Tears of Joy

Why a gleeful resilience inhabits the faces of these elderly Asian Americans

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

In yin and yang philosophy, opposites are interconnected forces: two parts of the same coin, each side reliant upon the other. Based on a series of contrasts that divide our world, the Chinese theory defines conflicting principles as complementary, specifically in the way they balance out their counterparts.

Taken as a whole, sorrow may well be the most effective benchmark of all, for without sadness, joy loses meaning. In the end, the value of struggle lies in its comparative power: it orients happiness as an authentic experience.

Condensing this feeling into a set of portraits, Caroline Tran’s latest series explores the encounters of AAPI elders – Asian American Pacific Islanders who’ve strived to build fruitful lives for themselves in the United States. Escaping from war-torn countries like Vietnam and China, all of her subjects hail from harrowing circumstances. Fleeing persecution and privation, they’ve embarked on treacherous excursions across land and sea, overcoming unimaginable adversities to create better opportunities for their families.

Now, with decades of hindsight in tow, they cast defiant smiles in traditional garments, delightful expressions occupying their brightly lit appearances. Laughter is their ultimate act of disobedience: a triumphant reminder of just how far they’ve come.

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF80mmF1.7 R WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF80mmF1.7 R WR

“It’s an entirely personal project,” Caroline begins. “The whole process was about self-exploration. I was born in America, but never really felt ‘American’. My grandparents are Chinese, but they had to leave to start a new life in Vietnam. Both of my parents were born there, but fled when Communism took over. From there, they started a life in the United States.

“I wanted these photos to be a celebration of that diversity, but also reflect the success of what the people from these backgrounds have been able to accomplish, in spite of hardship. Every single person I photographed was forced to flee their home. To be able to live and tell these tales is just incredible, and really opened my eyes.

“I appreciate them in greater ways now. They had to deal with things most of us never have to face. These photos are my way of preserving their memory, to show the world just how robust they are.”

Caroline’s subjects are united by a shared gravitas. They’ve withstood indescribable difficulties, but their new beginnings were forged with a humility that only grief allows.

“One woman discussed how she’d escaped Vietnam in her early twenties. Some of the others had been pregnant, or caring for toddlers.

“Imagine that. To sell everything you’ve ever had, board a boat, then just hope that somewhere will take mercy on you. It’s insane.”

Contending with a stark lack of resources, this group knew that if they were cast out to sea, they probably wouldn’t make it. They’d subsist on starchy water, praying that faraway islands would have the compassion to take them in. Some would resign themselves to futility. Others were thrown overboard.

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

“The rule was simple,” Caroline illustrates. “If you couldn’t see land, you’d toss the dying into the water.”

One particular group of refugees set their boat on fire – a tactic designed to provoke their receiving country into countering the blaze. Ploys like these were desperate, but for most, represented a necessary choice between survival and certain death.

“I tried empathizing with them, putting myself in their shoes. When I was in my twenties, I tried to wrap my head around it, but couldn’t truly understand. Now, over a decade later, I have a much greater appreciation. Knowing the language really helped – it allowed me to listen attentively. I think the pictures ended up more genuine as a result of those conversations. I’m actually related to a handful – they were harder to interact with.

“When you document your own family, there are more walls in the way, like pride. The others were easier to document, with no preconceived notions.”

Encouraging some of the women to wear conventional outfits, Caroline champions her Chinese roots – ties she’s all but overlooked, until recently.

“I didn’t wear any customary clothing until this year, and that was the first time,” she admits. “It was subconscious, but I think I was ashamed to dress that way. I was trying to adapt to a more Western style. I would always embellish my attire as fusion, as opposed to something wholly original.”

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photos 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Establishing something that a lot of second-generation immigrants have to contend with, a multidimensional approach to individuality became clear. Indeed, these prints gush with vivid tributes to national customs, but still retain the spirit of the person inhabiting the frame. Caroline takes pride in fashioning this combination.

“Naturally, you put in a lot of effort trying to assimilate. I guess I never really learnt to celebrate my own heritage. Since having kids of my own, I’ve begun to consider it a lot more. It’s odd, because I can’t even say I’m Chinese. I’m faced with this unique blend of both nationalities. A lot of immigrants struggle with a similar internal battle.

“It’s partly why I persuaded some of them to come in their gowns – outfits they’d made throughout the years at significant milestones. You could see the delight when they put them on again. It was inspiring. The honor of their heritage, manifesting itself there, in my viewfinder.”

In recent years, integration has been made exponentially harder by a swathe of anti-Asian hate crimes. In 2021 alone, violent attacks in the US mushroomed by a staggering 339%.

“We’re trying to fit in, but also trying to keep a hold of our roots,” she explains. “This recent spate of brutality against Asian Americans… that’s when I knew I needed to act. Especially when I heard that the aged were being targeted.”

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Caroline believes her community has a role to play in the worsening crisis. For her, a lot of Asian Americans have adopted a vindictive outlook – particularly with reference to the way elders are treated in their native circles. It’s an attitude she intends to challenge at every opportunity.

“In some ways, we’re guilty as well. We tend to be very judgmental and racist, even amongst ourselves,” she concedes. “It’s about projection – the things you hate about yourself you attach to others. Because our grandmothers and great-grandmothers didn’t speak English, a lot of people didn’t regard them. It’s odd that our culture reaffirms this idea of valuing seniors, but in reality, I don’t think we do. We don’t listen to their opinions. It’s a very superficial level of respect, right down to their care and needs. They’re treated like kids.

“Ignorance can be bliss, and well-intentioned. What baffles me is that we don’t believe they can handle it, which is ironic when you consider what they went through!”

Without question, old age can mean infirmity, but it also solidifies wisdom. Insight is an invaluable tool, and in more ways than one, it’s a form of strength unto itself.

“I started documenting this piece of history because I needed to show them as dissimilar to how they’re stereotypically perceived – stoical, fragile, feeble. This was about the reverse.”

Personifying the nature of these seniors, Caroline Tran’s snapshots reveal hidden tenacities. In spite of incalculable odds, here are people who’ve learned to laugh again. Cheeks may be streaked and damp, but this time, there’s a difference. There, deep in the eyes, the fear has gone.

Photo 2022 © Caroline Tran | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Caroline Tran

Inspiring, creative, and fun, Caroline Tran documents life with her easygoing and vivacious personality, and wants to inspire and help others succeed with their creative businesses too.