Bridging the Gap

About a week ago, I attended the second annual Asian American Footsteps Conference at Milton Academy. The AAF Conference was established as a forum for Asian, Asian-American and mixed-heritage Asian students at New England prep schools to address issues specific to their experiences. This was done in several specialized workshops covering contemporary topics pertaining exclusively to Asian heritage, identity and perspective in American society.

As an international student from Hong Kong, I’ve grown up without a concrete sense of identity grounded in one particular nation. My father is Filipino and Spanish, and my mother is Chinese. Prior to the conference, I had a very fixed viewpoint on Asian-American culture and my own relationship to it. I would never have identified as Asian-American, even though that is what my passport says I am. Nor did I have as much respect for the distinct culture of Asian-American society as I should have.

The conference provided a rare opportunity to have focused discussions on certain issues that hit home for Asian kids. As we were all among people of similar ethnic backgrounds at the conference, it was easy for us to voice our unique opinions and relate to each other’s experiences. This connection added a wholly personal dimension to the discussions of the issues at hand, and the conference effectively facilitated the ongoing discussion of the two-sided nature that inherently comes with living both an Asian and American life.

Back in Hong Kong, I grew up in a school full of dual citizens, most of whom spoke several languages fluently and were tied to many cultures. We were all raised to be global citizens no matter which country we were living in. My old school’s mission statement was to foster a sense of global identity among its students, and I carried this tenet close to my own heart. When I got to Andover, I took pride in being a citizen of the world rather than someone on a student visa to the States.

But my identity as an international student living in Hong Kong alienated me from the Asian-American people and culture. In Asia, many people place a negative connotation on being Asian-American because they feel like Asian-Americans have abandoned their culture to become westernized. As reported in the “Los Angeles Times,” Gary Locke, a Chinese American who recently became the American ambassador to China, was met with much criticism from Chinese citizens. One critic on a public affairs forum wrote, “I don’t like this guy who has forgotten his ancestors. If he wanted to be Chinese, he wouldn’t live in America.”

Conversely, Asian-Americans tend to see Asians as alternately poorer and rooted in the third world or–in the case of international or upper class Asians–extremely pompous and extravagant, whose proclaimed “globalism” and “cosmopolitanism” are simply airs put on for arrogance’s sake.

I have found that the Pacific Ocean acts as a dividing line to polarize Asians and Asian-Americans. I never knew what to make of these vast differences, and so I resigned myself to the Asian end of the spectrum.

At Andover, I joined Asian Society and the Chinese Taiwanese Student Association, but I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to identify with the Asian Americans who largely comprise these groups. In accordance with how I would have acted back home, I sought to break every Asian-American stereotype that Andover cast upon me. I took pride in having few to no Asian friends, waxed poetic about my international school education and was flattered to be called “Asian but not Asian.”

However, during the conference I saw, for the first time, the Asian-American experience and culture broken down and represented in myriad different forms. For example, we examined photographer Corky Lee’s exhibition, a compilation of photographs taken at Asian-American events, depicting the unity and diversity of the Asian-American community.

A deeply personal discussion on interracial marriage led by several second-generation Asian-Americans working at prep schools and Asian prep school students showed me that while many of my peers are largely anchored in their respective cultures, they are willing to compromise traditional stereotypes and criteria for the people they love.

In retrospect, I realized that I overlooked or underestimated many of the challenges specific to Asian Americans that I, as an international student, had avoided. The struggle of integrating with American culture while maintaining a grasp on ethnic heritage is truly difficult. At times, the world of an Asian-American might fluctuate between two continents, two peoples and two inherently different cultures. While mulling this over, I realized that my “global identity” could be reduced to a mere façade for the lack of an identity grounded in any nation. Who was I to question Asian Americans for perhaps leaving behind certain aspects of either of their identities, when I consider my own identity to be changing? What possessed me to think that it was their wrongdoing?

After today, I realized that Asians and Asian-Americans share many critical experiences, no matter which side of the Pacific they live on. Being Asian-American or just Asian in general isn’t something we should split into various subsections. It is something we should all embrace and be proud of.

While I may never call myself Asian-American, and while I did walk away from the AAF Conference with more questions than answers, I’m left with a more profound respect, understanding and connection with other Asians on a level I’ve never felt before. In her TED speech on the danger of only having one perspective on things, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie mentioned that it was only after coming to America that she became “consciously African.” Similarly, it was only after coming to America, meeting and getting to know Asian Americans and attending this conference that I became consciously Asian.

Stacy Ramos is a new Lower from Hong Kong.