Reflecting on My Time with the Sunshine Arts
and Culture Organization
By Bonni Briggs
(for HIST251-Asian-American ExperienceAsian-American Experience)
matter how well one performs the dances, as long as they are present and being active – I've had multiple people tell me this during our
rehearsals. (Although they also seem to think that I'm a pretty good dancer, so I guess I'm doing something right?) I found this a stark contrast
from the typical American dance group, which is usually quite concerned with uniformity and honing one's talent; though I still find myself fumbling
to follow the dance leader as accurately as possible, it's reassuring to know nobody is judging me. We are all focused on our individual progress
and health. As someone who doesn’t exercise regularly, the Sunshine rehearsals have been beneficial for my physical health as well as my
social life. The exercise component is especially important because of the group’s age range. Remaining active as one ages can be really
difficult, what with health problems and lack of energy, and Xia informed me that multiple members of the group are cancer survivors as well. This
communal space provides the opportunity to be active in a non-stressful environment with support from friends, which is really what people need.

Of course, the group also promotes the social wellbeing of its members and the greater elderly community through our performances at local
events and nursing homes. The group now visits a nursing home about every other month, and the goal is to do this once a month, where we
interact with the senior citizens through activities like balloon volleyball (which is quite tiring, if you weren’t aware) and then perform both song and
dance for them. Jinlan is especially passionate about these nursing home visits because she actually opened an assisted living home of her
own in Verona, a number of years ago. As such, she understands firsthand how these senior citizens need to interact with friendly faces and have
some stimulation in their lives. Besides the performances, Xia noted that they have also made Christmas cards for nursing home residents in the
past, and she is considering organizing the group to make scarves for people this coming winter. I find this dedication to serving the greater
community extremely admirable.

I think the most meaningful role that Sunshine Organization has is to its own members as a community and a safe space where these women
can feel supported and happy, especially when they may be facing difficulties in the wider non-Chinese community. Xia spoke briefly about her
feelings of isolation, stating that “As a first-generation immigrant, even working in America, you always feel alone,” and describing a split-
language church service that (while quasi-necessary) only further isolates the Chinese-speaking community. As such, it’s very important to her to
have a space to socialize with other Chinese women without any pressure. Jing echoed this sentiment, stating that “Most Chinese women like to
talk and share a lot of their life story once they are comfortable in the group. So we [are] a lot of [the] time actually busy doing something else
instead of dancing… So Sunshine Dance is not only a dance group, it's also a social group, a community or much more.” Having a space to talk
freely in one’s native language is crucial to maintaining one’s mental health. While larger cities such as NYC or San Francisco still have thriving
Chinatowns, Madison seems to lack that tight-knit community, so the Sunshine dance group fulfills that need for an unquestionably Chinese
space. Although I may not understand a lick of Mandarin Chinese and was at first uncomfortable with my ignorance, I’ve grown much more
comfortable with not understanding the conversations around me and simply enjoying the company of the women, who will often translate when
they feel it necessary. (I’ve also decided to make an effort to learn Mandarin, although it will be quite the slow-going effort. I owe them that much.)
As native English speakers, it’s important to keep in mind the way English has been forced upon the world, and we ought to actively resist said
linguistic imperialism by learning other languages and supporting those who are not or do not want to become fluent in English.

I went into this project thinking particularly about the problems that Chinese-American women might face because of their overlapping identities,
so it took me by surprise when both Xia and Jinlan denied the existence of any special “Chinese-American women’s struggle.” When it comes to
working, Xia stated that Chinese women are already used to working back in their home country, so it is no problem for them to adapt to working
full-time in the U.S. unlike Japanese women, who are more socially ingrained to occupy a housewife role in Japan. Jinlan also insisted that it is a
“family struggle.” Because I am a Women’s & Gender Studies student who is constantly thinking about identity politics and the problems that
women face due to their intersectional identities, I was almost blindsided by these answers. But I think this emphasis on the problems of the
community rather than the individual fits with what I’ve learned about these Chinese-American women and their priorities. Jing said something
similar when I asked her about what the dance group means to her: “To me, as a Chinese, I feel it's critical that I fit in [a] community, no matter
[whether] it's Chinese oriented group or American oriented.” It is an important reminder to me that sometimes I can get too caught up in thinking
about identity and forget to just exist as a human being, which is the most important thing of all.
"

Erika Lee describes the transnational immigrant experience as “paving new ways of ‘becoming American’ and of becoming ‘global’ by figuring
how to situate themselves in a changing world… [finding] a balance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ without rejecting an ethnic or a single national
identity.”  I feel the members of the Sunshine Organization that I have gotten to know embody this subjectivity both in their connection to their home
country and their consumption of culture and goods, which Lee also mentions as a way of living transnationally.  Very recently we celebrated the
send-off of one of our members, Shaoqing, who is moving back to China; other former and current members of the group have strong ties to
China as well. Our dances are predominantly traditional Chinese dances, but other music has made its way into the mix as well; the songs that
we sing for the nursing homes range from Chinese to English Christmas songs and classics like “You Are My Sunshine.” The Sunshine
Organization, I feel, embraces its status as a transnational organization that helps its members bridge the gap between their Chinese culture and
their everyday American lives, while promoting their physical and mental health.

I am not the type of person that actively seeks to get involved in unfamiliar groups, so joining the Sunshine dance group was quite a step out of my
comfort zone. It's been a really great experience for me, though, because I've had to not only manage my anxiety, but I've been welcomed into a
group of people I would never dare get to know otherwise. Despite our differences, I've bonded with these women through the shared experience
of being active and giving back to the community - things that I feel transcend our language barrier. Being a part of the Sunshine Organization has
made me think about how much is happening outside of the Edgewood community and how I've been so wrapped up in my academics that I’ve
been uninformed about what’s happening in the broader Madison area. It’s been a really important reminder that one needs to get involved to
translate theory into activism, and there’s no better way to learn about people’s lives than to get to know them. I’ve also never really been involved
with older communities, so working with the Sunshine dance group has reminded me of the responsibility we as younger folk have towards our
elders and how we need to keep in mind the unique struggles people face as they age. We need to provide financial and social support for our
elders, especially those that do not speak English so well. Most importantly, though, building a just and compassionate world requires bonding
with people who may be quite different from you, and that’s one thing my involvement with the Sunshine Organization has done.


About the Author:
Bonni Briggs is a recent graduate of Edgewood College's HIST251 (Asian-American Experience), class of Prof. Jinxing Cheng.


      
For my COR2 Community Service Learning Project this semester, I spent roughly20 hours interacting with and getting to know the members of the
Sunshine Arts and Culture Organization (formerly Sunshine Dance Troupe), a Chinese American women group. These Chinese-American women
welcomed me fully into their fold and encouraged my involvement as much as possible despite our differences. Their mission statement, which is
"Happy, Healthy, Serving Local Community," truly describes the group's devotion to physical and social health as well as giving back to the older
community via performances and other services. Many of these women have busy professional lives and find happiness and community in the
dance group, where their common struggles of aging and assimilation are understood; they occupy what Erika Lee calls in her book, The Making of
Asian America, a “transnational immigrant” position, remaining intensely tied to their Chinese culture and homeland while making lives for
themselves and their families here in Madison. My time with this group has been not only enjoyable, but enlightening and has helped me further
understand my responsibility as a young person and a member of the Madison community.

The Sunshine Arts and Culture Organization was created in December 2015 by Jinlan Liu, a Chinese-American entrepreneur and several other
middle-aged women, who saw the need for a space where elder members of the community could be active and socialize simultaneously. I met
Jinlan and two other women named Jing Ning and Xia Chen, who both volunteered to occupy leadership roles when they realized certain things
needed to be done. Jing leads most of our dance practices, though occasionally others will step up to the task of leading for a few songs, and she
and Xia both help with organizing our performances and sorting out the finances. Jinlan, meanwhile, mediates a lot between members of the
group when conflicts arise, because “you can’t make everyone happy.” Within the last three and a half years, there have been approximately 70
members active at one point or another, although currently the group has3
0-plus regular members. Jinlan did mention to me once that they have
some "American" members, which I took to mean non-Chinese members, but all of the women I have met through our rehearsals have been
Chinese. The average age of their members is 59, although we've joked that my membership brings that average way down. This means that
these women face issues both as aging citizens and as Chinese-Americans.
and Oceanic Sciences Lab, studying climate change, and Jinlan is a half-retired
entrepreneur who owned both a restaurant and a nursing home. While Hong told
me she moved directly to Madison from China after her undergrad to take
advantage of UW-Madison’s prestigious climate sciences program, Xia had lived
in a number of places prior to Madison, including New York City, Osaka, Tokyo,
and Ohio.

One of the first things that I noticed upon joining the Sunshine Organization's
rehearsals is how important the mere act of exercising is to them. It doesn't really
I did not want to pry too much into their
pasts if they were not willing to share, but
from what I’ve gathered, most of the group’
s members have been residents of the
United States and Madison for a number of
years. Jinlan said she has been in the
Madison area for 30 years, I believe; Xia
said f15; another woman I spoke to named
Sally told me she immigrated to the States
in 1979. While a few members are retired
(Xia estimated three), a majority of the
group’s membership continues to work full-
time; many of them hold masters’ or
doctoral degrees and hold professional
jobs. For example, Xia works as a scientist
in UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and
Public Health; Jing is an accountant; Hong
is a researcher at the UW’s Atmospheric