Chuchen Song is a glass studio specialist at the Toledo Museum of Art. She currently resides in Toledo, and grew up in Qingdao, China.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Chuchen, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) on January 30, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): May I ask what your Chinese name is?
Chuchen Song (CS) My Chinese name is Song Chuchen (宋出尘). 宋，宝盖宋；出入的出；尘土的尘.
RC: What does that mean?
CS: Well, I always feel a little awkward because my grandpa gave me that name. And it’s supposed to mean — the word means it’s something that it grows out from the dirt, but never gets dirty. So the word means it comes out from the dust. But that word combined together, it’s just like a traditional thing. People used to reference water lilies or something like that. And just, come out from the mud or the dust, but never get dusty.
RC: Did you know this area used to be a swamp?
CS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Black Swamp. Yeah.
RC: Lots of flowers [used to] grow out of the swamp here…
Chuchen Song 03:08
Yeah. When I was little, I felt a little awkward because that name is — It sounds like from a fairy-tale kind of short story. You know what I mean?
RC: Well, I think it’s a beautiful name. Maybe we can start with the beginning and your childhood — where you come from, how you describe the path that led you here.
CS: So, I grew up in a city called Qingdao in Eastern China. It is a coastal city. We have a lot of seafood and beers and like boats everywhere. I would say definitely like a tourist city — about 9 million people population. My parents, they’re high school [art] teachers. They both teach foundational art, so that’s how I got to know art.
RC: Were you close with your parents?
CS: Yeah, I’m pretty close and they were really nice. I’m the only child in my family, so I always feel they’re a little bit overprotective, but I know they love me and I miss them all the time here.
RC: After that, as you were growing up, did your parents teach you more about what direction you wanted to take?
CS: Deep in my memory, I do remember a lot that when I was little my dad used to take us to the ceramics studio all the time. And I always watched my mom join. She’s a fashion designer. So I remember her teaching students all the time and drawing the figures and drawing fancy dresses and everything. And I remember just watching her do the drawings and [I would] use cardboard, just do some drawings on my own.
RC: And then after that, what happened?
CS: I went to the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. It was pretty hard to get in, but I did it somehow. And then I studied about four years in Beijing. And then after that, I worked for a half year as a designer, applied for grad school, and came to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois and studied glass. I totally fell in love with it [glass].
RC: At the time, what led you to prepare to come to the U.S.? There’s a lot of processes involved.
CS: Yeah, I did it myself. I don’t know, I think back in time — I just didn’t have much money. So I just worked at the same time, preparing it all myself. And my parents, they don’t really know much about English, or [the] language part, so I kind of just did it myself. And my parents just mentally supported me.
RC: New country, new challenges. What were some initial thoughts, in the first year being at SIU? What it was like to be in Illinois?
CS: It was really weird… I came here for grad school, and at first, got off the airplane. I landed in Las Vegas. And it was Sunday in the early morning, about three o’clock, and I landed. My plane was delayed in Atlanta and Las Vegas. And the only thing I remember was tons of slot machines. It was super weird. And there was nobody else except slot machines. It was kind of a horrible trip because I was in the air for 48 hours because my plane got delayed, and the next plane already went. I had to book another overnight flight just to catch it to get to St. Louis and then I can take a bus to Carbondale.
RC: So what was the city like?
CS: In a small college town. The only thing there, I would say, is Southern Illinois University.
RC: Is there a large Asian population in the area?
CS: I would just say the only population — the international population is the international students there. But it was a pretty tough three years. For international students, it was pretty challenging. But I actually feel I learned so much. And the program was really helpful because we had a lot of international students from all over the place. Even our professor, he’s from Korea. Another [of] my,friends. who’s the same year as me, and he’s from Korea, as well, and my friends after me, they’re from Japan, one from Ireland. So it’s a mix of all over the place. It was actually pretty fun, because we have all different cultural differences and everything. You’re able to make a community.
RC: Was your family worried about you during [the pandemic]?
CS: Oh, yeah. All the time. Other than that, the challenging part is about the holidays, I miss them a lot. And during the holidays, I’m not able to go back to have reunion with my family. For example, [during] Chinese New Year during the Spring Festival, [I’m] not able to go back or do a large event or anything because it’s most likely going to be a normal working day for me. Unless I find a weekend to have a celebration with my friends.
RC: What do you normally do for a celebration? Did you do that here in Toledo, Ohio?
CS: Last year, during the spring festival. I actually invited my friends from BG and from the [Toledo Museum of Art] to have a Chinese New Year dinner. We made a lot of food together, and I make dumplings and I was terrible at making dumplings. My parents, my grandma laugh at me all the time. They laugh at me all the time because it’s just hard for me. I had to find recipes online, but they were like, “What do you mean recipe? You just feel it!” Actually, we bought a lot of Chinese decorations, and [my partner] helped me put it up because I was at work and I didn’t know that. So that was a nice surprise.
RC: That made you feel more at home?
RC: If someone asked you, “Where’s home?” — what would you say?
CS: So that’s a tricky question. Because I feel I have two homes. I feel like one is like here in Toledo, where I’m with my partner and my dog. And another home, of course, it’s the home with my parents, my grandparents, back in China in Qingdao.
RC: How does that influence how you identify yourself? If someone asks you “What’s your ethnicity??
CS: Chinese? Asian. Yeah, I’m from China. I speak Chinese.
RC: You mentioned that during the pandemic, there were obviously concerns with travel. At that time, were you suddenly aware of things happening around the country, like the pandemic being called the “Chinese flu” and that sort of thing?
CS: Yeah, it was pretty tough. I remember it was pretty rough. At first, I was really anxious, really nervous about what was happening, what was going on back in China — worried about my parents, my grandparents and then of course the “Chinese flu” and or the “China virus” thing. That came and I was like, “Oh my god, it’s just nonsense.”
It was actually pretty funny because Carbondale, Illinois is in the middle of nowhere. It’s Midwest and Southern Illinois. I remember I lived on the edge of the town. And during the pandemic, I had nothing to do but grow my garden. So I just built a garden in that backyard and I harvested a bunch of veggies and fruit. Then I gave it to my neighbors because I can’t finish it myself. It’s a lot. But then my neighbors were like, “Oh, where are you from?” I was like, “Oh, I’m from China.” I remember they actually like backed off a little bit.
RC: You did mention your garden here [in Toledo]. Are you able to access all the food items that you want to access here?
CS: when I moved here in Toledo, I think because of the pandemic, a lot of Asian grocery store was closed. They were just shut down and never able to reopen. So it was really hard for me to get Asian groceries all the time. So, if I wanted something, Chinese vegetables [or products], I have to go all the way to Detroit [and it] is like one hour drive just to get the groceries, but I don’t personally enjoy driving. So I started growing every day my garden, which is really a fun process, because I enjoy gardening. So I grew a lot of different vegetables and fruits — something that I really want to try but never tried before. I always [used to] think, “Oh, I can get everything from the grocery store.” But without that access, I feel like watching something grow from a seed and to the final produce — sometimes it takes a half year and you are just waiting to put all the ingredients together just to make a meal that you grow from scratch — and I think that’s pretty magical for me. Now there’s a brand new Asian grocery store open in Toledo. So now I can get everything. It’s pretty amazing to see in this area, because typically, we don’t think of the Midwest as having an Asian population. But I think I still gonna continue gardening just to have fun.
Logan Sander (LS): What things have you taken from growing up in China and moving here that either reminds you of home or may help to make Toledo your home? Do you like Toledo?
CS: Yeah, I do. I like Toledo, it’s a really great city. I feel it’s not large, overwhelming. I actually do feel the city that I grew up in is kind of large and overwhelming. And I also lived in Beijing for four years. That’s even a larger huge city. My parents, their apartment was kind of small, and we didn’t have any backyard space or anything. So since I was little, I love growing things in front of my window. Even I [once] stole some vegetable seeds from my dad’s kitchen, just to grow in the flowerpot in front of my window. I think it was bitter melon or something, but it was kind of cool and climbed all over on my curtain. It was a cool memory.
But in my garden [in Toledo], there were all kinds of things. I always want to try different things every year. I always love to try different kinds of heirloom tomatoes just to see which one is for snacking or which ones are for making tomato soup. And some squash. And this year I want to try the giant pumpkins like in my front yard — to just have a giant pumpkin before Halloween.
RC: Do you cook Chinese food that is from Qingdao?
CS: Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t say a recipe because my dad just kind of showed me how to do it. And I just copy that from my memory. I enjoy cooking a lot. I do cook a lot of homestyle-kind of food. For example, hot, spicy and sour soup, and the Qingdao version is to add seaweed inside and a lot of people can’t get used to it. But I love a lot of small things that have the style from home. Not a lot of seafood because, personally, I don’t really like fish even though I’m from a coastal city, but I do like crabs and shrimps and everything. But it’s funny living in a city that is not on the coast. I refuse to eat seafood here because for me, from my family’s standard, that’s not fresh. It’s all frozen. I want to eat shrimp, but they’re frozen. So I don’t really eat much seafood here.
RC: You mentioned before that in your artwork, there’s a gateway. Do you think of yourself as that gateway where you’re connecting the general public from two very different cultures through your artwork?
CS: I paint on glass, right? So when you think about glass, you normally think about a window. Back in time, people used glass in the temple or in the church, and they use a lot of glass painting on the window to give people imagery — it’s a storytelling format. I like to see glass in a similar way. And I normally put a gateway or window there in my imagery, in my stories, because I feel like it’s a connection to commute internal and external space. So I feel the window is the glass, where the window is a connection or a gateway to connect both sides of the world. That’s my original thought.