I had never been to Bulgaria, a former Soviet Bloc country and one of the newest (and poorest) countries in the European Union. I had been invited by a professor at Sofia University to give a series of presentations of my work to show, "How photography has been and could be mobilized to create professional and civic communities and to bring about social and political change in Bulgaria and the U.S." The professor suggested I apply to the Fulbright Specialist Program that gives short-term scholarships. I did and was successful.
The professor and her husband had emigrated to Minneapolis seventeen years ago, both knowing little English. After years of working a series of menial jobs, she eventually received a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. A couple of years ago they came back to Bulgaria and was now teaching at Sofia University for $3 an hour. She had heard me give a lecture when she was teaching at the University of Minnesota five years ago, and that had given her the impetus to use photography as a tool for her students in Bulgaria to "express the ways in which they see their country and its future."
It was a whirlwind trip. I gave presentations at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate, Sofia University, the International Eco Film Festival, the Trakart Cultural Center, and at the American Embassy. I was also interviewed by several newspapers, radio stations, and appeared on a national television program.
This was my first time presenting outside of the United States where I’ve addressed audiences personally. My slide show of photos from my various projects in Minnesota and around the United States evoked delight, surprise, anger, and tears. One student was so overcome by emotion that she had to recompose herself several times before saying, "This shows me how beautiful and meaningful the world outside our navel-gazing can be." Others voiced that I had tarnished their idea of the American Dream.
One man proclaimed that the United States was this great shining light, so bright that it blinded Bulgarians. And here I was showing "depressing" photos that were not dissimilar from how Bulgaria has been portrayed. He asked me, "How much of what you're showing is true? Is it 10 percent, 30 percent?" The force and nature of his question threw me. I answered that it was 100 percent true, albeit all filtered through my subjective lens. But I think my answer did not satisfy him or me.
I'm still not quite sure how to answer such a large question. But in my last presentation, at the American Embassy, I read this statement, after having had several days to contemplate the shining America question:
"The America portrayed in the media and popular culture does not reflect all of its citizens. What I want to show is not only what is ignored, but also what is in plain sight and remains invisible.
"My dream was built on my father’s dream, a poor immigrant who fled Communist China. To him America was a shining mountain of gold. My father could never have become an artist. He didn’t even want my oldest brothers to go to college. He needed them to work in the family restaurant to fulfill his American Dream. But my brothers had their own dreams. And despite my father’s wishes they went to college and found success outside of the family restaurant.
"But their dreams came at a cost. They worked seven days a week. During high school they never attended a football game, a dance, a movie. They had no life outside of the restaurant.
"By the time I came along the restaurant was successful and my father’s needs had changed. I didn’t have to work as hard. I participated in sports. I was president of the student council. I dated. It is no coincidence that as the youngest child, and the only non-immigrant in my family, that I was afforded the luxury to become a self-indulgent artist and travel the world.
"But my dream also came at a cost. I have lost some of the values of my hard-working immigrant father. I do not even speak Chinese. What I know of my ancestral culture has been learned second hand or from books. I have never been to China. I am an American. America is my culture.
"So the American Dream shifts with every generation. I believe now that there is a sense of entitlement—that we are owed the American Dream.
"What has been made even clearer to me during my brief stay in Bulgaria, is that the dreams of my father, my brothers, and myself are all parts of a human dream—to reach our potential, to love whom we want, and to be seen as we truly are."