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What Is It Like to Be Asian at an American University?

Written by Eliza Tan

Edited by Eunice Tan

Being Asian at an American university… First of all, one needs to realize that so much falls under the broad label of “Asian.” Asia is the world’s largest continent. People within Asia differ from each other in terms of cultures, traditions, and languages. Furthermore, Asian Americans, depending on what generation of immigrant they are, are in the process of determining for themselves what it means to be “Asian.” Often, this search for identity is both an individualistic and communal process.

In my case, you could say I am “Fresh Off the Boat.” I grew up in Asia prior to coming to America, even though I’ve had a primarily Western and American education. Often, though, people would mistake me for Asian American due to my lack of an accent. “Where did you learn to speak English?” they’d ask. “Malaysia’s a British commonwealth. It’s my first language, actually,” I’d respond. 

Perhaps the question to be asked isn’t “What is it like to be Asian at an American university?” but rather “How has your cultural background influenced your university experience?” So much diversity exists even within American universities. I went to a small private Christian university. Friends of mine went to much larger, public ones. When we talk about our collegiate experiences, it feels like we’re inhabiting different continents and realities instead of being a mere short flight away.

My closest friend group at Asbury University my sophomore year consisted of me, a third-culture Korean, and a Chinese native. When we’d walk across campus together, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were categorized in people’s minds as “three Asians.” But in reality, we possess three different passports: Malaysian, Korean, and Chinese. And though we conversed in a mixture of English and Mandarin, we all differed in terms of our first language.

My own cultural background did not come to the forefront of my own mind until my junior year. I knew I was culturally different from Americans, but my desire to assimilate and sheer curiosity about all the opportunities surrounding me suppressed any cultural discrepancies or homesickness I felt. I was enthralled by the commonalities of the human experience, by opportunities to study abroad (as I did for a semester in the Middle East during my sophomore year), and involvement in student groups on campus. As an ethnic minority, I was very frequently called on to speak on panels or lead student groups (I was the president of the International Student Alliance for a year, or ISA, as well as a class cabinet member for two years). But I didn’t think much about what it truly meant to be in the minority.

Slowly, I began to wrestle with my own cultural identity. Due to my tendency to adopt the cultural habits and even accents of those around me (I am often told I sound American and in the Middle East people said I spoke Arabic without an accent), hardly anyone assumed I was different. It got to the point where I hardly thought about my upbringing for over a year. In the Middle East, I spoke English along with the American and Canadian college students in my study abroad group, but culturally… I seemed to relate to Jordanians in our neighborhood a lot more although we spoke different languages.

At the tail end of my junior year, during which I nearly forgot my cultural upbringing and, I thought, completely lost my ability to speak in a Malaysian accent because I could not conjure it up… I spent a summer as a communications intern in a region of Georgia heavily populated by refugees. Clarkston, a small city outside of Atlanta, has been named “the most diverse square mile in America” by Time Magazine. Having taken Arabic and Islamic studies while studying abroad, I was hoping to connect with families from the Middle East locally. In a twist of events, the neighborhood I was assigned to actually housed many families from Burma, or Myanmar, who had spent years in Malaysia. Many of their children were born in Malaysia. That meant that they spoke Malay. My Bahasa Malaysia, or Malay, was tucked deep into the recesses of my mind–or so I thought. Although I struggled at first, slowly, it came back, and I was able to have conversations with these refugee families in a way I would not have been able to otherwise. I was not fluent and stuttered at times, but I remembered way more phrases in Malay than I thought I did. It was an interesting turn of events. And one definitely in my favor, since my Malay is better than my Arabic! Through this, I felt like I was being reminded of the fact that every single cultural experience I’ve been through has a part to play in my future, whether I realize it or not. It is not my place to discount, make light of, or delegitimize any of it, despite what others say. Despite what I tell myself.

Malaysia (my home country) and Singapore (where I was born) are so unique, in a sense, because we are cultures that have been heavily influenced by the East and by the West. We’re still heavily collectivistic and Confucianist in our daily living, but our languages and much of our thought have been colored by Greek and Socratic methods of thought and dialogue. This was a tension I wrestled with almost daily whether I realized it consciously or not. My exterior impressions contradicted how I felt about myself and how I processed things internally.

I have now been in America for around four years, and it feels much more like home than it did my freshman year. Ironically though, I now draw attention to my differences a lot more than I used to. But I’ve also since changed friend groups, and now so many of my closest friends are Americans who have never traveled out of the country. I am not Asian American, although I can relate to Asian Americans on many levels. I am not from mainland China, although I speak Mandarin, celebrate the festivals, and love Chinese food. “Malaysian Chinese” cannot even encapsulate my entire identity because a reason I do identify with Americans is because my mind has irreversibly been shaped and influenced by American thought, authors, and values. It’s a weird state of limbo to be living in–one in which I’m slowly realizing that no one defined culture can define my being.

Our shared similarities and unique differences make us who we are. We don’t have to succumb to stereotypes of what it means to be “Asian,” but there’s no shame in admitting that we sometimes do. It’s through openly processing the tensions we feel within ourselves that I believe we arrive at a broader, more Kingdom-centric definition of identity. It’s a pet peeve of mine to make things overly spiritual, so let me phrase it this way: most things aren’t as black and white as we think they should be. The more comfortable we become with discomfort, the more beauty we see in the gray all around and within us.

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