Thesis ~ Paper

Attention is a very powerful thing. What do we pay attention to? How do we pay attention to it? Does our attention change the nature of that thing, or just our experience of it?

In this thesis, I turn my attention to my cultural heritage, and the confusing inheritance of second-generation immigrants.

Where to start

My thesis is about culture, diaspora, and building new ways of experiencing heritage. Over the past few months, I have been exploring personal experience around second-generation Asian diaspora, specifically around the connections that bridge our experience of separation and the need to create a new translation of our culture. I ask the question, what is the culture that I create as a second-generation Asian American? How can I navigate this culture in ways that acknowledge it as authentic in of itself?

Throughout the course of my work here at ITP, I have found myself most interested in the fabrication of physical objects and the charming interactions they can facilitate. I will be leaning on my experience as as a fabricator and creative technologist to generate objects in response to the questions I’ve posed above. My intention is to re-frame the diasporic in-between cultural space generated as a place to rest in and exist in, not to struggle against. Through the creation of these objects, I hope to simultaneously record and further my own healing.

Through the creation of these objects I want to treat this in-between cultural space as a place to rest in and exist in, not to struggle against, and a space worthy of reverence through object preservation.

What to reference

Much of my work stems from the readings and interviews I undertook as a part of this process. I interviewed both first- and second-generation immigrants, mainly but not solely from East and South Asian backgrounds. The diversity of views was as wide as their stories, ranging from individuals who felt like they’d never left their countries of origin, to people who found themselves squarely in-between, navigating a broad range of identities. While I leave the interviewees unnamed, I can say that they have left a large impact on me and the way I view myself, as well as my place in the greater Asian diaspora. In turn, they shaped my approach to this thesis, encouraging me to focus on not only building cultural bridges, but mapping the cultural landscape that I find myself inhabiting.

These interviews, coupled with readings from the book Racial Melancholia, Racial Disassociation¹, have been a key part of a process of healing my own internalized disjunction between self and culture. The book similarly has a wide range of experiences represented within it, and speaks more to the widespread social systems that contribute to shared experiences of “nowhereness” or “being out of place”.

I am also deeply inspired by the work of Stephanie Shih, who creates ceramic replicas of food and ingredients that can be found in American grocery stores, but that members of the Asian diaspora consider to be inherently Asian. Her work canonizes these foods and ingredients as worthy of attention by creating artifacts of them, and placing them into the spotlight of the art world. This theme of legitimizing the cultural echoes of immigration is prominent in my thesis process, and through my work I hope to embody a similar spirit of preservation-in-object to frame the Asian-American cultural fusion as worthy of reverence.

Where I’ve been

I have created a number of prototypes to try and embody this in-between space, and exploring themes of mutating meanings and the physical embodiment of cultural touchpoints. My tests have included obscuring and intervening on photographs, gathering and documenting culturally-relevant objects, creating self-reflective exercises for use in workshop settings, and suspending memory-invoking material in clear resin. Some of these exercises originated from Simone Salvo’s Medium of Memory class, in which I began using personal memories to explore my relationship with culture. I came out on the other side of these experiments with a few things:

  1. Obscuring images and photos is a deeply intriguing practice, but also can lead to feelings of further distance between myself and the subjects of the photos. I need to explore this further in order to navigate this complex visual language.
  2. I found myself deeply drawn to objects and physicality, thinking about the objects I own and the way they live in my spaces. Framing these objects (either whole or in fragments) is a way that I can re-frame their existence, and place new weight and meaning onto them.
  3. The idea of being in translation, not only in language but in social groups, in greater culture. As one interviewee put it, translating my heritage through Americanness, “the waters that surround me”.
  4. There is no self or culture without community. My interviews and other conversations around my thesis topic have informed my approach even more than my research and readings. How can the community be in translation together?

Additionally, I’ve begin to create work that centers storytelling memories, thinking about objects that have stories to tell but no innate way of telling them. My recent piece what I can remember² reveals the context and memories hidden within a photograph, similarly reinforcing idea that who I am is built from intangible things. This work reinforces my desire to work from personal experience and with memory.

Where I’m going

To explore this ever-changing relationship between who we are as people and what we identify as our culture, I propose to create an interpretation of a Chinese ancestral altar, designed to reflect my own cultural bridges. Reminiscent of the Chinese tradition of household altars to passed ancestors, I will house within this altar representations of “non-traditional” but nonetheless culturally relevant (and in its way, authentic) translations. This altar will become the living gallery for works that I produce moving forward. Focused on future descendants rather than passed ancestors, I will build a portal to an ever-changing culture, created specifically to honor this change and respect it as an act of translation.

A large undertaking, I have a narrower scope in mind to fit under the umbrella (and timeline) of ITP thesis. A version of an “altar” already exists within my home; that of the mantle, a prominent display in my daily living space. I will use this “altar-space” as in lieu of building an altar from scratch. By doing so, I also open my work to opportunities in the history of the pre-existing space.

Traditional altars follow a general guide, consisting of a display of portraits or gods, a bowl of fruit and other offerings, and a place for lighting incense. I will convert my mantle into an altar using this visual language, alongside the addition of two new artifacts.

The first is a digital, changing portrait alternating between my ancestors and myself, constantly shifting and partially obscured. This portrait builds on previous work of mine in obscuring and framing forms and figures, calling all the way back into my first new media piece, Unclear³. In this framed digital portrait, I will cycle through images of myself and my ancestors, covering them in a layer of morphing fog, and fading between them to create new combinations of faces and photographs. These portraits will live in a lightweight screen, framed above the mantlepiece (aka. above the altar).

The second is a mutating recipe book, with recipes from lifted in their varying forms from traditional to modern, Chinese to Americanized. This book serves as an instruction set for food offerings, providing a way to access the ritual across the diaspora. The book will list its recipes, and within those recipes the ingredients, instructions, even names will change, flickering back and forth through the timeline of their evolutions across the diaspora. For this book, I will begin sourcing recipes first from my immediate family, but hope to also source these from a greater Asian-American diasporic community as well.

And how

There are a number of things that require development in the spring. I intend for this altar to exist within my life and home, and this requires extra time for the process of living with it. I will create prototypes for both the portraits and the recipe book by the end of January, also taking this time to interview my family and research ancestry. I aim to also begin the process of documenting my mother’s cooking, of which most dishes of which do not yet have written recipes. In February, I will be creating the first physical object prototypes for the portrait and book, experimenting with form and testing whether other additions need to be made to the home altar. My hope is that by mid-March, I will be living with this altar and begin documenting my experience with it.

A rough timeline is as follows:


And in the future

This project holds a lot of possibility for the future. I believe that much of my work past ITP will be in conversation with this thesis, and may continue to live in or adjacent to the altar that I create. One particular avenue that I’d like to focus on post-ITP is placing this work within a community, specifically involving the second-generation Asian-American community in re-defining and re-framing our collective cultural experiences. I’d hope to involve more snippets and quotes from the interviews I’ve done in research for this particular thesis, as well as continuing the interviews as a practice moving forward.


  1. Book recommended by Morgan Chen, who used it for her thesis in 2022. I highly recommend this book to anyone considering topics surrounding or including Asian American immigration.
  2. What I can remember is a piece created for ITP Winter Show 2022, featuring a photograph of myself and my grandmother. It projects stories told through my handwriting onto the image, bringing it to life.
  3. Unclear is a digital mirror that obscures your image with a “fog”, which can be dispelled with your hands. Move too close, and the mirror cracks.


December 24, 2022