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Asian American Portraits of Encounter: Navigating Multiple Identities

An inspiring exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery worth reflection.

One of the many advantages of living so close to Washington, DC, is the opportunities to visit cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian. Currently, the National Portrait Gallery is showcasing an exhibition entitled "Asian American Portraits of Encounter." Seven visual artists have displayed a range of depictions of Asian American identity, demonstrating the diverse and complex issues that come with bridging multiple identities into a coherent sense of self, particularly within the context of the melting pot that we have here in the States.

I was struck most by the photography of CYJO, a Korean American whose work in the exhibition displays rows of individually photographed Korean Americans, ranging from students to performing artists to celebrities and politicians, among others. Each photograph had descriptions about their experiences growing up with dual identities. In their own words, each subject conveys the challenges of growing up balancing dual worlds in developing their own sense of identity. Common themes that resonated among multiple subjects included bilingualism, how Korean food cemented a sense of kinship with their culture, and the balancing act of being neither fully Korean nor fully American, but rather, a hybrid somewhere between the two.

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For instance, some sample narratives from the exhibition include one male subject who wrote that the experience of being Korean American is similar to being in any bicultural group in America-there is essentially a balancing act between what one accepts and rejects from each culture. Benson Lee, the subject, concluded the narrative with the description that, "We live in a time when culture is constantly being redefined." Similarly, a female subject, Bibiane Choi, conveyed that, "There is no collective Korean American experience, but the Korean heritage that binds us together can coexist peacefully with who we choose to be." Other subjects referred to themselves as "global citizens," choosing not to confine their identity to either Korean or American, but rather, to take on a larger perspective of being a fully human being.

A narrative from a particularly notable subject essentially stated that she forgave her parents for everything they didn't know about being American, and thanked her parents for everything they knew about being Korean. Such a notion undoubtedly will resonate with first generation children and beyond who have had to navigate the difficult terrain of balancing their parents' native cultures with the process of assimilating into the present American one. Indeed, I could offer the same forgiveness and thanks to my own parents, who emigrated from Iran and were able to preserve and convey many aspects of their native culture to their children, all of us first generation to the States, while simultaneously allowing us to assimilate to the American culture we were socialized in.

For those of you fortunate enough to live in proximity to the National Portrait Gallery, I strongly suggest taking the trip to Penn Quarter to visit this exhibition, which is on display until October 14th, 2012. One need not be Asian American to relate to what the artists have put together, for the themes that each display conveys is universal ones having to do with identity and the ways that we find our place in the world. For as one female subject described beneath her photograph, "I believe that the place of our births as the center of our universe is being dismantled, especially in our century of mass migration. The only way we can claim home again is to make every corner of the earth our home, and think of ourselves as human beings". In many ways, observation of this exhibition enables visitors to tap into that sense of belonging, and perhaps, get one step closer to developing a more global sense of cultural identity.

To learn more about this exhibition, go to: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/current.html.


Copyright 2011 Azadeh Aalai

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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