american teen: alana chen gardner

Wielding only an iPad Mini, Alana Chen Gardner started taking photos on a trip to her mother’s hometown in China. The 17-year-old Philadelphia native has been capturing the youthful ennui and exuberance of her generation ever since. Here, Alana talks about youth-led activism, the sights and smells of Chinatown, and the importance of dancing to ABBA.

What part of Philadelphia is most special to you?

I lived in Chinatown for the first few years of my life, and everything about it still feels like home. Seeing the elderly men and women selling vegetables on the sidewalk, the $4 bowls of wonton noodle soup and fresh bao bao from the bakery around the corner, and of course, the way the neon signs brightly illuminate the sidewalk red and green and blue.

What’s the hardest thing about being a teen in a city like Philly?

The Philadelphia public school system definitely puts teens here at a disadvantage. The arts, in particular, are often entirely neglected. The option to be creative shouldn’t be a luxury. Inner-city teenagers should have access to music and art classes.

Which social norms are you most excited to see your peers, Generation Z, redefining?

I think adults have always just expected us to be self-centered and ignorant, and it’s so great that we’re proving them wrong. The gun control protests and school walk-outs of this year have been especially powerful, and they give me a lot of hope. And it’s so beautiful to see this entire generation being their most authentic selves without the bounds of arbitrary structures like gender roles.

Walk us through your 17th birthday.

My friends and I danced to a playlist which included “Dancing Queen," obviously! We ate a really delicious dinner of noodles and dumplings (thanks Mom!) and my friends sang Happy Birthday to me in English, Chinese, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Russian. We sang “All Star” by Smash Mouth by my piano because, of course, we had to. Then my friend May recited the most beautiful poem ever and we all cried happy tears. 

Any advice for other young creatives?

Don’t let inspiration slip away. Creating, whether through photos, music, film, or writing, has gotten me through teenagehood at its worst and at its best. It is so easy to get discouraged from doing art, I know, but it’s important to hold on to what helps you find meaning in life and what keeps you grounded. Make the world a better place with your art! We need it.




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