I was born and raised in America, and growing up I was only able to speak Chinese at an elementary level. But I’ve always felt a desire to get back to my roots. As a kid, I would do things like martial arts, dragon boat, and lion dancing because it made me feel Chinese. Maybe I was stereotyping myself, but regardless of that fact, I always felt a disconnect, and I was bent on reconnecting it.
As I got older, I would make trips out to hang out with my friends in Chinatown every weekend. We spoke Chinese, hung out at the Chinese Playground, and ate Chinese snacks. It felt right. I felt at home during those moments. When I went to college, I studied filmmaking and wrote stories about the Chinese-American experience. When I graduated from college, I studied abroad in Spain for two months but still managed to find a Chinese restaurant to go to for dinner every now and then. After that, I purposely went to live abroad in Taiwan for over a year to learn Chinese. I really enjoyed my time out in Taiwan. I felt at home. Despite it being a bit challenging at times to get around with the language barrier and all, things felt right. When I left Taiwan and moved to New York City, I still managed to find my way back out to Chinatown to buy groceries or treat myself to an egg tart. Before long, I ended up moving into Chinatown in Lower Manhattan and began photographing a local lion dance group while studying at the International Center of Photography.
Now that I have returned home to San Francisco, it is still very much a part of my identity. I went back to visit Taiwan recently, and I will do so again in a few weeks. I need to feel connected to my culture as much as I need to breath. Listening to Chinese music, making a trip down to Chinatown, or even something as simple as ordering food in Chinese makes me feel closer to … myself. But it's not that simple. Half-American. Half-Chinese. Too American. Too Chinese. Who knows. Chinese-American is the term we often use. Sometimes I feel really American, really Chinese, or just none at all. One thing’s for sure, I love my culture and where I come from. It’s just that sometimes it can get a little confusing.
by Jason Lam