Homeless. One thing people don’t often mention about being a something – hyphen – American is the inner sense of dispossession. We discuss the racism, the stereotypes and microaggressions, and people think we are nitpicky, think we are angry or delusional for making a big deal out of small things. But it’s the small things that manifest into a big deal. I was born American. Yes I had Chinese parents, and I inherited their culture, but I always thought that I was American. Until people used little details to remind me every day that I was Asian, until they pounded into me the fact that I would never be one of them.
The little details build up. The wrinkle of people’s noses when I tried to explain Chinese food; the worried look on my mom’s face when she tried to make “real American food” for friends who came over. The pressure to look super tan like the hot Asian girls on TV, to laugh at Asian boys because they all appeared flimsy and nerdy. To hide academic success because it was associated to the color of my skin. Pretending it was funny when people made slit-eye faces, told me I ate dog, and that my language sounded like variations of a spoon falling down the stairs. Rejecting all of this internally by convincing myself I was not the Chinese person they were making fun of. I was American, I spoke English well, I fit in with the white people. Until I realized that I didn’t. I was always going to be different in some way; people were always going to use “Asian” as a cognitive shortcut to who I was. I would always have to prove my “Americanness” by speaking English well, watching sports, or referencing popular music. Aligning with American culture would only get me nods of approval, not a sense of belonging.
So where did I belong? Some “Americans” might tell me to go back to China. Ironically every time I visited China, people there reminded me I was American. I don’t fully understand the culture there, I don’t fit in. The language is not natural to me; it took years and years of studying Chinese textbooks to get a grasp of it. So when someone in America tries to tell me to “go back home” I am lost. I’d like to ask them where this mysterious place is.
When I got to college, I thought that I would find a home. I thought that all the ignorance would disappear as “diverse” people came together to learn at a top university. I did find many beautiful things and unique people. I befriended wonderful Chinese American friends. Then the beauty stops. It’s cut off. I was not challenged to meet people of different races; I was put in a comfort bubble of Chinese American and Asian American student groups. The only problem is, I was uncomfortable. In a sea of “diversity” I was only accepted by those who shared my skin color.
When non-Asian classmates talked to me, they would assume that people just chose to stay in racial cliques, and at times they would go so far as to call it reverse racism. It would get exhausting to argue with them about the lack of inclusiveness on campus, or the reasons why hyphen-Americans should not have to give up their identities to fit in. At the end of the day, this social separation drove a wedge between me and students of other races.
There must be something wrong with me, I started thinking. I should embrace the opportunity to hang out with people of my own race; I should appreciate the sense of identity that comes with a cultural community. At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about why such spaces existed. There were multicultural Greek frats and sororities because the “normal” Greek community was not inclusive enough. Students joined cultural groups because it was one of the few places they felt empowered. Yet these spaces could still be suffocating. My racial group was beautiful, but at some times it could be racist too. I know Chinese students who thought their race was superior, who have mocked other races’ intelligence. There are Chinese American students ignorant enough to think that “model minority” status brings them closer to the white elite, or makes them entitled to put down other minorities. Race-based communities do a great job helping students through the struggles they face, but don’t challenge them to look in the mirror enough and see the stereotypes they perpetuate.
This infuriates me and I don’t accept it. So I reject it, I leave, and once again I have no community. I turn to my school for support. Education isn’t biased; I reason. Education gives everyone equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream. Especially at the University of Michigan, where we “Expect Respect.” Until once again I discover the limitations. I find out about how hard it is for students of color to focus on school when teachers are insensitive or biased in the classroom. I see the imbalances of race and gender in prestigious academic majors such as business or engineering. I’m saddened that administrators advertise “Global Citizenship” and “diversity” when they are empty words to students. I am pissed off when classes that count as humanities or social science credits don’t teach anything about the real social and cultural climate on campus. I am disheartened when our school’s history of student activism is hidden away so that different generations have to fight over and over for the same struggles of racial or social justice. When I speak up, people hate me for trying to filter their freedom of expression, when in fact all I want is to challenge them to think deeper, to care more.
However, I remind myself that no home is perfect. If I want to belong somewhere I must learn to highlight the beautiful things, the safe spaces and inspiring places. If not enough exist, it is my job as a student to help create them. My Michigan community has empowered me to find home within myself. It has challenged me to explore who I am and what I want to change. Chinese, American, struggling, passionate, giving. Lonely, aspiring, hopeful, and no longer homeless.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.