Annie Barbeau

Cantonese Chinese

What does being Chinese mean to you?

I remember specifically with art… I was pretty well rounded in high school. I did both music and art. Didn’t play the violin. Well, played for two months and was really bad at it haha. In art, it’s more so that you copy things that people have done before, if you go way back, to Chinese art history for example. Now it’s different. There’s more room for expression. When I painted in high school, I painted a lot of white people for some reason. I think I saw white people in paintings all the time, so I never really realized that I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in paintings, but the worst part was I never thought to change that. Now I’m more aware of representation in my work. One time I painted a little Asian boy eating rice––haha how typical––and that ended up being my favorite painting, as well as my mom’s favorite painting. I have it at home. Wait, what was the question again? (What does being Chinese mean to you?) Well, I’m not fluent in Chinese. I can’t read Chinese, I can’t write, so I guess a lot of it is about trying to hold on to my Chinese heritage. The fact that I was born here (the United States) makes that tricky. (So do you find it hard to hold on to your culture?) Yeah. Any cultural traditions that come up, like the Mooncake Festival, I don’t know much about the story behind so I have to ask my mom about them. And then sometimes I’ll try to speak with her more in Cantonese, but if I want to know a certain word and want her to translate from English to Cantonese, she actually won’t know, so it’s difficult for me as well. Sometimes she isn’t patient, but then again I wasn’t patient either when she tried to teach me when I was little. When you’re a kid, you don’t know any better. You think these are chores you have to do, so it was a little upsetting in hindsight. I never went to Chinese school. I think they put me in for a day and I decided that I was never going back haha. My sister took two years of Chinese in high school. I just stayed in French. (Do you go back to Hong Kong a lot?) We used to visit almost every summer for four summers, about five years ago. We haven’t visited for a long time. I miss it a lot. My mom, ever since the Umbrella Revolution, was just very upset for a long time. She kept saying, “This isn’t the Hong Kong I grew up with”. So I guess she’s reluctant to go back. We haven’t gone back in a while, but I hope we can soon.

Who is your inspiration?

I think it’s my mom. I realized I don’t know much about my grant parents, or my cousins, pretty much anybody outside of my nuclear family. Maybe it’s because I move so much, so it’s hard to keep in touch with the rest of the family. I moved from New York, to Hong Kong, to Australia, to Connecticut, and now I’m in Maryland. My mom’s always been there for me. When I was in high school, she went to all my swim meets, all my regattas, and my recitals. She was very supportive. She suffered through the whole art school portfolio ordeal with me when I was scrambling to apply to art school, which is a whole different beast. I never realized how lucky I was until I actually looked back and saw that other Asians might not have gotten the chance to even apply to art school.
My mom never wanted me to be the traditional doctor/lawyer. She gave me the chance to apply, she sat through all my portfolio reviews, she drove me up to RISD and down to MICA, and she was there every single step of the way. Even though I didn’t choose art school, she still supported me. The fact that I was even given the choice to apply is something that I’ve definitely taken for granted. She was so proud of me for getting into art school, especially since I was competing against kids who know from day one that they’re going to make art 24/7 and I didn’t know until senior fall that I wanted to try it out. These kids are hardcore, man. I’m talking rainbow colored hair, radical, crazy good, creative-neurotic artists with years of experience here. But even in the face of that, she’s always believed in me, so when she found out that I got an art scholarship, she kinda just nodded her head and went “You know you’re good at this, right? Stop doubting yourself”. She’s a really strong woman, and I realized I’m very much like her, for good or for worse. When I get into arguments with people, I say something that reminds me of her and then I’m like “wait, this is something my mom would say, did I just say that? Oh no. I AM MY MOTHER,” I understand that she has flaws, but I do as well and I see a lot of myself in her, which is kind of scary. She’s not perfect, but she has always been there for me and I think that’s important.

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