book artist Matthew Harrison '01 takes his readers to China on a real
and metaphorical quest for identity.
In one of the crooked little hutongs, the back alleys that
worm through Beijing, Matthew Harrison and his friend Jenny happen upon
three girls who claim to be art students and offer to take them to an
Starting down that narrow alley is my last clear memory of what
happened that day, says Harrison. Before long he is lost and alone,
half a world from home. A visitor in China searching for greater self-awareness,
he is now a prisoner of forces beyond his control or understanding. He
is tortured for no apparent reason. Streams of blood flow from his nose,
and a black rivulet trickles out of the corner of his mouth. He doesnt
understand. Why is this happening?
Sun-bleached Hemet, California, where Matthew Harrison 01 grew up,
is a marvel of irrigation in the desert about an hours drive southeast
of Riverside. The small, fast-growing city has not yet been absorbed by
the sprawl edging inland from metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego.
Hemet, known as a center for aerobatic pilot training, is predominantly
white and conservative, with a large and influential population core of
retirees, many from military and aviation circles.
Hemet, Harrison was very nearly one of a kind.
His father, Robert, a schoolteacher at Hemet High for 35 years, is of
Swedish ancestry. His mother, Penny, a school administrator who now lives
in northern California, is Chinese American. People of Asian or Pacific
islands ancestry make up less than 1 percent of Hemets population,
according to the 2000 Census.
Although he did not always fit in, only occasionally did he experience
overt racial animus, Harrison says. Once, Some kids said that Chinese
people get their names by throwing a spoon down the stairs and naming
their kids whatever sound it makes. So then they pushed me down the stairs
at school because they didnt think Matt was a Chinese-enough
name. He also remembers kids saying things to me like, Its
a little nippy out here, dont you chink?
He recognizes that such remarks were usually delivered as a form of goading
humor, but Harrison also understands that he was being subtly cast as
a member of an outgroup. I accepted the teasing and playground harassment
as my own fault, for being different, he says.
In high school, he demonstrated a flair for art, and he considered going
to art school. But my parents encouraged me to go to a liberal arts
school where I could pursue other interests, he says. His fathers
sister was a Pomona graduate and the family had Claremont ties, so Harrison
came to Pomona, majoring in studio art.
The College was a great place to learn, Harrison says, but socially, he
still sometimes felt adrift between two cultures. His half-Chinese ethnicity
seemed to set him apart in subtle ways. I was always on the outside
of Asian-American social groups, Harrison says. He even sensed some group
differentiation between Asian students who were born outside the country,
and the American-born sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants.
His own mother had been born in San Francisco; only one of his two Chinese
American grandparents was born in China.
A Taiwan-born student in Harrisons residence hall urged him to study
Mandarin, and Harrison thought that it might be a good way to explore
and discover something about his own sense of self. I went in there
knowing nothing at all, Harrison says. I was overwhelmed.
I got a D on my first test. I had just gotten to college and I felt, Ive
got to be able to do better than this. At Pomona, I often had classes
with only about six students in them, so that helped and was an impetus
to work hard and get engaged with the class.
As he studied the abstract and intellectual aspects of art, he felt increasingly
drawn to his childhood interest in comic books. A visiting professor,
Stas Orlovski, helped me to see that theres nothing wrong
with making art with comics, Harrison says, especially if he could
develop ideas that would be different and could challenge the medium.
classes in Chinese piqued his interest in exploring the Asian part of
his heritage, and he spent five weeks in the summer after his freshman
year visiting Beijing and traveling to other parts of China. As a junior,
he spent the fall semester in Taiwan under Pomonas Study Abroad
program. After graduation, with the help of advice from Samuel Yamashita,
Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History, Harrison won a highly competitive
Freeman Foundation fellowship to travel and study art in East Asia. He
spent a month in Taiwan, three months in Japan, and six months in mainland
His experiences in China were not what he had envisioned.
It seemed so foreign to me, he says. I had unrealistic
expectations and Orientalized stereotypes about what China would be like.
On the other hand, There are McDonalds and KFCs throughout
Beijing, even right outside of the Forbidden City, and at first it felt
like a bit of a disappointment, because I thought, where is all the culture
He was drawn to China in part for personal reasons, in search of self
affirmation and a feeling of belonging, he says. On some level I
expected that people in China would be more receptive to me, being half-Chinese,
than people in America, because I hadnt necessarily been accepted
by my peers growing up, he says.
What he learned, about himself and about China, is etched in black and
white in a comic book he created called Firecracker. In the story, which
he says is a blend of autobiographical, fictional and metaphorical experiences,
a Pomona student named Matthew Harrison travels to China in a search
for answersfor identity...in hopes of discovering something about
myself that I feel like I should have known all along.
Accosted by street vendors, struggling with the language, spurned by the
local girls as not Chinese enough, or white enough, he confides
his angst to a white buddy, Kurt, and to his Chinese American girlfriend,
Jenny, but their responses do not assuage the tension he feels. Then he
wanders into the fateful alley, and nothing will ever be the same again.
The methods of ancient Chinese punishment and torture that
the character graphically suffers are a metaphorical representation of
his actual thoughts and experiences, Harrison says.
The torture scenes mark a critical turning point in the story,
and Harrison says he thought a great deal about the possibility that his
depiction could reinforce a deeply ingrained stereotype that links the
Chinese in particular with especially diabolical forms of abuse. After
his character regains consciousness, he is nursed back to health by a
young Chinese woman, Xin. I wanted to show both sides, pain and
healing, and I tried to make the healing seem more real, through Xins
character, so as not to convey a negative stereotype, but to create a
positive image of Chinese people as well, Harrison says.
The comic character emerges from his travails with a new understanding
of himself and his place in the world: A sense of calm came over
me: a feeling that seemed to justify all I had been through...I had a
realization of self-acceptance: that I had no other choice than to be
who I am.
The art of drawing comes more easily to him than the construction of a
story, Harrison says. When I was younger I liked the superhero comic
books. They were cool-looking, and I always wanted to draw like that.
Now, Im more interested in the storytelling aspects. Trying to do
a story thats challenging and that can engage the reader on an intellectual
level in the medium of comics is what Im after.
The first six pages of Firecracker are posted on Harrisons Web site,
where copies of the book can be ordered. He plans two more issues that
will extend the story line as his character returns to this country and
reacclimates to life in the United States.
Harrison teaches at Opportunities for Learning, a public charter school
that serves Newhall and Valencia, California, and offers an alternative
form of study for junior high and high school students who are behind
in credits. He expects to go on to study art in graduate school in a year
or two. He also plans to keep drawing comics that tap elements of his
life as a multiracial American.
The work of comics artists Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Dan Clowes (Eightball
and Ghost World) helped inspire him, Harrison says. With his own comics,
his hope is to have people read them, and of course possibly buy
them, and to become established enough as an artist that I could make
One of the most challenging things that I see for myself, and for
most people who are trying to do independent or underground comics, is
that the fan base is one that you have to create, he says. Im
hoping to connect with people who are interested in and excited about
China on some level, and people who are interested in comics too. I hope
that my work can offer something to those people. What has kept me going
and kept me motivated with this comic the whole time has been the personal
story. Im hoping that even though its not the most common
thing for a reader to relate tosomeone being a half-Chinese and
half-white Americanthat other people who have questions about their
self-identity will be able to draw something from it as well.
Michael Balchunas is a free-lance journalist
living in Claremont.