Two worlds in tandem: moving from the past to the present

February 8, 2017, would have been my dad’s 66th birthday. He has been gone for nearly 8 years.

I have been thinking a lot lately about things that come in twos.

Things set in opposition that are necessary parts of a whole. Left versus right, male versus female, north versus south, conservative versus liberal.

Things that intersect or prove simultaneous truths. The intersection of two roads. A house on a row, adjacent to two other houses, that is simultaneously both their neighbors. The invention of printing, which is both an art form and a technology. Multiple identities, which we associate with people being multiracial, inter-religious, gender-fluid, bisexual. Or the running joke among people who hate identity politics is “I don’t care if you want to be a purple alien unicorn.” But multiple identities could just mean that being a mother and a wife doesn’t mean you cease to be a daughter. Identities don’t exist in silos.

Things that do not intersect, but inform or create each other. The past and the present. Parallels between different times in history. Correlations in data. Your reflection in a mirror. The reversed image of a stamp, pressed on paper.

A couple students from my woodcut workshop at @madisonbubbler. These guys were awesome. :)

A photo posted by Jenie (@jeniegao) on

Earlier this year, I turned 29, the same age my dad was when he immigrated to the United States. My 29th birthday took place a few days after Martin Luther King Day, the same day as Inauguration Day (1/20), and the day before the historic Women’s March.

As my father’s birthday passes once again, just one day after the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, I can’t help but think about the significance of my role as an educator amidst political turmoil.

I am thinking about his old stories. He was born shortly after Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China. He was the first generation to be raised by state educators instead of by his parents, so the adults could be dedicated to serving the Communist Party and military. He was of the generation that lost its education to the Cultural Revolution, when the schools shut down and the leaders accused the teachers of instilling radical, elitist ideas upon the youth. My dad had always been a terrible student, had failed grades, and been held back multiple times. The teacher who had succeeded in reaching him and led him to becoming a top-performing student had done so by encouraging his love of literature.

The leaders of the country had incited the youth to turn against their teachers. The schools closed. My dad was among his fellow students the day his former teacher and mentor was condemned as an “educator who was corrupting the youth.” He was among them as they gathered around her, to beat her. And he pretended to beat her, too, though did his best to stay in the middle of that crowd, to stand between her and the blows of his peers.

That was just one of the events that took place the year my dad’s education ended. He was in the seventh grade, and only by a fortuitous and unlikely series of events was he able to study English in his late twenties and come to the United States.

I can’t help but think about what it means for me to be a teacher now, all these years later, at the same age as he was when he finally got to be a student again.

And that continues to be the main difference between the past and the present, that one generation of students will become another generation of studies. History will be the student of what it later needs to teach.

It is bittersweet for me, now, to look at my dad’s manuscript about his life in China, and read the paragraph about him receiving his passport, which read, “To All Countries in the World.” It is bittersweet to imagine how it must have felt for him to read those words as China re-opened to the West. To imagine how it must have felt for him to write that, decades later, knowing that for over two decades, he never did make it to Europe, and never got to live outside of Kansas again.

Drawings of eagles and Canada geese, just some of the many migratory birds I have been studying.

My dad would spend half his life in this country. He would spend many of those years dreaming of becoming a writer, trying to recapture the history and the lessons of his youth, the lessons he learned growing up in a country full of contradictions, the lessons he learned from a Cultural Revolution that built up and destroyed the hopes of his generation within the same uplifted blow. He would spend many of those years frustrated by the limits of a man who was robbed of his early school education and basic foundations of mathematics and science, and yet extremely educated in his mindset and well versed in US and global history, dreaming and wondering what the worth of his story might some day be.

And he, along with my mom, would tell me how lucky I was to be born here. How lucky I was not to speak English with an accent. How much easier I would have it than they did. Especially as a girl. Especially as a girl after China’s one child policy, which was implemented in 1979, the same year my dad moved abroad.

When the world tells you you’re lucky, you can’t help but agree. You also can’t help but overcompensate for that luck, to really want to prove that you deserve to be here.

You have to be better to be equal, the saying goes.

I think, sometimes, when you know you have it easier in some ways, you force yourself to have it harder in other ways. Sometimes, when you’re told you have it easy, you disregard the ways in which you still have it hard. Sometimes, when you see the dreams your parents either did not achieve or did not even begin to dream up, you grow up with a sense of urgency to do what they did not get the chance to do. That applies to both the things they wanted and the things they dreaded.

Because my dad always felt that he had lost so much time, I wanted to be good with mine, and ironically, I always feel like I’m behind. Plus he was always telling me not to let the years get away from me. So I have always wanted to do the things that he could not do and not to waste the opportunities that come my way. But I believe that many of us can agree that it’s hard to reconcile the timelines for what we want with the milestones that others expect of us.

What you do for a living when you get to live out your childhood dream.

At the same time, I wrestle with the discomfort of knowing that while my intention is to be someone my dad would be proud of, my reality might be that I am someone who always aggravated his insecurities. If he were still alive today, would he be proud of me? Would he disapprove of my life choices, to choose the harder but (for me) the more rewarding path of becoming an artist and entrepreneur? Would he be insecure and even passive aggressive about the things that he could or would never do, that I can? Would we still be warring with each other’s contradictions, with both of us being stubborn, and with him still angry that his authoritarian views didn’t work on the daughter he pushed to be independent, observant, and strong?

Would I have made the same life choices if he were still alive? What if certain decisions, realities, and hard-but-very-real-life-and-death-questions hadn’t been pushed upon me at an early age? Would he, as a man who wanted his daughter to be strong, secretly resent all the ways in which his baby girl does not, and maybe never did, need him?

It’s also possible that none of these questions are worth asking, and some may even be draining or damaging. I have a good enough memory to draw connections and correlations between what is happening in our current social and political climate and what was happening when my dad was my age. But it would be a disservice to myself and the potential of the future, to compare my timeline too much with his, with my mother’s, or with anyone else’s, especially if we have each sought different fulfillments and life milestones.

Not to mention, things are already different. At 29, he was pursuing a new education. At 29, I am getting to share mine.

Photo from the Madison Central Library’s Bubbler studio, during one of my public printing workshops.

If I could let my dad know anything, it is that I do all the things I do out of love and respect and a desire to make things better, and that I am trying to do the best I can with what life has given me. History, with all its beauty, pain, trauma, and flaws, has given me only gifts. The qualities he thought were the worst about him have become the best about me. I believe it is our job, as people, to treasure what our parents gave us, and to equally treasure the need and the drive we have to fulfill what they did not give us.

When I look at what I have done thus far, I do not believe that I have done better than what others are capable of. If anything, I might have an above average awareness of the long-term game we each need to play. I know that I have roots and that roots require watering to keep their strength. I know that this is especially a challenge for anyone whose roots have needed to travel far for them to be here.

Each of us is still taking care of the seeds that were planted before us. Each of us must plant, share, and identify new seeds in our communities, to have gratitude for the gifts of history and to cultivate those gifts. Each of us must develop the insight to know the difference between growing a tulip and growing a tree, and the patience needed to address that difference fairly.

Each of us must know to study the past–not always to understand it–but to know that if we don’t understand, it’s because things are already different from the times when people thought “their present”/”our past” made sense. But things have changed. And things will continue to change. That, we must believe.

I hope, that if we are to do that, the trees of the future will bear fruit long after any of us here today are gone.

February Updates

  1. Thank you to the Capital Times in Madison for interviewing me about my artistic practice and project at the Central Library. It’s great to have a chance to share a bit of my creative story. The full Q&A is transcribed here.
  2. I have entered Phase Two of my project, In Unison, for the Bubbler art residency at Madison Central Library, and am asking people to come join us for community sewing days, to help cut and sew patterns and bring these fabric birds to life. Sign up with a friend for one of the group sewing days online!
  3. I have started teaching two classes in Milwaukee, as part of two public art projects to be completed by May and June. I’m going to take this moment to say, I really enjoy teaching. :)
  4. I’ve started an activist book club with a group of people in Madison. Our first book will be The Lifelong Activist, by Hillary Rettig, available for free online or purchasable as a hard copy. Send me a message if you’re interested in joining up with us! We’ll be meeting biweekly.

Our Stories Share the Same Roots: A Community Mural Project

It’s been a really good summer, in many ways. Full of laughter and play. Weekend trips. Camping. Outdoor excursions and inside jokes. Crackling fires. Summer pies.

The Fool's Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you're a goofy city, and I love it.
The Fool’s Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you’re a goofy city, and I love it.

At the same time, it has been an emotionally tumultuous year–for lots of us, I imagine. Maybe election years are always this way, and there’s a lot at stake with this one. There’s a saying, that there are decades where weeks happen, and weeks where decades happen, which seems appropriate for this event-heavy, tragedy-aware year. As an artist, I feel grateful to have a skill and medium through which I can contend with and give a voice to heavy issues–personal, social, political. I’m also admittedly anxious about the responsibility of doing hard topics justice.

It’s been a busy summer, work-wise. I’m excited to share one of the projects I’ve completed in the last couple months, my first mural, a collaborative, public project with the students of Escuela Verde, Artists Working in Education, and fellow artist Gabriela Riveros.

Students priming mural panels.
Students priming mural panels.

To give some background on how this all got started, Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee’s neighborhood of Silver City that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. They partnered with the nonprofit, Artists Working in Education, to use public art as a way to activate and enhance a public space and to discuss community concerns.

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Students’ brainstorm of the issues affecting our communities.

The students chose to focus on the topic of immigration. This is a salient topic, for the neighborhood, the students, and our political climate. Silver City is home to multiple immigrant populations, and many of the students also come from immigrant families that are affected by our current policies.

It was at this point that A.W.E. put out a call for artists. I got the chance to interview with the organizers, then with the students, and was selected as the lead artist for this project. (Those of you who attended my talk at DreamBank in the spring may remember this small moment of foreshadowing.)

A.W.E. connected me with the very talented illustrator, Gabriela Riveros, and I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to team up with (seriously, check out her site; she’s got major skill and major drive). We started working together in April, the outset of two months of workshops with the students and staff. At this point, we had a topic, and were ready to visit the space available to us.

mural-site-01
The Superior Salt Building, at 35th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee.

We didn’t have any imagery in mind yet, but we had a vision of what we needed to accomplish, and some of the problems we needed to address. The building owner, Gil, told us about the tagging problems. This part of the block is isolated and doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic or use. The back of the building is isolated, faces the bike path and railroad, and is easy to get to, so the building gets tagged, and the city requires Gil to clean the graffiti up. Community members shared that people often speed through this part of the neighborhood, which is dangerous, since it’s very close to homes and to a school. So how could we use public art to reactivate a neglected space, to deter tagging, to get people to slow down, to engage an important community conversation?

Tagging on the north side of the building.
Tagging on the north side of the building.

In our workshops, we researched and discussed the role and effects of immigration, collected classmates’ and neighbors’ immigration stories, and identified patterns in the migration stories we shared. Because many of our students are Latinx and Hispanic, many of our earlier dialogues focused on the Mexican-US border. But the “aha” moments in the classroom came as we collected and shared one another’s stories. Our students of Irish descent talked about their families being denied at Ellis Island and going instead to Canada, to cross the border into Montana. Some of our students got to attend meetings with the neighborhood association. Neighbors loved our idea for the mural, and also said they hoped to see something that was inclusive of all the different groups that live, work, and run businesses in the area.

Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.
Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.

The short of it: immigration/migration isn’t new, not for human beings, not for any species. It has played an instrumental role in how we’ve developed, advanced, and exchanged/expanded ideas. In our conversations of local vs global, it’s easy to take for granted how the two are interdependent, how technology has advanced along our trading lines, how language has evolved and literacy has spread, how on one dinner plate we may have chicken that was first domesticated in China, potatoes that were first farmed in Peru, and corn in Mexico.

Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.
Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.

So where does the art come in? It was important for us to emphasize a couple things here. First, that art has always been a mirror for the current times, and a leader/indicator for where society will go next. Second, that the imagery needed to come from the students, facilitated by the instructors. The purpose of Escuela Verde’s project-based learning structure is to empower youth in the decision-making process and to build applicable skills. A project of this size would require lots of organization, clear direction, and strong problem-solving.

Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others' drawings already on the page.
Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others’ drawings already on the page.
Painting day.
Painting day.

Our art workshops included the following: the history of arts and activism, image composition and drawing from observation, typography, games designed to make us think creatively and quickly on our feet, and communicating the ideas and metaphors of a story in images. It was a lot to pack into two months (and we needed the last two weeks for preparing materials and painting), and if there’s anything I could change, it’d be to have more time to explore each of these subjects more in-depth. But in this line of work, we work with what we’ve got, and we do our damnedest with it.

Butterfly by one of our students. All of the buttery and crop imagery for the mural came from the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.
Butterfly by one of our students. All of the butterfly and crop imagery for the mural was drawn by the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.

The butterfly became an important symbol for us, in a number of ways. Socially speaking, the monarch butterfly has already come to be a symbol of many social movements, representing migration and solidarity. Their migration patterns are known to play a role in many earthly phenomenons. The time at which a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane happens on the other side of the world, which ties us to our other important symbolism, and the purpose of the arts. One problem we are fighting in our communities is that of compartmentalism. Think about companies whose departments are siloed–unaware and therefore indifferent to how they affect one another. The result is low accountability and high blame in our organizations, and a toxic culture where people feel disconnected and purposeless in their work and livelihoods. Our siloed workplaces reflect our segregated neighborhoods. The health of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies.

Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!
Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!

And us? We are artists working for and with a cause, who believe that creativity and logic are partners, that our ideals can be used to map our pragmatism and our realities. Our art is not just pretty–it’s smart. Our workshops went beyond aesthetics and embodied an understanding of math, science, and economics. Just as we found patterns in our shared migration stories, we studied fractals and tessellations, to identify the visual patterns in plant roots, butterfly wings, and the circulatory systems of our bodies.

Community painting day.
Community painting day.

So when you visit our mural in Milwaukee, I ask you to do so with an open hand. Look at your palm and the pattern of your veins. Look at how your fingers branch out from your hand and your limbs from your body. Think about the veins of a plant leaf, on a branch, on a tree. Learn to see this pattern, this shared, repeated pattern, that creates all the diversity we see.

I’ve reflected quite a bit in the aftermath of this project. As the second generation in an immigrant family myself, I feel lucky to have a dual perspective, of history, tradition, and my roots, and of the future and hopes for opportunity that drive all of us to move and embrace change. And whether we are the first in our families to grow up in this country or four generations in Wisconsin, all of us share this desire to trace back to where we come from, to understand where we belong, to feel at home where we are, and to find out where we are going.

Want to know more about our mural? You’re in luck. I’m a borderline insane documenter, and you can visit MigrationStory.US to learn about our full backstories, our workshops, the logistics of the painting/installation days, and the costs/pros/cons of the materials we used.

Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.
Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.