Updated: Oct 22, 2018
My California hasn’t been beaches, surfers, or forests, but has been Spanish-accented English, broken streets, and defiant people. This California didn’t show me much glamour, but it did show me the role of community and the importance of helping one I wasn’t born in.
I found a nest in the immigration crowd. My school community on paper is an urban high school. Downtown LA, 98% minority, 81% economically disadvantaged. That’s not the end of the story. I had no idea how to pronounce “Latinx” before I transferred, nor did I know the divide between the tourist’s Downtown LA and the real one. Once I realized that most of my friends had some story to tell about growing up in a violent neighborhood, I listened carefully, noting their invisibility in America alone and utter silence on the world stage.
Cultures meet. Diplomacy? Identity?
I identified a common struggle with immigrants through culture. I had many opportunities to represent my culture to foreigners in my childhood, such as through attending the Asian Pacific Children’s Conference, and I realized early on that it is up to my generation to deconstruct the stereotypes about my culture. In my 13 years in Beijing, I worked to polish my English so that I could communicate freely with the American mindset; once in the U.S., my instinct was to share my culture by giving out food or decorations at specific festivals, but I feared rejection when others sensed my pride in my culture. In my interactions with second-generation Korean or Mexican friends, I sometimes silently lament their “Americanness” but admired their ease in behaving “like an American”. Gradually, my use of the word “American” disappeared. I learned about the fear in them of being too “American” or too exotic. This motivated me to participate in their struggles for a place in society.
Our policy debate topic this year is immigration. The first tournament at camp, my rounds centered around the statement “we are all immigrants”. This may be offensive to many, and not applicable to me, but I think having an immigrant spirit is uplifting and humbling. Just as the hit film Crazy Rich Asians highlighted, first-world glamour shrinks in the face of integrity, internal strength, and cultural acceptance of the self. Authentic and exotic are all relative.
Chinatown and I are as different versions of China as it can get. Yet in working with it, I don’t care which part of China people I worked with are from, and I don’t worry about not being able to type in Traditional Chinese. I care about Chinatown’s image, it’s place in the “American” gaze that is really nebulous other pockets of communities, looking beneath the tourist’s eye as I did with my school neighborhood. It’s the tribute I pay to my California, the one that revolutionized my view of America.