17 photos

Chinese-ness is part documentary, part meta-memoir, and part actual memoir. I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, the youngest of six and the only one in my family not from Guangdong, China. My father ran Joe Huie's Café, a typical chop suey joint, but it was images of pop culture that fed, formed, and confused me. My Minnesota-ness overwhelmed my Chinese-ness to the point that my own parents often seemed exotic and foreign to me.

And then I went to China for the first time in 2010; coming from a place where inside I felt like everyone but outwardly sticking out, to a place where I looked like everyone but felt like a foreigner. My American-ness, or non-Chinese-ness, seemed evident to all, not just in language, but also in my gait, attitude, dress, and mannerisms—my entire being. You can look in the mirror everyday and never really see yourself. You are what other people see.

So what am I? Is identity circumstantial, migratory, self-defined, personal, national, cultural, political, fluid, malleable, transmutable, imposed? Who decides what is authentic, sacred, exotic, kitsch? Chinese-ness is an attempt to provide clues to that cultural riddle—in my home state of Minnesota, other regions of the United States, and in China (including my ancestral village)—by employing various documentary strategies and conceptual photographic conceits, one of which I am calling, “I am You.”

What if my family had never left China? Or what if I had never gone to college and ended up owning a Chinese restaurant like my brother? Or become an engineer like my brother. Or ended up the way my mother really desired, marry a Chinese woman and have Chinese kids. Or the other myriad lives I could have had had circumstances been different. To somewhat experience this delicious idea I am photographing Chinese men whose lives I could’ve had, then I give them the camera to photograph me, while wearing their clothes, putting the photos side-by-side as a diptych.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press will publish Chinese-ness in 2017.