Chinese Culture in the Diaspora
Chinese communities have been present in the United States for over 150 years, and Chinese culture runs deep here—such as in the foods we eat, the holidays we celebrate, the sports we play, and in the old urban Chinatowns and newer ethnic suburbs across the country.
In 2014, there are more than four million people of Chinese ancestry in the United States. This number includes people of mixed ancestry, those whose relatives emigrated from China several generations ago, and recent immigrants, as well as people from families who came to the United States after earlier settlement in other countries such as Southeast Asia, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Most reside in California or New York, but they also live in other areas, including historical concentrations in the Mississippi Delta region and fast-growing new populations in Texas.
The China program provided an opportunity for reunion among those sustaining traditional culture in China, as well as in the diaspora. It was a gathering of old and new friends, an experience in which people could explore connections and continuities through culture and art making. Local artists participated every day of the Festival—engaging with the master artists from China in demonstrations, workshops, and performances.
On June 29, the program presented Diaspora Day to celebrate the global fluidity of Chinese culture—from the cuisine that can be found in virtually every corner of the world to the music emerging from the underground. Through food demonstrations, spoken word performances, and even a look at Washington, D.C.’s own Chinatown, Diaspora Day activities demonstrated how culture thrives through dynamic, diverse, and often transformative interactions.
LOCAL FESTIVAL PARTICIPANTS
Among the local individuals and organizations who participated in the China program both on Diaspora Day and throughout the other nine days:
The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is a national resource for discovering the consequence and complexity of the Asian Pacific American experience through collaboration, exhibitions, programs, and digital initiatives.
1882 Foundation is a nonpartisan national network involved in promoting education about the history and legacy of the Chinese exclusion laws in the United States.
Asian American LEAD provides educational and leadership training to Asian American youth in the D.C. metro area.
Busboys and Poets is a restaurant, bookstore, and community gathering space that actively works to cultivate creativity, cultural connections, and social change through its several locations in the D.C. metro area.
BicycleSPACE is a bike shop located near Mt. Vernon Square that organizes events such as repair workshops, yoga nights, and group rides.
Confucius Institute at George Mason University, a partnership with the Beijing Language and Cultural University and the Office of Chinese Language Council International of the Chinese Ministry of Education, offers educational programs about Chinese language and culture.
East Rising Lion Dance Troupe is based in Maryland and practices Hok San-style lion dancing
The Newseum is an interactive museum of news and journalism that provides a forum for educational programs materials addressing the five freedoms of the First Amendment.
Ling Tang is a dancer, choreographer, and educator who trained at the Hubei Song and Dance Ensemble Institute and now teaches dance classes at the China Institute and the Washington Performing Arts Society.
U.S. Wushu Academy promotes and teaches wushu and tai chi in the United States in order to cultivate character and train competitive athletes.
John Shun-Chieh Wang is a master calligrapher and seal engraver based in Potomac, Maryland.
The Metro DC Area Go Clubs promote go/weiqi through classes, games, and demonstrations.
Wings Over Washington Kite Club is dedicated to flying, making, and educating the public about kites. On June 28, they will lead flying demonstrations and share a display of kites from around the world.
The Wong People is a D.C.-based kung fu organization that performs and teaches dragon/lion dance, tai chi, and kung fu.
Xuejuan Dance Ensemble is a Virginia-based performing dance troupe dedicated to Chinese folk dance and education.
Cedric Yeh is the Division of Armed Forces History deputy chair and a curator at the National Museum of American History.
Asian Pacific Americans: Local Lives, Global Ties was a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program in 2010 that brought together people from diverse communities to highlight the breadth of traditions practiced by APA cultures. Learn more
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center provides vision, leadership, and support for Asian and Pacific Islander American initiatives for the Smithsonian and works to better reflect their contributions to the American experience, world culture, and the understanding of our planet and the natural world. Learn more
A Grain of Sand, the first Asian American album ever produced (released in 1973 and featuring Charlie Chin, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Chris Iijima) is part of the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Learn more
Several Chinese Americans have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as National Heritage Fellows for their artistic excellence and support to sustaining such traditions as muk’yu, erhu, and Beijing opera. Read more about the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. Learn more
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Coe, Andrew. 2009. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Hsu, Madeline Y. 2000. Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882-1943. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, Judy Yung. 1980. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington.
Lee, Jennifer 8. 2009. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve.
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Lin, Jan. 1998. Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pritzker, Sonya. 2014. Living Translation: Language and the Search for Resonance in U.S. Chinese Medicine. New York: Berghahn Books.
Tsui, Bonnie. 2009. American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods. New York: Free Press.
Westerman, William. 1996. Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees. New York: Museum of Chinese in the Americas.
Wong, Deborah. 2004. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York: Routledge.
Wu, Emily S. 2013. Traditional Chinese Medicine in the United States: In Search of Spiritual Meaning and Ultimate Health. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Yung, Bell and Eleanor S. Yung. 2014. Uncle Ng Comes to America: Chinese Narrative Songs of Immigration and Love. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.
Zheng, Su. 2010. Claiming Diaspora: Music, Transnationalism, and Cultural Politics in Asian/Chinese America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zhou, Min. 2009. Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Smithsonian staff members describe how their families and communities sustain and transform Chinese culture.
This is my parents’ restaurant around 1974, a veritable haze of red. It comes from a postcard they had made for publicity. My parents, like countless other new Chinese immigrants, turned to the restaurant business to make a living when they immigrated in the late ’60s. They joined a Chinese restaurant boom. New immigration laws in 1965 opened up America for an eye-opening array of new Chinese dishes and tastes.
Of course I didn’t know any of this. I was just a child. Somewhere just off the corner to the right is a pantry where I would sometimes sneak into and fall asleep to the clinking of silverware and the murmurs of patrons. For me it was just home.
My parents continue to be my source of Chinese-ness. They were born in the British colony of North Borneo, now Malaysia, and they would not set foot in the People’s Republic of China until much later in life. However, they subscribed to a sense of Chinese-ness rooted in a mythical version of China, a cultural ethos able to define and identify Chinese-ness around the world. It held power, a sense of comfort and inescapability, a mixture of improvisation and tradition.
This past June 15, I called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day, in keeping with the American tradition of celebrating fathers on the third Sunday of June. Growing up with my family, we would always go out to a favorite restaurant to celebrate the occasion.
However, since my Dad is Taiwanese, he gets a double celebration each year because Father’s Day is celebrated on August 8 in Taiwan. In Mandarin Chinese, the pronunciation of both the number 8 and the month of August is bā. This pronunciation is very similar to the character 爸 (bà), which means “Pa” or “father.” The Taiwanese, therefore, sometimes refer to August 8 as Bābā Holiday (爸爸節 or 父親節).
My family, who lives in the Philippines, has kept this Taiwanese tradition. Since I live in Washington, D.C., I’ll have to settle for a phone call with my dad on August 8 and hearing about all the great food I missed!
When I am at my weakest state, I dare not disobey my mother’s advice. It doesn’t matter how I have grown to tell her about books, recipes, or languages that I have discovered and acquired elsewhere. It doesn’t matter what new palates I developed on my own. When I need to get rid of a bad cough, I faithfully stick to the remedy I learned from my mother: Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa by the spoonful and plain, hot water.
Food is central in celebrating culture. My mother made salty and sweet doong dumplings (Toishanese dialect for 粽子, or zongzi) each May for the “Double Five” (fifth day of the fifth lunar month) Festival. They magically appeared when we came home from school or work—ready to eat cold, warmed by microwave, or sweetened with maple syrup.
After my mother passed away in 1994, I asked my sister-in-law to teach us how to make doong. Prep time took a whole week in which I soaked, washed, and boiled the bamboo leaves and prepared the other ingredients. I invited extended family members to come make their own doongs. The trickiest part was tying up the bundles with string so that it would pull off smoothly. Boiling the tightly wrapped doong took several more hours.
Here I am making doong. I may attempt it again after I retire this June!
Although I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I didn’t grow up drinking the kind of soy milk you would find at a Berkeley co-op. Instead it was Vitasoy, the beverage brand that’s as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as Coca-Cola is in the United States. I've come to learn that a number of food items I found in my kitchen as a kid are actually artifacts from my parents’ own childhoods in their homeland—from Vitasoy drinks to Haw Flakes to Fruitips candy.
These snacks, ordinary and unassuming in Hong Kong, were ways for my family to maintain a connection to a place they left behind. During a recent trip to Hong Kong, I found myself gawking over this Vitasoy bottle, among many that were filled with sweet soy milk bathing in a warm tub of water in a 7-11. Though in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a country I hardly knew, once I took a sip, it tasted like I was home.
When I first left San Francisco for college in 1988, I had the old, clunky rice cooker on the left, which I have taken with me as I’ve moved around the United States. Arcata, California, to San Francisco (again), then off to Urbana, Illinois, and finally to Washington, D.C.
Last year the rice cooker stopped working, and I had to replace it with the one on the right. I suppose it is part of my Chinese “pack rat” roots that I cannot bear to part with the old one, but I am fond of it. As with many of the animals I study, there has been a change in form from the older, larger “dinosaur” to a sleeker, smaller (but not necessarily better) one.
Also different? The rice. When I was growing up, I ate white, long grain. It was a staple of my life. Unfortunately, for various health reasons (blood sugar issues) in the last few years I have had to switch to brown and in smaller quantities.
The greeting on this doorway reads “恭賀新禧” in seal script. It is a traditional greeting for the Lunar New Year, which many diaspora Chinese still observe regardless of religious affiliation. This particular display, along with many other decorations, was put up by my church, the Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C., in late January 2014. Every year I am reminded throughout the holiday of the syncretic nature of Chinese culture. Although we no longer venerate the gods of our ancestors, we still find religious meaning in these traditions and enjoy looking forward to an auspicious year with our community.
I grew up in Italy and moved to the United States about twenty-two years ago. I had never heard about dragon boating until four years ago, when a friend took me to the Potomac race. As I was looking for a water sport, dragon boating seemed ideal. One of the best parts of the experience has been the club itself—very inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicities, and physical conditioning. In addition, as I never practiced a competitive sport before in my life, it was a pleasant surprise to discover the teamwork.
My grandparents were minimalists out of necessity. Their wedding consisted of exchanging some hard candies, since sweets were scarce during wartime. So as immigrants to America, many of their actions— patching old clothing, saving leftovers— were interpreted as stinginess.
However, later I realized how these things were simply tradition. During economic hardships in China, they prepared meals using homegrown ingredients. They taught me how to grow tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and cilantro, as well as produce not in American grocery stores: winter gourd, bok choy, and chives. It never occurred to them that by maintaining a vegetable garden, they were eating organic, getting their daily exercise, and being environmentally friendly; it was just something learned from their youth in China.
Even now, as a student who travels too often to keep a garden, I always have at least a scallion plant growing in my kitchen – all it takes is a cup filled with water.