanced from our parents and find our cultures at odds with one another.

My illustration of Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World and The Bridge” installation

If anything, this exhibit helped me to develop empathy for my parents. I have a greater appreciation for the sacrifices they made moving away from their homeland to North America and I understand why we fought so much when I was a teenager. I empathize with why they were paranoid and at-times helicopter-y and also feel apologetic for the way I complained about my life in Canada despite all my spoils.

This exhibit also encouraged me to ask my parents for more details on their lives back in China so I can understand them better for as long as I have them.