Thursday, September 08, 2011

Portraits of Encounter

I took a break in the storm to make a break from some possible cabin ever and caught the metro down to the National Portrait Gallery  There is a wonderful new exhibit called Asian American Portraits of Encounter:
                                              (Shimonaura Crossing the Delaware)

The section I found the most striking was a series of photograph portraits by the artist CYJO running down the long hallway and flanking both sides.  The photographs were of Korean Americans standing full on.  Some were playful, some were dignified and all had the same basic white background.  Below the pictures were short paragraphs about the person's identity.  Their stories were poignant and placed the subjects within the American landscape.  The statements were about their feelings on being Korean, American and Korean-American.

 I walked through slowly,  looking at their faces and poses.  The exhibit was a stirring reminder of the American dream as seen through Korean-American eyes.  I got chill reading their stories, which are my stories, which are our stories.

There was a constant push and pull on identity, something I always find fascinating.  A sentiment that seemed to tie so many voices was "my relationship with my identity is complicated."  There was a constant balance of what you accept and reject.  One thought I found interesting was someone who noted that although she always rooted for America in sports, during the Olympics she still found that she rooted for Korean athletes.  Another interesting point was the notion of language being a barrier for connection for those who are not fluent.

And of course, I find a way to bring gastrodiplomacy into the mix.  A re-occurring theme was the nostalgia of taste.  Or the connection with culture through food.  Or the pride of combining tastes, as one person noted that they ate kimchi with spaghetti.

More importantly, what hit me was what a wonderful bit of American cultural diplomacy this exhibit could be in Korea.  It is a wonderful and poignant display of what what it means to be Korean in America, of the identity of Korean-Americans and the balanced identity that exists and the story of all hyphened Americans.

I moved on to the third floor, back over to a section on America in the 1900-1930s and the titans who shaped the age:
"'The world was never so young as it is today,' noted Walter Lippmann, 'so impatient with old crusty things.' The individuals in this room changed America, transforming an agrarian, continental power into an industrial, world power. Financiers and industrialists...provided customers with mass-produced, affordable cars.  Suffragettes won the vote; minorities began to voice their protest.  Journalists and various reformers advocated for workers, immigrants, and the poor.  The avant-garde reinvented literature, poetry, and painting, and the Harlem Renaissance introduced new voices.  American jazz and cinema established the century's rhythm and these became popular worldwide.  World War I marked an emergence of American power on a world stage.  Meanwhile, flappers introduced the new sexual mores, gangster violence fascinated the public, athletes became heroes and 'Lucky Lindy's' solo flight across the Atlantic defined this era's exuberance. Although not without serious problems, the century opened with a new sense of dynamic change."
The room was filled with portraits of the likes of Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, ee Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway ("You are all a lost generation" -Gertrude Stein), Henry Cabot Lodge, Madame Walker, Eugene Debs ("While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and where there is a soul in prison, I am not free."), Charles Evans Hughes, among others who shaped this fascinating age.
"We stumbled along for a while trying to run a new civilization in old ways, but we've got to start to make this world over." -Thomas Edison, 1912.
As I was taking it all in, my thoughts slipped to a more modern age and quandary.   We both want America to be great, to be exceptional, but the Tea Party seems to think that they can just declare it and wish it to be so.  I think we have to work for it, and government has a place to work with us to make it so.  The last room I visited was a later era, but its words struck me as apt:
"These unhappy times call for...plans..that build from the bottom up not the top down, that put our faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." -FDR  


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