Kiana Cao said she had never thought about her cultural identity before she attended the University of Connecticut. The university environment afforded her a new opportunity to learn about the identities and cultures of other people, inspiring her to take a deep look at her own cultural identity. Her exhibition “An Examination of Immigration: A look into Buddhism, Community and Refugees” was the culmination of her self- and cultural-identity exploration.
Cao’s exhibit was funded by the UConn IDEA Grant and Greene Travel Award. The exhibit features photographs from her trip to Hawaii, a destination she selected because of its heavy Buddhist influence. According to Cao, there was an increase of Japanese laborers coming to Hawaii for work in the 1800s. When these families immigrated to Hawaii, they brought along their culture and religion. At first, Buddhism was practiced in people’s homes. As more people immigrated to Hawaii, the Buddhist community grew. Japanese architects flew to the state to build Buddhist-style temples and statues, many of which are documented in Cao’s photographs.
Cao travelled to Hawaii in hopes of learning more about the prevalence of Buddhism in the state. As a Buddhist herself, the experience was instrumental in helping her discover her own cultural-identity.
“Hawaii didn’t have Buddhism back then, it was the Japanese that brought Buddhism to Hawaii,” Cao said. “Starting from nothing, they were able to grow into what you see here, all the different temples… Seeing a community starting from nothing is really inspiring.”
The photographs lining the walls of the exhibit featured images of beautiful temples. The exhibit also presents a video documenting Cao’s experience in Hawaii. In the video, she talks about her journey in understanding her cultural-identity as well as her literal journey in Hawaii.
Erika Dunphy, an-eighth semester photography student, said she thought the video was the most impactful piece in the exhibit.
“Seeing her and her work is very touching because you can read and you can hear stories, but it is actually different to see it, and to see the different cultures passing through the pieces,” Dunphy said.
Sixth-semester marketing major Grace Zheng also said she felt the video was useful in articulating the overall meaning of the exhibit.
“The video is very helpful,” Zheng said. “She talks about the theme, and she says how she has trouble identifying her identity because her family comes from mixed races… her trips and her photos really helped her figure that out.”
Cao’s exhibit also highlights photographs of her parents with a timeline documenting her father’s move to the United States. The old family photographs add a level of intimacy to the exhibit, wonderfully expressing Cao’s theme of identity.
Cao said she hopes her exhibit will “break barriers” and inspire people to learn about other cultures and races.
“If it weren’t for the conversations I had with other Asian Americans or people in general, I wouldn’t really know myself,” Cao said. “It’s through talking to people, communities, and understanding everyone. Being as empathetic as possible was my huge goal.”
Dunphy said she believes events like these are important in creating a more understanding and diverse community
“It’s the little steps that we are taking as an Asian American community to really showcase the importance of how everyone is diverse now,” Dunphy said. “There is no one culture anymore. I feel like it’s really important, especially here at UConn, because I know that we are a diverse campus, but compared to Hartford and New York, we aren’t as diverse.”
Lauren Brown is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.