My understanding of what it means to be Chinese-American came from my family. Just about every week, my grandfather took us to whatever Chinese restaurant in St. Louis that he liked best at the time—Jade Garden, Lantern House, Lulu. I knew he was “from China” and that he spoke English with a Chinese accent. But other than food and some Chinese paintings, he didn’t share a lot of details about his childhood with us. Based on these fragments—meals, art, the occasional story—Chineseness became a part of my heritage I could name but didn’t really understand. As a child, I watched Big Bird in China over and over despite my fear of the Monkey King, who moved in a register unfamiliar to my Midwestern suburban existence, I couldn’t stop watching. I loved the stone animals, the painted map, and the boat rides down the river. I knew that this story was somehow part of my story, but I didn’t know what they meant to me. This feeling of low-grade anxious confusion carried over into my school days.
Classes were often spent talking about the history of white settlers who came to the Missouri prairies, but in fourth grade, we went beyond Missouri and studied Ancient China at school. We got worksheets with words in transliterated Chinese. Excited to contribute to class, I looked at the packet, but suddenly my knowledge didn’t make sense. Yaya, what I called my own grandfather, was not the word next to grandfather. Instead, there was a word I didn’t recognize. Who was wrong, the book or my family? I didn’t know, and I didn’t speak up. It wasn’t until college that I learned about the linguistic diversity in China—such as the fact that my grandfather spoke Shanghainese, not Mandarin. As a child, I just locked the confusion away, wondering if I was “really” Chinese.
I don’t think I was alone in this confusion, though I certainly felt that way. That lonely ache is part of my heritage, too, something inherited from my half-Chinese father. He grew up in white suburbia, under pressure to assimilate as a mixed-race white and Asian kid in Cold War America. Apart from a handful of words, my father didn’t learn Chinese. He does remember the game he and his siblings played with Yaya at dinner, back when he was in grade school. The five of them—Gramma, Yaya, my dad, and his brother and sister—would be gathered around the table. Dinner might be shepherd’s pie or perhaps meatloaf. In the middle of the table: a jug of cold milk. “Pass the milk,” my dad would say, and Yaya would not—not until my dad asked in Chinese: “Pass the M-I-L-K 牛奶”
In my hard-earned college Mandarin, I’d say niúnăi. The way my father says “milk,” noonai—proudly, flat, without tones—makes my heart ache. This word, the only Chinese language passed on from Yaya to my dad, feels like an encapsulation of all that assimilation into whiteness can mean: a reduction, a smoothing over, and yet—when I hear the childlike pride in his voice, delighted to say this word—I can’t help but cherish it. It is an imperfect heritage, perhaps, but it is one that belongs to us, and is true to our fragmentary history.
But this realization—that our gap-ridden story and even my own sense of “inauthenticity” were themselves part of the Chinese American story—was not something I could have come to without MOCA. MOCA helped me undo some of my emotional tangles, make sense of what history I had, and fill in the gap of how I understand my Chineseness. There, I didn’t have to claim all of the Chinese American experience, once I had a sense of what that was. On my walking tours, I could tell the story of the museum, and I could point out where my own story fit in—one thread in a larger, more complex narrative. I could begin to be all my selves at once: white and Chinese, St. Louisan and New Yorker.
When giving tours of MOCA’s exhibition, I always spent the most time in the room focused on the twentieth century. I located myself in history when I hadn’t been allowed visibility in mainstream narratives. I could trace the timeline along the wall. Plaques, photos, and newspaper articles marked changes in policy as World War II erupted, as soldiers fought and came home, and as the Cold War settled in.
I could begin to be all my selves at once: white and Chinese, St. Louisan and New Yorker.
I took my father to this room early in my tenure at the museum. He leaned his face in close, inspecting the photographs and signs on the wall, tracing the timeline from World War II into post-war America. Here, he moved even more slowly than his usual museum crawl; he read every caption beneath every photograph and every artifact, reading glasses perched on his nose. This is when Dad came, he breathed, looking at a photograph of students, smiling wide beside their suitcases. 1947. He must have come right then.
Suddenly, the room felt too small to contain us; the air dense with all the questions and yearnings there’d been no space for, growing up. Yaya hadn’t talked much about the Japanese occupation he lived through as a boy, or about watching two revolutions from across the globe, or about the xenophobia paranoia he lived through during the Cold War. But those experiences were right there on the wall: the time, the distance; the challenges, the joys; the contradictions. These are our stories, I wanted to tell my dad. My heart burst with an aching sadness mixed with pride. We belonged here. We were not alone.
Recently, my dad’s been going through the archives, too. My parents are sorting through years of accumulated artifacts at home. They’ve been sending me and my sisters marvelous and weird images on the family group text: a story my little sister wrote in first grade, complete with elongated illustrations of our family dog; a photo of my mom, age four, smiling wide beside two of her siblings; blurry iPhone pictures of 1930s photographs of my grandfather and his siblings, formal and unsmiling, in a mix of Chinese and European dress.
But what made my heart stop, briefly, was a text from my father in mid-January: “We found a box of letters between Dad and our grandfather from the early ’50s (maybe ’40s) to through the ’70s and ’80s.” Years of stories about our family, all written in a language none of us can read. “The translation project might be a nice side gig for a grad student if family members don’t have time,” my older sister texted.
I didn’t know how to respond. The idea that a stranger would read these family papers before we would broke my heart. And beneath that, the truer agony: that I was not, and may never be, good enough to read them myself.
This was what was going through my mind when I saw the fire at 70 Mulberry Street. This is what came straight into my heart: the sharp agony of knowing that the history is there, but it’s at risk of disappearing. My family, at least, had Yaya’s letters, even if we couldn’t read them. We had our photos and our memories. We knew where we came from, in a literal sense. But what about the larger story of our community? It had meant so much for me to find MOCA; what would it mean to lose that history? For me, and for Chinatown?
Once, I visited the MOCA archives. My supervisor took me to see the original site of the museum during my training, nearly eight years ago. We climbed the stairs at 70 Mulberry—those stairs I loved with the two handrails—to the second floor.
The archives were crowded and close in the way of New York grocery stores: every available space filled, aisles narrow, just enough room to squeeze through. Scraps of images remain with me: shelves jam-packed with archival file boxes, papers peeping through the hand-holds; large blue banners rolled and tucked into corners; the late summer sun sending shafts of light over the dim, beautiful, dusty mayhem of history.
But in hindsight, I don’t even know if the archives were all that dim. They may not have been dusty. I don’t know how crowded they were, really.Here’s the thing about memories: they’re intangible. They change. They’re influenced by the very act of remembering. That’s why, after all, we cling so hard to material artifacts—diaries, letters, photographs, dresses, signs, ticket stubs. And it is these very things we risked losing in the fire.
As of March 8—more than a month after the fire, weeks in which mold could grow and history could rot—teams of white-suited volunteers have recovered most of the archives. We are fortunate; it appears that much of the collection can be salvaged. But it will be a long and expensive road ahead, one only further complicated by the ongoing public health crisis and its accompanying racist backlash. It’s scary to think that, just a week or two later, even this belated effort would have been nearly impossible due to the city’s lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As it is, the museum estimates that the restoration process will take as long as eighteen months.
I haven’t been to Chinatown in weeks now, not since New York shut down. The last time I was there, 70 Mulberry was still blocked off, surrounded by a green wooden barrier. The red brick was still stained black with soot. The building has been forever changed. I remember the ache I felt, watching the flames lick the red brick. I try to cherish that ache, and to channel it into a sense of urgency: This fragile history of ours matters.
Remembering our stories is not enough; we must collect and share them with each other, and with those who haven’t yet found their place in the narrative. MOCA helped me do this, and it can play a role for those who are still seeking. We may be missing some threads, now, but we can reweave the tapestry.
In remembering our history, I hope we can find ourselves, and each other, and our way forward.