Miles Between Me and My Culture

student input session

When I was younger, being Chinese was something I was never especially proud of. I grew up in a predominately white community that I wanted to fit in with more than anything. I relished comments such as “You’re not really Asian, though” or “You’re a banana—white on the inside and yellow on the outside,” foolishly believing them to be compliments, that I had accomplished something through self-suppression. Regrettably, my parents were major sources of my shame. The brokenness of their English—the omitted vowels and unnatural dips in their pronunciation—compelled my insides to squirm every time they tried to communicate in their second language. At home, I corrected them with the utmost disregard, rolling my eyes and jeering at them for being so impossibly forgetful when it comes to pronunciation. I believed that the imperfections in their speech reflected the quality of what they said.

I would like to admit that I grew out of this mindset in my time at high school, but that simply was not the case. I was less disdainful toward my parents, which was an improvement. But shame continued to motivate my refusal to speak Chinese at home and my embarrassment at their blaring Chinese music with the car windows rolled down. This internalized racism was more than an ideology created by my sense of shame, for it was something that propagated a pattern of self-loathing and self-invalidation that I had unconsciously put myself through.

Looking back at this self-loathing creature, however, I realize that it’s funny what a 10-mile separation between home and college does to one’s perspective. Since coming to Boston College, I have never missed the rich aromas of Chinese food at my home more. I miss the comforting sounds of my parents speaking in their native tongue, family gossip and workplace stories serving as the soundtrack to my homework sessions in the kitchen. I miss the calligraphy paintings of delicate lotuses on the walls of my living room. I even miss opening the refrigerator and coming face to face with my dinner (usually a fish, complete with eyes and scales, from a Chinese supermarket). My family’s culture has had a grip on me that I was not even conscious of until I came to college.

Over the course of my first semester at BC, I felt this intense desire to make up for the sheer amount of self-loathing and discrimination that I had buried within myself for so long. As an overwhelmed freshman during the activities fair at BC, my initial feeling was that I needed to join every Asian-American organization, build an extremely strong intra-race network, and celebrate a beautiful culture that I had severely underappreciated.

As the flyers for different Asian-American clubs piled up in my hands, I began to wonder about whether my guilt was a valid enough reason to allow my culture to completely dictate where I belonged on campus. Was my guilt going to help me find my niche? Or was it going to limit me to a non-holistic expression of my identity? As I continued along the different booths, dodging some overly eager upperclassmen, I found myself drawn to music clubs, volunteer organizations, and newspapers, adding yet another mountain of flyers to my growing stack. These were activities I had been enjoying long before I came to BC, but now, they would have to compete against these cultural clubs for space in the rather chaotic schedule of a college student.

So what did I do? I overlooked the guilt. And before you accuse me of not having learned my lesson about internalized racism and not appreciating my culture, hear me out.

My culture is something that I closely associate with my family. My mother, my father, and my family history and customs have informed much of how I see my heritage today. Its beauty and traditions never cease to astound me. My family is my culture. My family is also only a part of my identity. I realized that settling into racially segregated social groups outside of class does not necessarily lead to a holistic appreciation of my identity.

No one is a purely racial being. Through making all sorts of relationships, we can let our diversity—cultural, religious, or intellectual differences—fracture the natural social segregation on our campus. By not letting guilt inform my decisions about which clubs I should be participating in, I realized that my own appreciation for Chinese culture has developed in a much truer and unforced way. Some of the best weekends I have had at BC are ones in which I was able to return home to steaming plates of bok choy or celebrate the Lunar New Year with my family and relatives. The most authentic way that I have celebrated my culture is through a transformation of the way I connect with my family.

In my time at BC, I have learned that despite the pressure to find organizations that help us freshmen plant our feet in this disorienting college world, it’s important to join clubs that are representative of many aspects of our identities. Ultimately, I realized that cultural organizations are only one path to expressing this identity and forging friendships. I still take part in cultural events, but my involvement is just part of my place on campus.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor