identity (blogmas day 14) ~ Valerie

“Where are you from?”

One line, four words, and the most DREADED question you could ask me back while I was in Hong Kong. On the surface, I’d smile sheepishly and say ‘I don’t know’, while on the inside I battled a whirlwind of inner conflict. Should I say I was from Hong Kong? Would they ask me why I didn’t speak Cantonese, or when I did, why I spoke it with an accent? Should I say I was from the US, even though I’d only lived there for two months after I was born there? I guess that’s the struggle of being a third culture kid. You grow up with your parents’ original cultures and wHOA-experiencing-different-things-is-so-cool but you also have to grapple with the culture of the country you’re living in and search for some kind of reconciliation between the two. You have dual citizenship—DAMN you have two passports and can vote in two different countries??—but you never feel like you truly and fully belong to either one.

“Where are you from?”

One line four words and one of the most interesting questions people ask me while at Yale. “Hong Kong”, I always say proudly and unwaveringly. I have a Hong Kong flag as the centerpiece of my common room; there’s a poster of the Hong Kong skyline hanging right above my bed; I adamantly stick to Celsius when asking for the temperature; I proudly wear ‘I ❤ HK’ t-shirts to sleep. Maybe it all stems from an inner desire to set myself apart from everyone and be different?? I don’t know. All I know is that I’m not American enough to call myself an American, and it’s easy to say I’m from Hong Kong when no-one else here is from Hong Kong too.

But even at Yale, I’m still trying to figure out exactly which communities I belong to. Back last year when filling out my college application, I checked the ‘Asian-American’ box where it asked for my ethnicity. I am now automatically affiliated with the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC)—over the summer, Jessica sent me a postcard from Washington D.C. telling me she was my AACC Peer Liason and would help guide me through my first year at Yale. The AACC hosts multiple activities in order to foster a sense of community and assimilate Asian freshmen into Yale undergraduate life, including study breaks, trips to the cinema, weekly dinners, formals, parties, etc. Everyone LOVES the AACC. Tons of my friends who are Asian hang out there and talk about how they feel like it’s such a welcoming, warm, safe space for them. I just haven’t felt that same sense of comfort.

I don’t think I belong to the category of ‘Asian American’. First of all, I don’t even feel American. Maybe in comparison to everyone in Hong Kong I am, but here where the freedom-loving bald eagle–worshipping star-spangled-banner-revering archetype is so prevalent, I just don’t feel like an American at all. But more than that is the fact that I haven’t gone through the same things or had the same experiences as Asian people who grew up in America. I’ve never known what it’s like to live my everyday life as a minority, not when I grew up in Hong Kong where almost everyone was Chinese. So I just don’t feel that sense of solidarity with other ‘true’ Asian-Americans. Adding on to that, I don’t feel particularly out of place here. We have a good amount of diversity—I think approximately 1/4 of the people in TD are Asian. I also haven’t experienced harassment or systematic oppression or even micro-aggressions that people always talk about. Maybe it’s because I was expecting so much worse, or maybe I just haven’t spent enough time here yet.

What makes me actually feel out of place is my non-American, international-ness. Yes, it’s cool to be different and cool to go by the metric system instead of America’s fucked up weird 12-inches-is-a-foot-system and cool to be able to tell people about Hong Kong, my hometown. But at some point, it just gets old. I want people to back me up when I say that ‘colour’ is spelled with a ‘u’ and when I say ‘lift’ instead of ‘elevator’. I want people to talk to about missing home and not being able to go home while all of my non-international friends leave for Thanksgiving break. I get tired of not being ‘in’ on American culture—from all the songs they somehow magically collectively know, to the endless Spongebob references, to the weird slang they use. Which is where OISS, the Office for International Students and Scholars, comes in. They host activities too (unfortunately, not to the same extent as the AACC) and I always get so excited when I meet another international. It’s an instantaneous bond, one that I haven’t experienced with any other community here. At the end of the day, ‘international’ is the category, the community, that I truly feel like I belong to.

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