Ada Chen met a guy at a party once that asked a weighted, albeit laughably inaccurate, question: “Are you Asian or Chinese?”
by Joanne Xu
What he was trying to ask, and what he really meant, inspired an ironic line of jewelry loosely based on the conversation. “I’m the type of person to laugh at my own pain,” says Chen. “If I’m going to get through it, I’m going to laugh about it.”
And laugh she did. The west-turned-east-coast transplant is best known for her
lighthearted approach to tackling more serious aspects of the Chinese American experience, using her personal anecdotes to start a healthy dialogue. The Recreationalist sat down with Chen to figure out what an artist does when they’re socially distanced away from their artmaking space, and how she’s using this time to breathe.
01. Rapid fire: Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Ada Chen. I’m an artist first and foremost, but my thing is jewelry. I make art mostly from the Chinese American perspective.
02. How did you get into using jewelry to capture your cultural identity?
After high school, I wanted to get into 3D art forms and jewelry was perfect for artistic expression, but also design. I graduated from Pratt Institute with a B.F.A. in jewelry. It was just a more exciting media to work in because I’d never really done it before.
My thesis collection from college was an exploration of my Chinese American identity. It had a lot to do with the growth that you experience in your teens and your twenties. I moved from San Francisco, where there were a lot of Toisanese, to New York for college, and that was a huge culture shock. So college was me discovering this layer of pride for my identity that I didn’t ever appreciate when I was living with my parents.
03. Tell me about your signature text message earrings.
Fetishization is just one part of the Asian American experience. The green text messages were just from a guy I met at a party. He knew full well that I spoke English; I’m clearly American. And it was the way that he phrased the question “Are you Asian or Chinese?” He was basically trying to ask what type of Asian I am, but why does it matter to you? Did you ask this question because you were curious and wanted to know about my culture? No, you wanted to know where I’m from to exoticize me. I just thought it was funny.
04. What was your experience like growing up Asian American?
As a child, I wasn’t aware that I was different. I didn’t feel discomfort in my skin, but there were a lot of points where I didn’t want to be Chinese. I didn’t speak Chinese to my friends and I’d ask them not to speak it either, which was horrible. In elementary and middle school I did compare myself to my best friends. I wanted the sandwiches and the chips and the finger food rather than the one whole nutritious meal that I had to eat with a spoon. But that’s the good shit though! Now I’m like “damn, I should’ve eaten it.”
05. When did your relationship with your cultural identity change?
In college, I made a lot of Black friends who are now my best friends. They were so proud of themselves, and it made me question why I didn’t have that same pride. We’d share childhood stories and recognize our differences. And then I just became proud of those differences, like how my parents treated me and how I grew up. It was an awakening being away from home, I guess. When you’re a kid you don’t realize how much your parents do for you.
06. What part of you are you most proud of?
The way that my parents taught me to treat people, to be considerate of everyone else and to show your love through actions. It’s such a stereotype for Asian moms and dads to not say “I love you” to their kids, but I realized their actions spoke so much louder than their words. Maybe it’s a love language thing, but doing things for my friends and loving them in a way that’s not just “I love you” is really important to me.
08. What are you doing to keep yourself busy right now?
It’s been very helpful for me to step away from my studio. I’ve just been knitting and making something purely for me — not to sell, not for anyone else. I’ve always had dreams of being a cake decorator, so I made a cake too. And I’m spending a lot of time with my roommate, working out together in our backyard, binging a lot of Cantonese dramas.
09. How are you taking care of your mental health through quarantine?
I’m just letting myself have the thoughts that I have. When I’m running around, it’s easy to push away what I don’t want to think of. Now that I’m letting my thoughts flow and not fighting them, I think I’m able to get through them. I’m realizing a lot about myself, and what I need, and how to move forward when this is all done. It’s a good thing for me to be stuck at home, I don’t see myself as being trapped.
10. What do you wish to see more of in the world?
Empathy. Understand that your experience is not the only experience in the world. You’ll always have to live around other people so why not try and make it easier for everyone.
You can keep up with Ada on Instagram at @potadachen.