Creating Home through Family, and Family through Home

With the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965, the end of Exclusion legislation opened America for numerous Chinese immigrants entering America. Between 1971 and 2002, approximately 1.1 million immigrants from China traveled to America. My paternal family came at this time, including my grandmother and grandfather, my father, my aunt, and my uncle. Tracing my family’s narrative, this archive explores immigration following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. For more recent immigrants to America, identity is made in relation to the family. I argue that the family serves as a means to understanding new life in America through photography. Family albums serve as documents through which new lives are constructed in America.

Figure 1

Life in China, particularly for those from poor rural villages, differed drastically from the American norm. Photographs exemplify this difference by providing a medium for visualization. The first photograph depicts my grandparents and my aunt posing for a camera (Figure 1). It was likely taken on the side of a house, likely not theirs since the children peering in from the side are unrecognizable. Many things draw the eye in this photograph; the door, the children peering, their faces, the bicycle. As a whole, this resembles a family studio photograph given that they pose together. My grandfather’s intentional arm resting on the bicycle reminds viewers of bachelor photographs of Chinese men during Exclusion. My grandfather’s gesture towards a bicycle highlights the class differences between life in China and their future life in America. The second photograph features a studio photo of my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and my father, but my grandfather is missing (Figure 2). This photograph again draws parallels to family photography during Exclusion in which men who traveled to America would keep photos of their family.

Figure 2

The final photo of my family in China features my father and uncle with a family friend (Figure 3). In it, they are all considerably well-dressed and posing for the camera. Their looks and body language suggest a sense of style and pride in their appearance. Again, this gives viewers a sense of life in Taishan (my family’s home village) and its differences to American life.

Figure 3

The earliest family photo in this collection was taken in America, after my family had settled into their home in Chicago. This picture was taken as the family is seated on the couch in their new home (Figure 4). This photograph directly contrasts the studio photograph without my grandfather (Figure 2). While Figure 2 emphasizes formality and rigidity, Figure 4 immortalizes the family in a relaxed, comfortable state. A map of the United States hangs behind them, an obvious symbol of their citizenship. This photograph conveys the importance of the family through immigration; in the midst of living in a new country, learning a new language, and developing a new way of life, they can still rely on the collective family unit. For my family members, and arguably for Chinese immigrants post-1965, the construction of a new identity rests upon family for stability and comfort. We see this in almost all of my family photos after immigration, which feature primarily family unity. This is not only limited to immediate family; understanding oneself could be done through reconnecting with extended relatives (Figure 5).  

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figures 6-10 give a sense of my family’s home in Taishan, although these were taken on a relative’s visit back after immigration.

Figure 6-10

Figure 4, for instance, features not only the family in America, but the family, at home, in America. These photographs take advantage of a wider photographic scope to capture the setting, often taken at homes. Figure 11 captures my father, aunt, and grandfather within the American home in a much more relaxed and happy state. These, again, contrast the stern, formal photographs captured in China. For the immigrant family, identity can be created through activities done within the family. The construction of the physical American home, which can be understood through studying the background in the photographs, occurs through the creation/affirmation of the family in home, but also family is often constructed for immigrants within the home.

Figure 11

This can be scene during moments of family expansion. Figure 12 depicts a family dinner with my newly-married parents and my new aunt. The photograph captures the growth of the family, but can only be considered family for its context within the home. Figure 12 suggests social climbing in forming a family within America; marriage constitutes growth, while the act of eating a meal together forges familial connections. However, the satisfaction on their faces can be interpreted through the satisfaction of creating a new transnational identity through the family. Understanding the individual experiences of pride in traveling to America symbolizes their success. In conjunction with their success in the United States, their construction of home and family, a process which occurs through each other, is underscored within the context.

Figure 12

The next photograph features myself, my sister, and my cousins alongside my grandparents (Figure 13). The subjects are dressed in party attire as they leave the house to attend a wedding. My grandparents’ attire differs dramatically from the clothes they wore in Taishan (Figure 1, for instance). My grandfather’s decision to don a suit, a symbol of Western success, captures the development of my family – the photograph serves as a representation of success in America. The context of the subjects leaving to attend a wedding underscores the unity as a family.

Figure 13

Often, immigration stories after the repeal of Chinese Exclusion consists of success stories. For immigrants, to be successful in America is to create a home through family, and often vice versa. My family’s personal archive serves as an example of this. For them, becoming American involved not simply a change in citizenship; it involved a change in identity. The photos included in this reading share how this was done, and how this continues.