When immigration means ‘Hurry Up and Wait’

A still from Melissa Chen's 'Is this a map or a clock?' (Image courtesy of Asian Arts.)

Asian Arts Initiative will examine the multidimensional and murky subject of immigration in its new exhibition, Hurry Up and Wait, opening September 1.

But curator Adriel Luis’s interests lie in more than considering policy or the general act of migration; instead, he wants to focus on individual journeys through immigration and assimilation, uncovering the oft-forgotten personal experiences that exist beyond the bureaucracy. According to Asian Arts staffer Melissa Chen, Luis organized the pieces in the exhibit to reflect the major “phases” of immigration: Voyage, arrival, and acclimation. Through this framing device, viewers will get a glimpse into one of the most harrowing and arduous journeys a person can undertake. 

It’s hard to talk about

The exhibition will feature 15 artists, including Chen, an interdisciplinary visual artist. Not only is this Chen’s first professional exhibition since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, it is a chance for her to explore a part of her family’s history. Though excited for the opportunity to show her work at this level and produce new pieces, she expressed hesitancy about delving into her parents’ journey to becoming American citizens. As refugees who immigrated to the U.S. from Southern China, they experienced a process of migrating and obtaining citizenship that was, at times, traumatic. The subject has not been easy for Chen to broach with her parents.

“It wasn’t something that we would talk about that much, or at least not intentionally. Even now it’s still hard for me to randomly ask them, ‘What was it like living in a refugee camp?’ or ‘What were your first few years in America like?’ . . . It was difficult for me, since I wasn’t actually the person immigrating. It was my family’s experience. . . . There’s kind of a disconnect that I’ve always felt between how we experience life.”

“A living time capsule”

However, Chen sees Hurry Up and Wait as a way to bridge the gap between hers and her parents’ disparate experiences in America. Her piece Is this a map or a clock? is a “looping gif animation that uses found images and text taken from history and ESL textbooks.” The kicker? The ESL textbooks Chen used belonged to her parents and were her first insight into how the culture and concept of “America” were introduced to her family. Chen is interested in the interaction between time and space within the act of migration and with the concept of trying to preserve a diaspora after displacement: “Being a part of a diaspora means being a living time capsule,” she says.

Hurry Up and Wait reaches beyond the political details that surround emigration to get at the heart of the act, accessing the vulnerable and visceral sides that most of us usually see only in Facebook posts and eye-opening op-eds. As Chen says, the lines between the personal and political “are constantly being blurred.” She hopes that even though immigration is such an individual experience, viewers of the exhibition will find their own connections to the stories being told and gain a better understanding of how immigration has formed — and continues to form — our country.

Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia) presents Hurry Up and Wait from September 1 through December 15, 2017, with an opening reception on Friday, September 8 at 6pm. The show is free and open to the public, and gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 6pm.