During the summer of 2008, a group of Seattle teenagers interviewed seniors at an assisted-living facility and cornered parents and grandparents at home to discuss a sensitive subject. These young people, who traced their roots to various Asian Pacific nations, were talking with elders about the differences in values and priorities that divided younger and older generations. The students were actually on assignment, conducting research for a museum exhibit.
Working with museum professionals, the teens used their findings to create a series of deeply thoughtful sculptures and photo murals, which became the basis for “Weaving Stories Across the Ages: Generation Gaps in the Asian Pacific American (APA) Community,” an exhibition mounted in the youth gallery at the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
These students were all participants in the museum’s YouthCAN program, a year-round, out-of-school initiative designed to help youth with roots from such places as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines connect more deeply with their cultural heritage. The community-based museum, named for the first APA elected official in the Pacific Northwest, is located in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. Its historic building housed earlier generations of immigrants.
Through the exhibit creation process, YouthCAN participants use the arts to explore such issues as identity, dislocation, and loss that many first- and second-generation immigrant and refugee youth face as they try to determine how they fit into the larger American culture.
“This has been an incredible opportunity for us to affirm Asian Pacific Americans for the complex cultural identity that they carry with them and to be able to make those connections that they’re not receiving in other places,” explains Cassie Chinn, the museum’s deputy executive director.
Along with developing the exhibit theme and assembling the artwork, participants also help design displays, write labels describing the pieces, and plan receptions.
“We’re looking to develop the next generation of leaders. YouthCAN participants are not just artists, they’re also project managers; they’re public speakers; they’re learning how to present their works to the public,” Chinn emphasizes.
The public, in turn, learns from the YouthCAN artists: Some 4,000 visitors a month view the exhibits, which remain on display for three months.
“I know what to say to my parents, but I don’t know. It would have been easier if we had just stayed in China.”Zhen, 15, reflecting on “Loss of Language,” a YouthCAN workshop topic