By Kathy Jiang, VA High School Program Coordinator
Photos & Media courtesy of Kathy Jiang
I was born in a small city in China, and immigrated to the United States as a baby. I called the DMV home from then on (except for the brief pit stop known as ‘college’ — more on that later), spending the first half or so of my life in PG County, MD, and the rest in Northern Virginia.
For as long I can remember, the identity of Chinese-American followed me everywhere I went–– in both troubled and beautiful ways. My earliest memories include back-to-back Chinese school lessons and Chinese church services, spaces where my parents built their connections and community, the lifeline of many immigrants, from scratch. The sound of kids calling me “Yellowskin” on the playground, that left a particular, inaugural sense of shame & confusion still burned deep in my brain today. Watching curiously as my mom and grandma folded dumplings, cut mooncake during the Harvest Moon, handed me hong bao come Lunar New Year–– all these “cultural” traditions I never conceptualized as “cultural”; it was just everyday life to me.
As a teenager, I was lucky enough to attend middle/high school alongside many fellow APIA youth, with whom I felt I shared an implicit understanding of background, family, and heritage. For the first time, I experienced the safe space a pan-Asian American peer group offers (although I never pinpointed it as such back then), a space much like what AALEAD offers to the youth we serve. It wasn’t until much later when I’d realize that, actually, much of my peers’ lives and perspectives differed from mine more than I knew. But that was the beauty of it: even as our shared Asian American identity connected us, our experiences were not monolithic. To this day, the vibrant diversity of the DMV APIA community fascinates me, and I am honored to be working in a space that seeks to address the multi-varied needs of our community members.
Then came college. At William and Mary (my “pit stop” of four years), I joined Chinese Student Organization and found a space to both stay connected to my culture and make friends with fellow Asian Amercans. I pursued my various interests inside and outside of the classroom: I joined and eventually assumed leadership roles in a variety of community engagement organizations; I read and wrote and thought about people a lot, eventually wounding up as a double major in Neuroscience and English, Editor-in-Chief of our school’s literary review, and even a visiting literature student at Oxford one semester; and in between semesters, especially, I worked towards my lifelong dream of being a teacher one day, teaching and tutoring nearly every subject imaginable at various places, where I not only learned how to teach someone how to add or write a strong opening paragraph, but also to be aware of all that factors into whether or not someone can or cannot actually learn how to add or write a strong opening paragraph at this moment in time.
But no matter how much I accomplished, how fulfilled or busy I was, deep down, there was a profound sense of discomfort I couldn’t shake. The feeling followed me everywhere–– raising my hand to speak in class, talking and laughing with fellow participants on an alternative break, leading a short story discussion with magazine staff. Why? What was it?
The realization was simple, but it hit me like a truck: William and Mary––and America––was a predominantly white institution (PWI). And I was not white. I was Chinese, I was Asian-American, and in the back of my mind, something ugly still whispered that I was a “Yellowskin.”
So what to do with my discomfort? The same that POC and other marginalized identities in America feel and know, consciously or subconsciously, every day of their life? How to make use of it, and how to work towards a world where I and others won’t feel it anymore? For me, the answer lies in building community and championing social justice. It lies in the work I can and will do at AALEAD, where I will be able to put my interests and experiences in education and other programming to good use as well. I cannot wait to work with the youth and other staff members to continuously create and support this wonderful and necessary space for APIA youth to explore their identity, develop their leadership capacity, and further their education, as they and all youth deserve to be able to.