Jour­ney Wall at MOCA tells im­mi­grant tales

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­

As you walk into the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica in New York’s Chi­na­town, to your left is what the mu­seum calls its Jour­ney Wall, adorned with the names of Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can fam­i­lies who im­mi­grated to the US and set­tled across the coun­try.

The wall, de­signed by renowned ar­chi­tect Maya Lin, Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent and de­signer of the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Me­mo­rial, is the mu­seum’s at­tempt to build a trove of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can oral his­to­ries, en­cour­age phi­lan­thropy in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity and pre­serve an un­der­rep­re­sented facet of US his­tory.

“What we’re try­ing to do is help pre­serve the fam­ily legacy, help gen­er­a­tions talk to each other, pro­vide that safe space to open up and share some of those things, where too of­ten, be­cause of the bur­den of the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act, our Chi­nese fam­i­lies here were si­lenced,” said Nancy Yao Maas­bach, pres­i­dent of the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica (MOCA).

“We’re not free to speak about things. We’ve prac­ti­cally been trained to be re­served, quiet, not make a fuss, do well, have a safe job, go about things, don’t try to get too much at­ten­tion on your­self. That’s re­ally par­tially the bur­den of the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act, be­cause we were ex­cluded,” she said.

The wall is si­mul­ta­ne­ously an art in­stal­la­tion, a col­lec­tion of oral his­to­ries, and a donor wall; the mu­seum ac­com­mo­dates 10 new fam­i­lies on the wall each year, a mix of fam­i­lies who give ei­ther $10,000, $15,000 or $25,000 to the mu­seum, and whose fam­i­lies have his­to­ries that the mu­seum feels they want to have a record of be­fore the older mem­bers of the fam­i­lies pass away, Maas­bach said.

For each fam­ily, the mu­seum records an ex­ten­sive amount of oral his­to­ries from var­i­ous fam­ily mem­bers, and each fam­ily’s col­lec­tion takes months to com­pile, she said.

Fam­i­lies can give their his­to­ries in ei­ther Chi­nese or English, and MOCA al­ready has more than 650 oral his­to­ries of fam­i­lies that came to Amer­ica, their jour­neys, and what they ex­pe­ri­enced.

“Be­ing a liv­ing his­tory mu­seum, we are so much about those sto­ries, and it is through the sto­ries that we can un­der­stand who we are, and other peo­ple can un­der­stand how sim­i­lar our story is from other im­mi­grants who have come, as well as what makes us dis­tinct,” Lin said about the ex­hibit on the mu­seum’s web­site.

There are pri­mary rec­ol­lec­tions — from so-called “pa­per sons”, who were born in China and ob­tained il­le­gal doc­u­ments stat­ing they’re blood rel­a­tives of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can cit­i­zens al­ready in the US, stu­dents who came to the US as post doc­tor­ates, or those who fled the Chi­nese main­land or Tai­wan be­cause of war. There are also sec­ondary his­to­ries from chil­dren of first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants.

“One thing we con­stantly try to work on and sup­port Chi­nese fam­i­lies on is the gen­er­a­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion — [ev­ery] gen­er­a­tion-to-gen­er­a­tion [con­ver­sa­tion may] have com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems, but for Chi­nese-Amer­i­can fam­i­lies, you have to add on the lan­guage bar­ri­ers, add on mas­sive cul­tural bar­ri­ers, add on his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences,” Maas­bach said.

“I con­stantly think of some of the sto­ries when we have multi­gen­er­a­tional peo­ple in the in­ter­view and we’re tak­ing down their his­tory, when the younger gen­er­a­tion looks over to the par­ent and say, ‘I never knew that!’ or ‘You never told me that,’” she said.

“Some­times I can say there are mo­ments in these oral his­to­ries that are quite emo­tional,” she added. —


Nancy Yao Maas­bach, pres­i­dent of the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica in New York, next to the Jour­ney Wall. For each name on the wall, the mu­seum col­lects oral his­to­ries of the fam­ily where they’re from, where they set­tled and their jour­neys. The names are a mix of donors and fam­i­lies whose sto­ries the mu­seum felt im­por­tant to pre­serve.

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