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Julia Chen

Coming from Taiwan, Julia tells us her story of how she found her voice as an Asian American artist.

A: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

J: The past year I came to acknowledge that I am an artist. Growing up I always upheld artists as very noble and I always thought I wasn’t good enough to be called an artist. When people ask, are you an artist, I tend not to say that I am, I’d say that I am an art teacher. Recently, I came to accept that being an artist is my destiny and what I was born to do.

I was born in Taiwan. I came here with my parents and three siblings in 1984 when I was thirteen years old. My aunt from my mom’s side, came as a graduate student. She later settled in New York City and applied for my mom to come here.

I started painting when I was little. My mom was quite encouraging, and she took us to numerous art classes. One that I remembered the most was a watercolor plein air painting class taught in a park in Taipei. My mom also let us paint on wall-size paper hanging in the living room. In high school here, my art teacher suggested to my parents to send me to an art college, however it didn’t happen. Growing up, I had this mentality that family interests is always before personal ones. I listened to elder’s rationales and followed their directions, willingly and sometimes unwillingly. As Asian immigrants, finding a job after college was deemed a priority, while studying art was considered not practical. In college, I started out in the pre-med program but later transferred to a business school. At last, in my late thirties I entered the MFA program at the New York Academy of Art to study painting, pursuing what I always wanted.

A. What do you like to paint and what inspires you?

J.-I paint a lot of landscapes in plein air since the pandemic began. This past year I was searching for my visual language for representing water or trees that expresses my feelings. I was working on composition and looking for forms in nature to emulate especially the shapes formed by snow atop rocks. I am leaning toward mark making, be it brushstrokes or charcoal lines. I think it came from the influences of expressive lines in Chinese calligraphy. Along with my father I was lucky enough to become a disciple of a master calligrapher who was eighty-five years old at the time and studied under him for seven years. As for a western influencer, I am very much drawn to Manet, a post-impressionist’s gratifying broad strokes.

A: Tell us about Taiwan. What are some of the traditions and customs?

J: I left Taiwan when I was thirteen. I miss the food and tropical fruits the most. The first time that I realized that I have to decide to be an American, a Taiwanese-American, was a visit back to Taiwan in year 2000 where I felt I didn’t fit in anymore. My impression of Taiwan and the people there was stuck at the time when I left at thirteen. Upon visiting my old neighborhood and seeing a childhood grocery store, tears streamed down my cheeks uncontrollably. It was stubbornly kept exactly the same for twenty years, even the placement of the candy jars and the egg bin for hand picking your own eggs. The surroundings used to be vacant lots, now it was all high risers. The store was the only unchanged place that I could still recognize and reminisce my childhood memories.

Taiwan is an island off mainland China. People migrated from China 400 years ago. There were indigenous people on the island prior to that. In the past, the indigenous people’s colorful costumes and dances were used to represent Taiwanese culture in culture shows here.

Some Taiwanese food inventions now well known to the world like bubble tea and Taiwanese beef noodle soup are among my favorites. There is a dish called Hakka stir-fry that contains bean curd, dry squid, thin pork strips, celeries and more ingredients. This dish shows Hakka people’s virtue of frugalness and ingenuity in creating new dishes from leftovers. Another interesting food is stinky tofu. It is tofu fermented and it smells just like stinky cheese, often deep fried and eaten with spicy pickled cabbage.

Mandarin was the official language taught in the school when I was growing up and Taiwanese was a dialect spoken in some households. I understand Taiwanese but can’t speak it fluently like my mother does. I enjoy listening to the rhythmic and descriptive Taiwanese phrases and proverbs when my mom converses with her friends in Taiwanese. I can still speak Mandarin and write Chinese pretty well.

A: Did you experience any stereotypes growing up?

J: At one point, I was teaching Asian American history at a community college. After teaching it for a few terms I became very depressed because there was always sad stories, the whole history was about Asian exclusion. Even today, Asians are still seen as foreigners no matter if you were third generation Asian American. For the longest time, I felt the pressure to be on my best behavior and censored whatever I said or did to make sure I’d be seen as a well-behaved Asian. There was a period of time I attributed my negative experiences to being an Asian and being discriminated upon.

A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?

J: Do you mean atypical being an artist? I don’t feel I am atypical, for a good chunk of my life I have been playing that role of a typical Asian, maybe still am. I was that Asian conforming to the image of model minority to the standards of the larger society. In school I didn’t talk and I sat in the back. I was nice to others all the time. I didn’t make any trouble or speak up for myself. I was in that docile role especially as an Asian woman. Being an Asian in America has silenced me somehow. Now I feel a need to speak up.

A: What is it to be American?

J.- At first, I always wanted to go back to Taiwan, making a trip back every three to five years. Since 2000 I decided that I need to be an American, meaning being here, being present in my current environment where I‘ve been living for almost twenty years. I felt more settled once I decided that this is where I belong, weaning the yearning to return to the old Taiwan that I left and which may not exist anymore.

A: What do you think of the term people of color?

J: When I hear people of color, it didn’t register with me that I’m also colored until recently. I never really thought of us Asians as people of color until 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement and rising of Anti-Asian hate crimes due to Covid-19. I mostly thought it was referring to Blacks and Hispanics. But now I see myself as part of it. The color of Asians has always been in between White and Black, sometimes skewed more towards White and sometimes more towards Black depending upon the political climate. After the events in 2020, it became more apparent to me that Asians have skewed toward people of color. I used to say that I am Taiwanese American but now I’d say I’m Asian American for solidarity with all the Asians in America and to voice our concerns collectively.

A: What message do you want to impart to other people about Asians?

J: Asians are people too. Asian Americans are Americans like every other American and should be treated equal. The ancestors of Asian Americans came here early on like other Americans during the Gold Rush. They worked on the railroads, contributed to building of this country yet were excluded from becoming American time after time. Asians were always treated like second-class citizens. It’s time to reclaim our history in this country. We are American and we belong here.

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