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A photographer's journey to reconnect with his Chinese American identity

Ryan, Grand Canyon, 2013 Ryan, Chinese-Japanese-American, Cowboy
An Rong Xu
Ryan, Grand Canyon, 2013 Ryan, Chinese-Japanese-American, Cowboy

Growing up in Queens as a young Chinese American, An Rong Xu internalized a shamefulness when he realized the way that he and his culture were negatively perceived through American eyes. Hearing so many offensive stereotypes targeting his identity, Xu grew resentful of his Chinese heritage.

It wasn't until his senior year of high school that Xu began to find some acceptance of who he is and where his family came from. He worked in Chinatown at an after-school center that he used to attend, helping kids with their homework. Xu saw himself in these kids. He was once one of these children, not yet aware of the journey he would make to figure out who he was and how he would struggle to grasp that truth. But it was during this time that he reconnected with himself and his own identity in the hope of creating a future where our differences don't set us apart.

Lion dance couple, Chinatown, New York City, 2012
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Lion dance couple, Chinatown, New York City, 2012
Grand Park Boys, 2010. Chinatown, New York City
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Grand Park Boys, 2010. Chinatown, New York City

Xu spent the next four years in college understanding the Asian American community and how his own identity as a Chinese American fit into that framework. He gravitated toward photographing people who looked like him and places that felt familiar to him.

"I really dedicated myself to kind of capturing the Chinese American community in New York and kind of finding this idea of what it means to be Chinese American," Xu says. "I saw it as this idea that I am part of the larger story of the Chinese American people who are trying to find their place in America."

"... What makes us special is that we have the privilege to share our stories of the next generation and tell the stories of those before us."

Judy, A Miss Model Angel Pageant Contestant, 2013. Chinatown, New York City
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Judy, A Miss Model Angel Pageant Contestant, 2013. Chinatown, New York City
Left: Danny at the handball courts of Crowley Playground, 2018. Elmhurst, Queens. Right:  Allen on Madison Street, 2014. Lower East Side, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Left: Danny at the handball courts of Crowley Playground, 2018. Elmhurst, Queens. Right: Allen on Madison Street, 2014. Lower East Side, New York.
Newborn Kaley, 2015. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Newborn Kaley, 2015. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Xu rarely saw himself reflected in mainstream media. He shares these photos as a reflection of himself and of others who face similar challenges trying to create a way where these communities can hold their own space rather than trying to fit into a shape or mold that has already been established.

He doesn't claim to speak for all Chinese Americans when he makes his work. He emphasizes that these images stem from his own perspective and experience but with that, he hopes to stretch the cultural narrative of what it means to exist as a Chinese person in the United States.

"With my work, I tried to find the duality and how we perceive our identity, and then how the world perceives us and how we are trying to make our place in this world, but we're still caught in the shadows of a society that [isn't] ready to see us," Xu says.

Hung Ching Lion Dance Practice, 2011. Chinatown, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Hung Ching Lion Dance Practice, 2011. Chinatown, New York.
Olivia's Wedding Tea Ceremony, 2021. Staten Island, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Olivia's Wedding Tea Ceremony, 2021. Staten Island, New York.
Columbus Park Boys, 2013. Chinatown, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Columbus Park Boys, 2013. Chinatown, New York.

These images tell the story of not only those who were brave enough to build new lives in America but the story of the generations that came after; how they persisted with their dreams and fought for their culture to exist in a society that wasn't welcoming. Xu's images shine a light on how deeply multifaceted the Asian identity is and how that identity is intertwined with the fabric of American culture.

Uncle Benny's Family photos, 2012. Quincy, Massachusetts.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Uncle Benny's Family photos, 2012. Quincy, Massachusetts.
Miss Model Angel Beauty Pageant, 2013, Chinatown, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Miss Model Angel Beauty Pageant, 2013, Chinatown, New York.
Houston Rodeo, 2013. Houston, Texas.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Houston Rodeo, 2013. Houston, Texas.

"We are the authority of our own stories," Xu says. "We are beyond any expectations of what people expect of us."

"I just need you to see [us] and understand that we are here and we exist in the same dimension — same reality. There's nothing more that you can do but recognize that and realize that we are here and the world is a better place because we are here."

Connie and Jay, Grand Street Park Handball Courts, 2010
/ An Rong Xu
/
An Rong Xu
Connie and Jay, Grand Street Park Handball Courts, 2010
Mr. Li, Doyers Street, Lunar New Years 2012. Chinatown, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Mr. Li, Doyers Street, Lunar New Years 2012. Chinatown, New York.
Grand Park Girls, 2011, Chinatown, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Grand Park Girls, 2011, Chinatown, New York.
Grandma waiting for her grand children in Dumbo. 2013. Dumbo, Brooklyn.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Grandma waiting for her grand children in Dumbo. 2013. Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Lunar New Years Parade, 8th Avenue. 2012. Brooklyn, New York.
/ An Rong Xu
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An Rong Xu
Lunar New Years Parade, 8th Avenue. 2012. Brooklyn, New York.

An Rong Xu is a New York City and Taipei based photographer and director. Born in China and raised in New York City's Chinatown, Xu explores the world around him through his unique cultural perspective. Follow his work on instagram @anrizzy at and anrongxu.com.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.