Rachel Lo

Hong KONG


When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?

My mom moved to New York at 16 (in the 1970s) with her family, which includes 5 siblings. They had an uncle who had moved to the States previously and was able to sponsor them. My grandparents were both originally from poor, rural areas outside of Hong Kong, and I think they were generally attracted to the idea of creating a better future for their family, full of opportunity. It ended up paying off; my mom ended up earning her MBA from NYU.

My dad arrived in New York City a few years later, when he was about 18. Unlike my mom, he immigrated by himself in pursuit of education. He graduated from Queens College before earning his medical degree from NYU. The two met while volunteering at the Chinatown Health Clinic in Manhattan, which serves Asian immigrants and other underserved Asian communities.

What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?

My first and only complete language is English. I grew up in the presence of a multitude of languages though: my parents spoke Cantonese around the house to each other; I had a Mexican nanny who spoke to me in ‘Spanglish;’ I attended Mandarin Chinese school for almost a decade; I spent a ton of time with my Japanese-Hawaiian-American neighbors; some of my closest friends are Korean American; and I took French and Japanese at various points in time.

This has all left me with a vague familiarity, but ultimately a broken knowledge, of all of these languages. I often mix up different parts of each language, interchanging Spanish pronouns for Japanese ones in my head before sorting it out verbally. My ability to interpret Chinese writing helps me get by when reading Japanese, but I often lack the ability to tie the correct pronunciation to a character in either language.

Language, and especially the Cantonese language, was always a somewhat contentious topic in my home growing up. My older brother, the first child, spent the first five years of his life speaking solely Cantonese, with much babysitting from my dad’s mother. When he entered kindergarten in Monterey Park, the school was forced to place him in an ESL program, despite the fact that he was born in the US. My parents over-rotated, fearing their children would under-perform in school, and ditched the language with my sister and myself completely. My brother no longer has even a trace of Cantonese-speaking or comprehension ability.

Complicating things even further is that a first generation immigrant, many of my close and distant relatives only speak Cantonese, including all four of my grandparents. This means that I have never had a true and direct (sans translator) conversation with any of them, short of, “Eat more!” “I don’t want to, I’m very full!” My understanding of Cantonese is so poor, and my apathy so strong for most of my childhood, that when I was 22, I realized for the first time that my Popo actually didn’t speak Cantonese much of the time. “Of course not!” my mom replied matter-of-factly. “She speaks Toisanese!”

This has left me feeling disconnected from my culture and heritage in almost a surreal way but I also know I’m not alone: I enrolled in a Mandarin class at UC Berkeley that was specifically directed towards Chinese kids who had grown up in the proximity of non-Mandarin Chinese dialects, but didn’t actually know how to speak any dialect themselves. This class was packed full of kids just like me and was really eye-opening for that reason.

 

What language do you primarily speak when with your family?

English, and only English. Unless we’re ordering dim sum.

 

Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?

I’ve visited Hong Kong a handful of times, split between family visits and work travel. The first time I visited I was 16 and was surprised when, at a breakfast with family members I had never met before, I noticed a man who looked a lot like my father. I later learned that my dad had a 4th brother nobody had mentioned previously, who had stayed behind when the rest of the family eventually immigrated to California. I haven’t seen him since.

My mom’s brother moved back to Hong Kong after retiring about 10 years ago. Despite work travel that sometimes takes me to the area, I usually see him when he’s back visiting New York or California. In total, I haven’t spent a ton of time in Hong Kong with family. My parents go back not-infrequently (maybe once a year or once every other year), but despite traveling to many other international destinations with me as a child and teenager, never seemed to interested in exposing me to where they grew up. They assimilated very quickly and I get the sense they often felt disconnected from their own culture of origin, particularly my dad.

I’ve never asked directly, but knowing that they have the means to nurture a stronger tie to their native country and not doing so leads me to believe that they view Hong Kong as a past life that they’ve moved on from. Immigration may have been somewhat of an escape, in one or both of their cases.

Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?

This is something I started thinking a lot about in college, and was made more salient with the recent election. I think I grew up like a lot of Asian American kids in predominantly white schools and neighborhoods: not just wanting to be like everyone else, but actually thinking I was like everyone else.

As I got older I realized this wasn’t the case. The perception of myself as an Asian “other” was always strong, with people throwing around “ching chongs” and “konnichiwas,” so despite whatever I may have felt about myself and where I fit in best (heck, I didn’t even speak Chinese), I had to come to terms with the fact that I would always be perceived in a particular way.

That disparity in what I felt or thought about myself, and what I gradually realized as I got older, was probably the most difficult part of being tied to another culture. As with many young first-generation immigrants, I often felt a pang of shame tied to my parents’ native culture, masking, hiding, or distancing myself from much of it for most of my youth.

Food was a constant source of shame, especially since that was one of the only areas of the culture I felt a relevant connection to. I’ve since moved beyond that shame but I can’t help but feel annoyed when I see American culture suddenly romanticizing those dishes I was mocked for as a kid. I often find myself trying to balance wanting the share the culture I grew up with needing to defend it to the inevitable critics.

I’ve grown and learned a lot, particularly after leaving home for college and the following years leading to now, and have gained a much deeper appreciation for Chinese culture, Chinese American culture (which is really distinct in and of itself), and general Asian American culture. But with that appreciation and acceptance also comes a sense of remorse and regret for not having taken advantage of some of the cultural opportunities that were placed before me as a child, and for all the shame I felt about my family and heritage over the years.

What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?

I grew up hating Chinese food. I later realized I didn’t hate Chinese food, I just didn’t really like Cantonese food very much. And I still don’t, with the exception of dim sum. As someone who’s really interested in food in general, I went through a first phase of discovery while I was at UC Berkeley where I started to parse out what was actually Cantonese food—the things my parents grew up eating—and what was Taiwanese or mainland Chinese or Chinese American because to me, it had all been presented as “Chinese” as a child.
 

This later made me think about how, because my understanding of Cantonese is so minimal, because I’ve spent so little time in Hong Kong, and because Hong Kong/Cantonese culture is less accessible without the Cantonese language than other types of food, my interpretation of Cantonese food has been completely shaped by my parents’ preferences. Har gao (shrimp dumplings), har churng (shrimp rolled in a flat rice noodle, dan tat (egg tarts), and lobok go (fried daikon cake) are some of their, and consequently, *my* favorites.

While I love dim sum, I know that my knowledge of dishes probably only makes up 60%, if that, of what is served, and I may never know the rest simply because my parents never ordered it. While I’ve slowly built up a knowledge base of what qualifies as “authentic” Korean or Japanese food, I find myself struggling when somebody asks me if this or that type of filling for a bao (bun) is “authentic” Cantonese.

Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.

My hometown is a wealthy suburb with two high schools which have, over time, attracted different populations to them. My high school was about 40% Asian, most of whom were first generation immigrants from China, Korea, and the Philippines, or 3rd and 4th generation Japanese Americans, while the rival high school was almost entirely white.

Because the elementary and middle schools I attended were majority white and fed into the rival high school, I often dealt with interesting friend dynamics when I got to high school. My friend groups were largely segregated by race—Asian or White—and each group made it clear that my presence in both didn’t go unnoticed. I’d often get blasted by one group—“You’re hanging out with the white girls AGAIN?” Or feel alienated by another—“Of course you like ramen and pho! They’re so trendy! (Not realizing the deeply interwoven ties Asian American kids have across ethnicities.)”

Ultimately I didn’t have a hard time making friends, which I’m grateful for, but it’s been an interesting process to watch some of my childhood friends grow up into adults in the era of Trump. I have many childhood best friends who are now ultra-conservative and fervent Trump supporters, and it’s an interesting exercise to reflect back on time spent with their families. How did they perceive me? How do they perceive me now? I see their wedding photos, full of only white faces, and I wonder how we at one point shared so much in common and spent so many years together.

Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?

I definitely consider myself Chinese American. The hodgepodge of cultures, languages, and foods that I grew up intimately connected with, to me is something that you’d be hard pressed to find outside of the US.

Still, I often feel like an outsider in the US because obviously my physical appearance is so telling. Asian fetishism on dating apps, racially tinged cat calls, and office-place jokes never let me forget that I’m not in the majority here. And, when I visit China and Hong Kong, I tend to feel even more like an outsider. It’s very apparent to them that I am not a native in just my mannerisms and appearance—even my height, skin tone, and gait are easy giveaways.

I have been recently contemplating what it would be like to move out of San Francisco, LA, or NYC, and I honestly don’t think it’s possible. These cities are like safe and familiar countries within a country that I don’t think I can totally fit into. There’s definitely a deep sense of familiarity and connectedness in the big three cities, and particularly with the other Asian Americans in those cities, that I’m not sure I could live without.

Are you proud to be American? 

Sometimes. More recently, no, but I do find a sense of pride in the diversity of cultures and knowledge I grew up with. Ultimately I know that my parents’ decision to move to the US gave me a world of opportunity I wouldn’t have had or would’ve had to work much harder for in Hong Kong. So though I may not always be proud to be an American, I am, for the most part, grateful.

Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?

I’ve struggled with this a lot since I’ve grown up around so many cultures. A lot of my life revolves around food, and I want to pass along those things that I grew up eating which still bring me comfort. But the truth is that many of these things don’t actually belong to my parents’ culture. I want to teach my kids to make musubi and onigiri (rice balls) alongside tamales and homemade salsa, but I sometimes feel like I’m being dishonest or stealing from other cultures. I guess I do know that I want to pass on what I do have of the Cantonese culture (it often feels I have so little of it to begin with) in the form of food, broken language, and holidays.

Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?

I’m not sure how I’ll balance the classic first generation education-and-professionalism-focused upbringing with the more traditional “American” or western upbringings I’ve observed over the years if I have kids. It’s something that I appreciate having been brought up with at times—I believe it’s gotten me to where I am today—but there are other times that I resent it (like when I’m working through it on the therapist’s couch).

It’s a hard balance to strike, as I think both types of cultures have their positives and negatives, but I think I will aspire to somewhat of a blend of the two. I don’t necessarily want my kids to have to struggle with what it’s like to be raised with a different set of values than the majority of those they’ll interact with, but I also want them to reap the benefits of generally having a strong value system to lean on.

What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture? 

I’m not really Chinese so much as Chinese American, and those things are distinct.

Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of? Feel free to use this space to express your photographic inspiration for this project. 

During the span of this project I was lucky to be able to spend time in Los Angeles, where my parents live, New York City, where my grandparents and extended family live, and San Francisco, where I live. Since it’s really hard to articulate the nuances of conflicting cultures in my psyche through photographs, I wanted to focus on how the spaces we create and live in reflect our values, aspirations, and the world we grew up in.

Each of the three dwellings are incredibly different. My grandparents’ apartment reflects a wartime upbringing with no excess where stark cleanliness and expensive furniture lacks presedence over family photos and the necessities for group gatherings that are much-too-large for the apartment’s space. My parents’ house, which they recently remodeled from the ground up, is their masterpiece built atop decades of hard work and reflecting their precise vision of the American dream. Fancy, traditional finishes coexist alongside pockets of clutter—the telltale marker of an immigrant from a poor country. My room in San Francisco lacks the family photos and the ties to culture that the other two have, instead serving as a place to collect the things that interest me and perhaps reflecting the disconnect I often feel with my family and upbringing. I tried to capture the distinctive parts of each of these spaces with my camera.