Where is Home? Chinese in the Americas

In 1995, I discovered the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).  I was a graduate student researching the history of New York Chinatown.  The Museum, nestled on the second floor of an old schooled building on Mulberry Street, held one of the largest and most unique collections on that experience in the United States.  It was one of those great, romantic moments when girl meets organization.  I couldn't believe that there was a museum devoted to this history.  I had looked for my family's story in the textbooks of American history.  I had looked for it as a student at a well-respected liberal arts college, demanding even one course in the Asian American experience.  And now I found it in one small room.

Cynthia Lee
MOCA Vice-President of Exhibitions, Programs & Collections

Salvaged Objects

In 1980, six stores that opened in the 1890s were intact and still doing business on lower Mott Street.  One year later, only two remained.  A great deal of historical information is often left forgotten in the bureau drawers or, even worse, tossed into the garbage.  Over the years, the Museum has discovered a wealth of old store signs, workers' slippers, immigration papers, laundry irons, and other items in Chinatown dumpsters.  Some of the most precious and unique items in the Museum's collection were salvaged items.

The Most Basic Question

Home is where you are welcomed,
the door thrown wide at your approach.
Home is where you are safe.
Home is where you are understood.
Home is the comfort of food and familiar talk.

Where is home for the Chinese in the Americas?
Dream of China
Memories of an apartment in Taiwan
A village in Vietnam
A suburban home on Long Island
A Chinatown basement, a tenement walk-up
A plantation in Hawaii
A hill in San Francisco
A valley in Mississippi
An Island in the Caribbean
An urban alley in Peru
A high-rise in Vancouver

The first 100 years of Chinese American history is difficult to coax from the modest traces of lives lived in America.
Belongings left behind in cramped apartments,
discarded in dumpsters,
buried on a mining country hillside in Montana,
under a field in Idaho,
behind the summer furniture in the garage,
the mute sites, possessions, and other traces
of Chinese life in the Americas
from the winding streets of 19th century Chinatowns to the vibrant new settlements of recent immigrants in Vancouver, Brooklyn, Mexico City and Toronto, to the suburban homes of thousands of Chinese families.
Each one has a story to tell.

Our task is to ask, to listen, to remember and to retell.

Where Is Home?

"Where Is Home?" is not just a question for Chinese Americans.  It is a question for all individuals; one that comes up over and over again as we go through changes in our lives.  "Home" can be a question of place, but it is also a question of belonging.  The Museum of Chinese in America is interested in the spirit, as well as the facts, of the stories and histories of Chinese Americans.  We've invited our visitors to participate in the exhibit by contributing their own answers to the question "Where Is Home?"

"Home is where parents and children and children’s children can make stories together.”
    - Diana, from Hastings, New York

“Give me a home among the gum trees with lots of plum trees, a sheep or two, a kangaroo, a clothes line out the back, verandah out the front, and an old rocking chair!  Australia. G’day mates!”
    - Anonymous

“Home is where you are most comfortable where you can do what you want to do rather than what other people expect you to do.  It’s where you can be the person that you feel you are and not the person other people think you should be.  Home is where you can be true to yourself.”
    - Anonymous

“Home is some place deep within your soul, where you can go to when no one is looking.”
    - Anonymous

“Home for me is New York, because I was born here.  Yet in my heart of hearts home is also China, because that is the Mother Land.  Although I’ve never been to China, my heart and soul is touched by its history and its future.”
    - Anonymous

“Where is home?  To me... it is Hawaii, where I was born at the beginning of World War I to a large family.  My father had arrived to the island in 1878 from Hakka village near the city of Shenzhen.  He was born in Jamaica because his parents, with other people in his village and nearby villages, were recruited to work in the sugarcane fields of Jamaica.  They fulfilled two 5-year contracts and returned to the village in 1873.  Not being satisfied with the conditions there, the elders began thinking of further migrations; thus my father and aunt were sent for in 1878 by their father, who had gone to Hawaii several years before.”

“Being 82 years young, my history could fill many pages, but time does not allow me to continue much further because I leave for home in California tomorrow and the museum is about to close.  Someday I hope to write an autobiography in order to share my experiences and thoughts with others, especially the younger generation, in order to make them more aware of the Chinese of America.”

    - Daniel Chu

“Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take in you in.” (Quoting from Robert Frost)
- Anonymous

“Home is the apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan we moved to when I was two and where I still live at 39.  I used to dig in the sand box in Riverside Park to get to China when I was a little girl and no one ever knew why.  When I was 29 I finally went to Taiwan and lived there for three years, making movies about Chinese culture and studying Chinese dance and opera. Now I only use my Chinese in restaurants.  I came here [MOCA] to feel more at home.”
- Anonymous