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Thesis exhibition explores identities of hyphenated Americans

Duke takes pride in its efforts to foster diversity. Although much can be criticized about the way diversity on campus is embraced, one cannot deny the attempts our university has made to accommodate a diverse student body. Despite this, what are often lost are the perspectives of those students who struggle to reconcile their minority heritage with being what is socially considered "American." These stories and perspectives offer insight into the extent that the so-called melting pot of American culture pressures these students to conform.

Ethnic minorities, whom senior Angela Zhang calls hyphenated Americans, endure such cultural dissonance. Zhang's senior thesis project The Hyphenated American captures the struggles and facts of life that many hyphenated Americans deal with regularly. Zhang's exhibit features 18 perspectives, including her own, incarnate in a series of photos and objects accompanied with quotes.

Each representation focuses on an individual's story of reconciling both heritage and American culture and seeks to expose what it means to truly be American in America. The visual art piece contemplates issues such as participants feeling obligated to obtain a certain degree to support their immigrant parents and participants feeling the need to use chopsticks out of cultural habit.

Zhang's inspiration for this piece came from her exploration of a self-composed Program II major and her own personal experiences. Zhang's major investigates how mass media and cross-cultural perception affect the way a country creates policies, influences politics and provides a medium for the cultural perception with respect to "the other." While taking a class on immigration, Zhang interviewed her father about the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 and started delving into her parents' own quest to fulfill the American Dream. She also recognized that in her experience being Chinese-American, she was always trying to find the balance between being ethnically Chinese but living as an American.

Zhang decided to use visual media to see how other "hyphenated American" students at Duke "straddled the hyphen."

"When I go back to China, I look American. I dress American. I don't have an accent, but I lack a lot of vocabulary, so right off the bat it is very obvious that I will also stand out there. So where do I really fit in?" Zhang explained.

The purpose of the images is not to show how individuals might be stereotyped by society, Zhang said, but instead the collection features how culture affects participants' self-expression.

Discussing the process, Zhang elaborated, "I sat down with them and talked about their experience: where they were from, where their parents were from, how they identified, how they felt conflicted between their two halves, or when those two halves were in resonance together. Then we picked an image that reflected their experience...most of the time, I would photograph it…It's mostly a collaboration that I capture through photographs, and I let them write a short narrative about how that image pertains to that experience."

Being a hyphenated American myself, I decided to pay a visit to the exhibit. The beautiful layout of the exhibit guides you through the perimeter of the Reynolds lobby with an accompanying pamphlet. As I began to take in the various featured stories, I remembered that Zhang told me that what was on the wall was a catalyst to provoke further curiosity and thought. The pamphlet adroitly filled in the gaps and made each image and quote into an individual, a story, a struggle, a misunderstanding.

Not to spoil the exhibit, but the one photo-quote combination that truly resonated with me was Frank Cai's: "Every time I see my relatives, I feel like it's a first date." The photo was a blurred scene of Cai looking into the mirror buttoning up his striped dress shirt. While some hyphenated Americans find it difficult to reconcile and maintain their cultural heritage, I have found that I have attempted to shed myself of my Sri Lankan heritage. I'm not truly American. I'm not truly Sri Lankan. And I'm surely not Indian. As a result, the only option I seem to embrace is to assimilate into American culture. However, because I haven't lived in a household that is authentically what is considered the standard degree of being American, I'm left as a somewhat naive participant in this culture. Floating in this limbo, when I do meet my family in Sri Lanka it is so mentally stressing to impress and mutually click with a family whose only perception of me is the American nephew/cousin—just like a first date.

Zhang made it clear that the purpose of this exhibit is not a call to action, but instead to promote a greater dialogue on campus about these multifaceted experiences.

"The reason it is the Hyphenated American, single not plural, is because it showcases the diversity and the cohesiveness of everyone," she said. "The experience of living with this hyphen is so prevalent in my life. Not only do immigrants coming into America shape what it means to be American, I feel that there is a pressure to assimilate into American society."

This exhibit is not only a much-needed exposition into the lives of so many Duke students, but also a refreshing approach to promoting with greater efficacy the stories of diversity on campus.

The Hyphenated American is currently on display in the Reynolds Theater lobby until mid-May.


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