On Fitting in at Cultural Centers

Illustration by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

Five words. One question. Say it, and my fight-or-flight response is activated: “Ni shi na li ren? — “Where are you from?” 

This was the latest essay prompt for my heritage L5 Chinese class. In the most traditional Chinese reading of the question, your hometown is wherever your father’s family is originally from. (Yeah, I know, misogyny is universal.) However, my dad’s from Varna, Bulgaria, and my mom’s from Shanghai, China. I’ve always questioned my ability to claim a Chinese identity because I’ve seen myself as only “part” Chinese. Amid other “heritage” Chinese students, who all had two parents from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, I felt out of place. 

My experience is by no means uncommon. Being mixed-race at Yale inherently comes with a struggle to find a sense of belonging in any cultural affinity space. When it came to choosing a language my first semester, I didn’t even end up in a heritage class on purpose. I self-placed into Chinese 110. It wasn’t until that course’s professor recommended that I sit in on Chan Laoshi’s heritage Chinese 112 class that I unlocked the possibility of embracing my Chinese identity at Yale. 

Nick McGowan (PM ’23+1), who is also Asian biracial, originally self-placed into a non-heritage class before moving up during his first year, as well. Even after enrolling in the class, it was a struggle to justify his place there. 

“The first day, a couple of kids asked if I was in the right class before I opened my mouth,” Nick said. 

Beyond heritage language classes, finding a place within cultural houses is also a struggle. Personally, I didn’t even sign up for Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) correspondence when I filled  out my pre-orientation paperwork. Being a mixed Asian often means worrying about being “Asian enough” to claim space in these communities. 

Josephine Holubkov (TD ‘23+1), who is of Czech and Chinese descent, enjoys having the AACC available as a place to celebrate traditional Chinese holidays and meet friends. However, she wonders how much of a claim she has to the space. 

“I sometimes feel out of place at the AACC because I’m not sure how much space I should be taking up as a mixed person, like wondering if I’m Asian enough to claim a part of it,” Josephine said. 

Being a mixed Asian often means worrying about being “Asian enough” to claim space in these communities.

In my view, the AACC is generally welcoming. It hosts community-building events, connects first-years to compassionate peer liaisons, and acts as an “open space” for all to convene. However, I sometimes feel that maybe it’s meant  for part of me—not all of me. Throughout my first year (when everything was still in person), I bookmarked Facebook events I was interested in and saved aspects of the weekly newsletters that piqued my interest. But whether I wanted to grab Popeyes chicken from a study break or attend a cultural panel, I always made sure to attend with at least one friend of “fully” Asian descent. I was scared of having to defend my right to take up space. 

“A year in, I know that the AACC caters to an entire spectrum of Asians, but it just felt like I wasn’t Asian enough in the beginning or wasn’t comfortable enough with the idea [of interacting with the center], ” Nick (PM ‘23+1) agreed. 

It’d be foolish to ignore that Nick, Josephine, and my particular experiences of being mixed-race also come with advantages. My proximity to whiteness means that I benefit from white privilege—a luxury that many other mixed-race people of different minority groups don’t have. There are times when the “wasian” (white and Asian) experience tends to overshadow the experiences of other mixed-race Asian folks. Even if wasians struggle to be “Asian enough,” being half-white by blood means that we often face less scrutiny. Wasians specifically are often perceived as more “desirable.” To many people, wasians fall comfortably close to whiteness while also bringing something “unique” to the table; in some cases, this manifests as fetishization. (Ew.) Thus, I have to add the caveat that my story is not the only one, and that in many ways, I’ve been luckier than most. Nonetheless, experiencing two different identities means that I’ve never known how much of each side I can embrace. 

The feeling of being misplaced within cultural centers isn’t exclusive to those of mixed race. However, the AACC can sometimes feel homogenous. Asian identity is diverse, yet some feel that the narrative at the AACC can feel East Asia-centric at times. 

Alysha Siddiqi (TD ‘23), president of Yalies for Pakistan (YPAK), said, “As a Pakistani-American, I’ve always been thankful for the space we have at the AACC, but I honestly haven’t used it as much given that the programming is primarily centered around different Asian identities.” 

She feels that it’s difficult for South Asians like herself to learn about resources that might make them feel more at home. She founded Yalies for Pakistan in an attempt to create a space for others who felt as she did. 

So what does inclusion look like? How do we ensure that cultural spaces don’t act as havens to some but not all? I don’t have all the answers. Maybe it starts by acknowledging the wide spectrum of Asian identity that exists at Yale. When organizing lectures, panels, and other events, we should at least mention the mixed experience. We should balance coverage of East Asia with similarly robust coverage of the Middle East, South Asia, and other less-talked-about regions. We shouldn’t just allow people with “unconventionally” Asian heritage a seat at a table; we should welcome them. We all deserve to be here.

 

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