5+Infinity, (detail), 1996
© Betty Lee
Betty Lee was born and raised in the Midwestern United States in a city of almost 50,000 where she and her family were the only Asians. This fact was not lost on her, and she took advantage of this phenomenon while growing up. Being able to find her mother in a busy department store was no problem: she just looked for the only Asian lady among the crowd. When "South Pacific" was chosen to be the year's musical at her high school, it was assumed she would play a Polynesian female role because her classmates thought she didn't need the make-up. And she became the authority on Chinese food, since cuisine seemed to be a reliant symbol of cultural information.
Her parents taught her to be proud of her heritage, and to this day she is still bilingual. Her parents expected her to meet and marry a respectable Chinese boy and to continue being Chinese, but she was rather confused as to how she was to meet this person.
But then there was college. The flight from her provincial hometown with the French name to a major university in the flatlands of the Midwest at first seemed promising. Where were those Chinese guys? Oddly enough, they were there, but they were...well, foreigners! They came from Hong Kong or Taiwan and expected Chinese girls to be...Chinese. She couldn't believe they had no interest in the Rolling Stones or joining the Peace Corps. In all fairness, the guys she met were confused, too. They flinched when she drank soda from a can or when she called them on the phone. The really cool Chinese guys, well...they had girl friends with blonde hair.
Fast forward to present time. Betty Lee has moved to southern California and found identity politics unavoidable. This is the West she has always heard of, although it was a jolt to the psyche. She is seen as Chinese, but the West is where many Asians, as well as non-whites, live their lives and actively challenge the descriptions of who they are and what they are about. These are the descriptions which they have no part in authoring.
There is a genuine understanding of the difference between ethnicity and citizenry, even though it may not always be clearly articulated. But it is understood. Politicians are fond of insisting that their descriptions of peoples are the real ones. Like in the old West, there is a duel on every street, a fight on every block. There is turf to cover, territory to claim. But the real heroes and heroines of these days are the ones quietly, carefully, and constantly, working towards meaningful lives in our contemporary setting - though it remains too much like the old West - raw, uncivilized, and savage.
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All text and artwork © Betty Lee.