Illustrator I March 16, 2018
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Despite coming to the U.S. at a young age, New York-based illustrator Jing Wei maintains that her early years growing up in China made her the person she is today; though thoroughly immersed in the culture of her new home, her heritage has left an indelible mark that will never be washed away.
Trading in Chickens for Cool-Whip
“I’m from Shenyang. It was a smaller city, so it was like dirt roads, crazy driving, kids walking to and from school and taking care of themselves. I had a very free childhood when I lived there, and that rawness sort of shaped me.”
It wasn’t long before Wei had to face major changes in her life. At the age of 5, her father was offered a highly coveted position working in the United States and moved to California to begin laying the foundation. In the meantime, Wei and her mother moved to Beijing, where they lived for two years before finally making the transition stateside.
“I remember telling my friends at school that I would see them again in a year. I thought it was temporary, but then suddenly I had to give my hamster and my chicken away and that was a moment of realization.”
Once in California, Wei faced the typical challenges of being a young immigrant. She was required to take English as a Second Language classes to catch up with her peers, and in spite of being a successful student in China, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was starting out with an immediate disadvantage. Thankfully, a diverse student population buoyed Wei’s transition; she could always find friends going through a similar experience.
“Every moment that I was bullied and ostracized, there were people also willing to accept me and give me the benefit of the doubt. It was a mixed experience, but I had a fairly easy time making friends."
Wei discovered American culture along with her parents, gaining insight through exposure to music and television. She in fact still claims that The Simpsons accounts for 90% of her English learning outside of the classroom. In a world where everything was new, even a simple trip to the grocery store was a learning experience.
“My parents didn’t even know what all of these food brands were so every week it was a game of ‘Oh, what the hell is this?’ I still remember when we had Cool-Whip for the first time and I just thought it was the most magical thing, but we forgot the name and it was years before we found it again.”
Photo Credit: Morgan Blair
From the OG Tablet to the Top Art School
After two years living in the states, Wei finally felt that she had gained a solid grasp on the language and was therefore able to integrate more successfully. As her confidence developed, so did a certain passion that until then she had only held a vague awareness of.
“I had this tablet as a kid; it was a little magnetic one with a stylus attached—sort of the like the OG iPad. I always had it with me, just to entertain myself. At first drawing was just a hobby, but I think something changed along the way around middle school when I realized how big a part of my life it was.”
Both Wei’s parents came from hard science backgrounds, her father in biochemistry and her mother in engineering. In the early years, the family was able to live off her father’s income while her mother took up odd jobs as a housekeeper. However, with the exorbitant tuition fees of American universities looming ahead, the couple knew they would have to earn more to provide a decent education for their daughter.
“I remember my mom went back to get a degree in her 30s. Most of my memories of her were with a giant textbook in her hands and I didn't realize how hard she was working until later.”
Given the family’s proclivity to STEM fields, one might have expected Wei’s parents to balk at her ideations of art school. On the contrary, the two expressed nothing but support for Wei’s decision, the only condition they set being that if this was to be her path, she must try to get into the best school art she possibly could.
“They did this classic Chinese parent thing of like doing all this research and printing out lists of all the top art schools in the country. In the end they saw that Rhode Island School of Design had been in the top 5 every year, so they said, ‘Okay, there’s probably something about this one.’”
Wei was accepted in 2004 and for the first time made her way out to the East Coast.
Jing's first apartment after graduating from college
A New New Yorker
After finishing her degree, Wei moved to New York with a group of college friends. They had no expectations nor any promising job prospects, but the group was nevertheless determined to make their way in the city.
“The first two years was all about getting my footing and trying to cobble together jobs. We all lived in this loft that didn’t even have walls separating all the rooms so it was almost like camping out indoors, but there’s something romantic about slumming it together with your friends.”
In the beginning Wei worked part time teaching Mandarin to children with Chinese heritage in the Upper East Side to help support herself. She spent the rest of her time establishing a name for herself in editorial illustration, freelancing with major media outlets.
“My portfolio strengthened after I started working for The New York Times and the New Yorker. They’re pretty good about hiring new people, and I remember I actually went and physically presented my illustrations to them. It was very old school.”
Wei’s career didn’t take off, however, until she landed a spot as an in-house illustrator with Etsy. The company had been looking for an artist to develop their illustration brand voice, and after getting recommended by a friend and doing a test, Wei was offered a part-time position.
“Since then everything kind of snowballed. Now I’m working on a variety of projects as a freelancer—I’m not getting the same kinds of jobs over and over again and that’s exciting. I'm working on some stuff with American Express and Target at the moment, which will be released later in the year. I also just wrapped up a campaign for Panda Express. That was a cool partnership because it was for Chinese New Year, which is something I'm very familiar with.”
Keep your roots - 保持你的根
As she establishes herself more and more as a New Yorker, with no definite departure date in sight, it begs the question whether Wei has now gotten to a point in her life where she identifies more with America than she did with her own home of China.
“I definitely identify with both cultures, so I guess I'm somewhere in the middle. When I'm here, I feel very Chinese. When I'm in China, I feel very American. There are undeniable parts of me that are a result of my heritage, and then there are other parts that are a result of my immediate environment. However, the older I get, the more I feel the importance of not losing my Chinese roots.”
Wei makes a point of visiting China as often as she can, whether it be for work or to reconnect with her family. She is pleasantly surprised by the fact that no matter how much time passes, her family still says the same thing to her each time she goes back.
“Every time I go home they say ‘Ni shi Zhong Guo ren - 你是中国人,” which means you’re a Chinese person. It sounds very simple but mostly it's a symbol of affirmation and solidarity.”
Still, the hum and thrum of New York life has had an undeniable influence on Wei and the work she produces. She’s constantly moving forward and progressing at the relentless pace of the city, and she credits her new home as well as her old in terms of building her character.
“New York. I think it’s slowly crushing me inside but that’s sort of what I like in a masochistic way. I love the life that I’ve built here.”
Photo Credit: Julia Hembree
To close her story, we asked if Wei had any parting wisdom to offer any immigrants who might someday find themselves trying to make a life for themselves in a new land.
"Don’t be so quick to strip away the things that you feel make you different, because those are the things that will shape you and help you build up that grit later in life. All of these steps have been a really wonderful surprise. I don’t think I would’ve been the same person had I stayed in China. I really feel like I can be and can continue to discover the person that I was meant to become here.”