Essay by Jessica Guo (郭悦娜) for Contextualising Practice
When I was in grade two, I was praised by my white teachers for my English proficiency. But at Saturday Chinese School, I was terrible. I hated learning my language. I found it extremely difficult, to the point of begging my mum to let me quit language classes when I was eight, only speaking to her in English for the following years. I was a self-proclaimed ‘banana’ (Lee, 2011), ‘yellow on the outside, white on the inside’. Now, 15 years later, my ‘second language’ conversation skills are that of a toddler, and the only thing I can write in Chinese is my name. I harbour an immense amount of guilt for not retaining my Mandarin and Cantonese. It is a constant frustration I have with myself when I interact with my extended family, telling myself I was the only one to blame for my lack of proficiency. Recently when voicing my frustrations to my mum, she said in passing that when I was in kindergarten, the teacher there had raised concerns, saying I was ‘non-verbal’ and suggested to my mum that at home she speak to me more in English rather than the dual language approach. Of course, I cannot fully blame that specific event for my lack of self-discipline to retain my language. But I cannot help but think at that moment, both me – a four-year-old child – and my mum – a first-generation immigrant – were told to assimilate and I questioned how that particular action influenced my relationship with my culture.
In early May 2022, I watched the film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once written, directed, and produced by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert. An eccentric film, tackling a range of concepts such as the multiverse, existentialism, generational trauma, and Asian diaspora, all within an action-packed feature reminiscence of a 90’s era kung-fu movie, starring the darling of the Hong Kong cinema scene, Michelle Yeoh. The representation that was portrayed was eerily similar to my lived experience: the mixed language household (specifically the mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and English), that one grandparent that came from the ‘homeland’ once every few years to live with the family, the depressed queer daughter who spoke Chinese awkwardly, and her strained relationship with her mother due to poor communication and empathy, which was the ultimate conflict of the story (that one hit way too close to home). Although a work of fiction, it triggered many of my own memories to come to the surface. Gibbons’ (2008:3) work, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance, expands on Proust’s theory of memory, as having ‘a creative power in bridging the gap between past and present, in a way that connects personal truths to a wider audience.’ Throughout my practice, I have explored alternative ways of depicting the ‘self-portrait,’ how ‘constructs of self-representation, are often based on a selection of autobiographical memories, feelings and events’ (Early, 2022). This film became the catalyst to reflect on my relationship with my Chinese culture – a topic I had avoided until 2022.
This essay aims to explain how the concepts of diaspora, Third Culture, identity, memory, and nostalgia, have influenced my 2022 works, 你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet?) and 你生病了吗? (Are you sick?), how making this series has assisted in my own processing of anxieties surrounding my Chinese-Australian identity, and in healing and embracing that intersectional culture. I will discuss how I used my practice as a vessel to explore a few of the nuances of the Asian-Australian experience, through the subject of food and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). As a disclaimer, I will be referencing my own personal experience as a Chinese-Australian, as well as some experiences that have been deemed unanimous by the community. Although this essay may reference some generalisations of the Asian-Australian experience, I cannot speak for all in the Chinese-Australian community or other Third Culture Kids, I only speak to and for my artworks within this context.
Most Asian families have the notorious reputation of finding it awkward and difficult to say the phrase, ‘I love you/我爱你.’, the root of the cause possibly stemming from generational trauma, an upbringing of forced repression of emotions, perhaps arising from Confucian teaching in which ‘educating children with negative language’ was the common approach (Taylor, 2014). This has resulted in skewing the perception of what love ‘should’ look like with immigrant children (Pandika, 2021). The outcome of this repression of emotive language is interactions like this scene in the first act of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (2022):
Joy has one foot in the car. Evelyn falters. JOY What? EVELYN I just want to say... Try to eat healthier. You're getting fat.
I remember when watching this scene, every Asian in the theatre let out a reciprocal chuckle, as if recalling a memory when that phrase was said to them verbatim. In an Asian immigrant parent’s mind, no harm was intended, however the abrasive nature of this ‘expression of love’ is hard to believe. What instead came easier to Asian parents to convey their love to their children, was gifts and acts of service (Pandika, 2021), particularly in the form of food. The carefully peeled, evenly sliced, bowl of assorted fruits. Placing the best part of the dish in your bowl. Picking out bones from the steamed fish or peeling the shell of a prawn for you, unprompted. If you mention how you miss eating a particular dish that they used to make, the next time you see them, they’ve made that dish tenfold, so you have some leftovers to take home. (Chen, 2021) This was my perception of love within my Chinese family, expressed clearly, without verbal communication.
In Maravillas’ The Unexpected Guest: Food and Hospitality in Contemporary Asian Art (2014), he states that food in itself, is often ‘figured as a trope of identity and difference’ and used as ‘diasporic vectors of connection to an imagined home’. 你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet)? is an assemblage of oil paintings and found objects, recreating my mum’s dining space. It depicts a common meal I would eat with her: white rice, a whole fish; steamed, and a side of home-grown Chinese greens. Prior to painting 你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet?), I wanted to incorporate the whole experience of preparing this dish. I accompanied my mum to Footscray, a suburb in Melbourne known for their strong Vietnamese and Chinese community, many of the businesses being Asian owned. I was engaging in the market culture, not too dissimilar from a market in the ‘homeland,’ listening to the loud mix of Chinese and Vietnamese phrases thrown across the room, the smell of cold raw meat permeating the air. As a result, I was provided with what was essentially, a detailed tutorial on how to make ‘steamed fish,’ down to how to choose the best fish at the market, and not get ripped off for it. Holtzman (2006:367), analyses this idea of gastronomic memory in response to the Indian Diaspora, in which Indian customers do not only prefer ethnic markets for the produce, but do so to ‘engage with representations of their homeland.’ He states that the ‘gustatory’ is ‘central to the creation of memory, ranging from the sensory clues shops evoke, the cultural mnemonics of the commodities purchased, and how the goods acquired allow for practice that foster historically validated forms of identity.’ Attending the Footscray market became another way for me to engage in the culture, in the form of interacting with the Asian-Australian community and supporting their businesses. When we got home, I documented through video and written notes, my mum’s whole cooking process, in which I insisted she also explain her recipe in Mandarin. The recorded conversation became a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English – English used to fill in the gaps of my knowledge in the Chinese languages.
For many East and South-East Asian communities, we ‘construct [our] subjectivities and [our] social relationships with others through sharing and talking about food’ (Bao 2021:131). The oral passing of knowledge was essential to the process, as it assisted in my engagement, not only helping me retain the recipe in the hopes of recreating it, but also in engaging the participant – my mum – in the interpersonal exchange that was being shared. After cooking, we then ate together, continuing our conversations, talking about our extended family and other reflections we had. Maravillas (2014:167) describes “the artful and alimentary practice of ‘world-making’ as being borne out of ‘the relational act of commensality.’ Conversing while sharing food became a principal element to the process, as it was the interactions, connectivity, and exchange, that I wanted 你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet)? to represent. When it came to painting the dish, I treated the process of cooking and painting in similar ways. I chose a realistic approach, down to painting the porcelain plate. My intention was for the artwork to look indistinguishable from the original dish, in order to recreate the home dining experience in an exhibition setting. This required meticulous blending of oil paints, an oil-based gesso to prime the wood support, the palette consisting of Payne’s grey, raw umber, and titanium white, opting for thinner, smaller filbert brushes, keeping the strokes short to replicate the scales of the fish. A loaded brush was used for the spring onion and ginger garnish to achieve a three-dimensional effect, glistening highlights enhanced with zinc white. The soy sauce was recreated with a wet application of a 1:4 ratio of raw umber and burnt sienna, heavily diluted with linseed oil, applied with a size 0 liner brush around the edges of the fish. Holtzman’s (2006:367) Food and Memory, brings forth the concept of gustatory nostalgia in which food has been used as a ‘vehicle for recollections of childhood and family.’ Maravillas (2014:175), expands on this further, conveying that this specific form of nostalgia is less of desire to ‘return to a lost home,’ but rather ‘the sensuous presentation of the region’s traditional food, is used to connect the past with the present so as to ‘go deeper into the layers of who people are’’.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
When considering the incentive to explore using the autobiographical as an approach to my art practice, the main motivation is that I saw it as a tool to process some of the internal conflicts surrounding my identity. I had my reservations about the concept of ‘taking pride in my culture,’ because as Bao has noted ‘Chinese identity outside China has traditionally been seen as a form of racialised ethnic identity, often associated with outdated cliches and harmful stereotypes.’ (Bao 2021:7) It is this ‘third culture’ anxiety, in which I felt I neither related or belonged in a ‘Chinese’ space or an ‘Australian’ space, this sometimes being expressed by those who claim to have authority of those spaces; a Chinese person from China, describing me as ‘too westernised’, or ironically, a White settler-Australian, automatically assuming I wasn’t born here, refusing to see me as ‘an Australian’ due to my ethnic features. Bao (2021:5), describes diaspora as not just ‘a homogenous group of people or intrinsic quality shared among a group of people’ but as also ‘a historical and social experience, a subject position and a political stance,’ a space that can be ‘[occupied] based on specific historical contents and social circumstances.’ The rhetoric stemming from the social-political effects of COVID-19, exacerbated the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and violence, especially towards Chinese people living in the West (Bao, 2021), and within that space I found myself occupying, I was filled with unease. In light of these events, when creating, I found myself looking to symbols of care and family, in which Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) encompassed those themes.
Anytime I cleared my throat in front of my mum, she would quickly respond, “Are you sick?,” berating my lifestyle habits before quickly handing me a warm, dark concoction that smelt strongly of liquorice root. She would then suggest pressure points for me to massage and offer to gua sha them, in which I would wince in reflex, anticipating the bruising that would soon bloom. A similar brewed medicine was given to me when I contracted COVID-19, the earthy glycyrrhizin flavour overwhelming my palette. It was a taste I was never fond of, and I never really believed the claim that it would ‘cleanse my body from the viral infection.’ But in those 10 days in which I was physically isolated from my loved ones (on my birthday out of all days), I felt the love and care under the bittersweetness of the liquorice root.
Proust’s (1931) In Search of Lost Time, describes the ‘unsolicited recall sprung by the involuntary memory’ (Gibbons 2008:3), from the consumption of a petite madeleine:
Weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
This ‘assemblage of sensation and emotion’ elicited from the ‘recall of involuntary memory’ (Gibbons, 2008) as poetically described by Proust, I felt encompassed the feelings I had when consuming TCM. I did not particularly enjoy the taste of the medicine, nor did I believe in its ‘detoxifying’ properties. And yet, when I drank it, I was immersed in a wave of comfort, acknowledging I was cared for with a centuries-old traditional practice in a culture I was inherently a part of. In making of 你生病了吗? (Are you sick?), I went to Chinese medicine dispensaries and Chinese grocery stores, to source TCM ingredients to cast, again with the same intention of allowing myself to engage with the Asian-Australian community, and letting the interactions inform my practice, similar to the approach in 你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet?). 你生病了吗? (Are you sick?) was made using the Investment Casting Method. When beginning the process of casting an organic object in bronze, with the intention of recreating its form, it must be taken into account that some forms are more likely to ‘fail’ than others. For example, it is best to avoid casting objects that have too much water retention, such as a citrus fruit, or something too delicate like a dried rose, as their forms can interfere with the formation of the mould. As a result, the best organic objects for this type of casting are low moisture. The items I chose to cast, based on this criterion, were ginger, liquorice root, cassia, jujube, pitaya, and glehnia. These ingredients are commonly found in Chinese herbal soups, each herb claiming to serve specific medicinal purpose, which I documented. They were then arranged in a ‘tree’ supported with wax and wooden skewers, and sprued up to vent out the air and prevent ‘flashing.’ This was followed up with the investment process, in which the impression of the model is made. Once the model is burnt out in the kiln and the investment is complete, the mould is then ready to have the molten bronze poured in. This is followed up by the laborious process of breaking the bronze sculpture out of the investment, where the object is then separated from its supports and sprues, cleaned and polished. I then applied a mix of a black and brown patina, which I then removed partially on the raised areas of my castings, in order to enhance all the textural elements. I felt that immortalising the TCM in bronze made the objects appear more ‘precious.’ I wanted to enhance that effect by having the bronze sculptures displayed together with their real counterparts and assembled in a way that you would receive a ‘prescription.’ Traditionally the medicine would be collected and weighed on a metal plate, wrapped in either local ads promoting Asian-run businesses or localised newspapers adapted for the Chinese-Australian community, so I used these materials to bring the work together. 你生病了吗? (Are you sick?) is an homage to the care and ritual of TCM.
‘你吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet)?’ and ‘你生病了吗? (Are you sick?)’ are two works interrogating my lived experiences as a Chinese-Australian. They are contemplations and reconciliations of my past conflicts with my identity, a celebration of self, family, and heritage, as well as an ode to the expressions of love, care, and community unique to Asian culture.
Bao H. (2021) Sharing food, vulnerability and intimacy in a global pandemic: The digital art of the Chinese diaspora in Europe. Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (Great Britain), 8(2-3), 129–145. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/jcca_00041_1
Bao, H. (2022). The new generation: Contemporary Chinese art in the diaspora. Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (Great Britain), 9(1-2), 3–17. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/jcca_00053_2
Chen N, (10 Apr 2021) ‘9 ways Asian American parents show their love without saying “I love you”, Medium, accessed 25 May 2023. https://nancylinchen.medium.com/9-ways-asian-american-parents-show-their-love-without-saying-i-love-you-1c531474ad6b
Early J. (2022), Contemporary Confessional Forms and Confessional Art, Third Text, 36:4, 369-382, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2022.2074197
Gibbons J. (2008) Autobiography: The Externalisation of Personal Memory, Contemporary art and memory: Images of Recollection and remembrance, I.B. Tauris & Co, Ltd, London
Holtzman J.D. (2006) Food and Memory, Annual Review of Anthropology, pp. 361-374, DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123220
Kwan D, Scheinert D (2022) Everything, Everywhere, All At Once [motion picture], A24, New York
Lee J.H.X (2010) Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara
Lo J. (2014) ‘10. Australia’s Other Asia in the Asian Century’, Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and world-making, pp.219-232
Maravillas F. (2014) ‘7. The Unexpected Guest: Food and Hospitality in Contemporary Asian Art’, Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and world-making, pp.159-178
Pandika M. (1 March 2021) ‘Why “I love you” is so elusive for Asian immigrant families like mine’, Mic.com, accessed 25 May 2023. https://www.mic.com/life/why-i-love-you-is-so-elusive-for-asian-immigrant-families-like-mine-63410273
Proust M (1931), In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) [excerpt retrieved from public domain]
Taylor A. (31 January 2014) ‘Why Chinese Families Don’t Say ‘I Love You’’, Business Insider, accessed 25 May 2023. https://www.businessinsider.com/i-love-you-in-china-2014-1