The Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

MOCA and A Sense of Place

“To be at all to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and
to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place.  Place is
as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we
stand, the bodies we have. We are surrounded by places.
We walk over and through them. We live in places, relate
to others in them, die in them.

Nothing we do is unplaced.”
Edward S. Casey

When I reflect on my early childhood memories in school, I often think about the disconnect between my classroom experiences and my immediate surroundings. Though I grew up in a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that is both diverse and rich in history, I often found that what I was learning in the classroom did not relate to my own life. Information was gleaned from textbooks and teachers rather than from my environment and experiences. For this very reason, I found school to be removed from my interests and always felt that I had two selves – one in school and one out-of-school. Furthermore, I felt that my experiences out-of-school were not as important as subject areas in school.

It was not until I started to run an after school program in my own community that I made the connection between that community and its impact on learning and teaching. At that point in my life I had traveled, lived, and worked in many different cities – both across the US and around the world.  By experiencing different places I became sensitive to my relationship with the surrounding environment. However, an underlying desire to return, understand, and work in the neighborhood I grew up in persisted.

MOCA symbolized the first place where my story belonged. Growing up, I always felt that American history was far away, long ago, and had nothing to do with my own experiences. It was not until I visited MOCA as an undergraduate student that I began to understand how my heritage and experiences fit within the larger context of American history and culture; I saw how history can be very personal, and yet universal in nature.

As an educator, it is my hope that students have a similar experience when they visit MOCA. Through examinations of artifacts, photographs, oral histories and the built environment, students learn about the successive waves of Chinese immigrants, their motivations for coming, and how they shaped American society. Instead of textbooks, everyday objects and images often serve as starting points for discussions about immigration and even encourage students to make connections to their own lives. One of MOCA’s goals is to provide for a more integrative and inclusive historical narrative in which social issues are open for examination – especially for those who have not been part of mainstream representations in our public culture.

What is also fascinating is that though MOCA’s origins are situated in the geographical context of Chinatown, the narrative of the Chinese American experience is something that speaks to anyone from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream waters…

Come visit MOCA, and experience it for yourself!

Karen Lew
Associate Director of Education

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