Asia in America Behind the Lens

February 20, 2015
Rosalind Black
Photo credit: Clover Tran

“I just want to make my time well-spent,” says first-year Clover Tran. “I want to do something meaningful.” Tran’s thought is one shared by many Oberlin students with the opportunity to design a winter-term project that allows them to explore their interests and take advantage of the respite from full-time classes. For Tran and her five partners, this meant creating Finding Asia in America, a photography exhibition that sheds light on the stories and experiences of Asian Americans and Asians living in the United States.

The team—composed of Tran and fellow first-years Jenny Xin Luan, Naomi Langer, and Xiaoqian Zhu, and second-years Jeong Hyun Hwang, and Holly Hoang—conceived of the idea as a way to combine an interest in photography and storytelling. Tran, an international student from Vietnam, originally planned to photograph Vietnamese people in the United States, but upon discovering similarities between her experience and those of other international students and students of Asian descent, she decided to join forces with her compatriots and broaden the scope of her lens.

“I started to realize how I, as a Vietnamese girl, shared so many similar experiences with my Asian friends,” Tran writes on the project’s Indiegogo crowdfunding page. “I started to realize how much we’ve had to struggle to fit into this American community. Culture shock, insecurity, homesickness, self-criticism, and lack of confidence: They haunted, or are still haunting, many of us everyday.”

To explore the shared and individual experience of Asian immigrants and their descendents, the group set off for New York City. The students spent January 12-19 walking the city and approaching people in the streets for interviews and photographs. “We planned out what location we wanted to hit each day—so one day would be in Chinatown, and the next day would be Koreatown, or any location that has a higher concentration of a specific community of Asians,” says Hoang. Once they reached their destination for the day, the group would pair up, spread out, and approach their subjects.

Despite many refusals for interviews and frequent language barriers between the team members and their subjects, the team returned to Oberlin with about 90 interviews and even more photographs.

Sometimes, a little persistence led to uncovering truly remarkable stories such as that of a man who did not want to speak to them at first because he was an illegal immigrant. A second inquiry revealed the story of his journey to the United States, which took half a year. In Chinese, the man related how he finally crossed into the United States, and reached New York after several plane rides from China to France to, eventually, Mexico, and then a harrowing trek through the desert and mountains. Now that he has reached his destination, he must spend all of his time paying off his debts from the trip.

Another subject of the project, a young Chinese woman adopted by an American family, described her experience of feeling left out when her friends talked about their birthdays. Because of the lack of information included by her birth parents when they put her up for adoption, she does not know for certain what time of day, or even the exact day, she was born.

To share these stories, and many others, the group returned to Oberlin to reflect, review, edit, and compile the final product: an exhibition featuring a selection of about 40 photos and quotes that depict the stories of the people the team met during its travels in a Humans of New York-inspired gallery. According to Hwang, the group chose photos based on their quality and their ability to convey Asian American life to campus. “We want them to see what Asian Americans and Asians in America go through and change the misperceptions they might have had in the past,” Hwang says.

The group says it hopes that, through an online collection of its photographs and interviews, Finding Asia in America will reach a wider audience, bringing together Asian Americans from around the country and spreading awareness of the stories of that community. “I hope that all the Asians and Asian Americans will look at the photos and the stories and think that nothing is impossible. They’ve been through a lot and they’ve overcome everything. I think we can all do that,” Tran says.

The “Finding Asia in America” photography exhibition takes place February 22-24 in the Science Center Perlik Commons and Bent Corridor. Join the students who put it together for an opening reception at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 22. Light refreshments will be provided.

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