Monthly Archives: March 2011

Growing Up Asian

“Do you… speeaaaak… English?” – Pizza Hut waitress, 1990

It was in kindergarten when I first learned I was Asian.  Sure, there had always been signs–I was nearsighted, loved rice, and caused an unfortunate tricycle accident at age 3–but I’d always just assumed it was typical of American families to speak two languages at home and get insulted by employees at Pizza Hut.

It all changed when I arrived at KinderCare, a veritable child’s paradise full of apple sauce, alphabet books, and… other kids.  While I had certainly seen other children before, I’d never seen so many in the same place, all looking somewhat different.  One intrepid boy finally gathered the courage to welcome the new alien in their midst, coming up to me and saying, quite eloquently, “Ching chang ching chong choo.”  Ever the clever linguist, I responded by smacking him on the head with a Tonka truck.  I had to sit in time-out for the rest of the day.

Despite my crude introduction to ethnicity, I never thought much about being Chinese… mostly because there weren’t any other Chinese people around.  Growing up, there was only one other Asian girl in our elementary school, Lisa. The fact that we had rhyming names made it a lot easier to mix us up, even though she was Vietnamese and stood a foot taller than me.   When her family moved to California in the fifth grade, my mother celebrated – now that we were the only Asians left in the school, she didn’t have to introduce herself at parent-teacher conferences anymore. Everyone knew she was Teresa’s mom.

Of course, assimilating into American culture wasn’t always easy.  When our Pizza Hut waitress found out we did speak English, she proceeded to ask if we celebrated Christmas too.  But the cultural learning went both ways. When I was twelve, I accompanied a friend to Mass.  I had never been inside a church before, so I had no idea what to expect.  “Don’t worry,” my friend whispered. “Just do everything I do.”  So I bowed, I prayed, and I followed her up to the altar where I proceeded to grab the cookie out of the priest’s hand.  It was not very good.  Only later did I find out that I had just spit out the body of Christ.  Suffice to say, that was the first and only time I’ve taken Communion.

WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” followed by, “No, where are you really from?”  I usually say I’m from Boston, but I’m really from Indiana, where I was born.  And even though I look like I could regale you with stories of Confucius, I’m probably better equipped to tell tales of my adventures to Dairy Queen.  Of course, no one asks me about that.

There are certain expectations that come with being Asian.  We are good at math.  We are socially awkward.  We know kung fu.  We are terrible drivers.  All these stereotypes are interrelated–We are good at math mostly because our Tiger Mothers read calculus textbooks to us instead of Goodnight Moon.  This, in turn, ensures that we are poorly socialized and ostracized by our classmates, so we do kung fu (usually in a cave) to cope with our loneliness.  After honing our kung fu skills to master gravity, flying from rooftop to rooftop, we recognize the banality of on-the-ground transportation. Thus, we never properly learn how to drive.

Obviously, these are mostly harmless stereotypes.  But the uglier stereotypes of Asians–that we are cheap, bigoted, and cold-hearted–are not necessarily true either.

This winter, our family took a trip to Taiwan to visit my grandparents.  In Taiwan, the first thing we did was go to Costco, to buy a gift for a family friend’s engagement party… which is being cost-effective, not cheap.  In Costco, we passed by a huge display of Black Man’s Toothpaste, the best-selling brand in Taiwan… which is reverential, not racist.  When we arrived at the hotel for the engagement party, we were greeted by a beautiful ice sculpture, which prompted my dad to say, confused, “What does L-O-V-E mean?” …which means that Asians have daddy issues too, just like everyone else.

FINDING MAURY

For some reason, men love Asian women.  All types of men… but mostly white guys.  As an Asian woman, I often wonder why. Perhaps it’s the allure of an exotic beauty. Or the promise of attractive, half-Asian children. Or it’s the fact that our feet are the size of normal people’s hands.

Today, it’s no longer just white guys who do the picking.  Asian women actively pursue non-Asian men too.  Every woman wants to find a Maury Povich to their Connie Chung.  This leaves me feeling bad for Asian men, who are often left with just their engineering prowess and no one to wrap their skinny arms around.

At the same time, it’s not all roses for Asian women either.  We have to deal with the freaks, the pervs, the tools, and the fetishists.  We have to answer questions like “Where are you really from?” which inevitably just makes the guy sound like he’s marking countries off a map.  And we also have to appease our parents and grandparents, because if we’re not married with kids by 30, our eggs will shrivel up and the bloodline will die with us.

I’m just glad that I have a brother.

TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION

Even with all the stereotypes, the William Hung references, and the occasional ignorant Pizza Hut employee, there are advantages to being Asian in America.  Since people can’t tell Asians apart, we can sneak into bars with other Asians’ IDs, find a stunt double to sit in for us at work, and get away with murder (good luck picking the perp in that all-Asian lineup).  Asian kids rarely get kidnapped (high-profile, baby kidnapping is mainly a Caucasian sport), and we don’t have to worry that much about identity theft–Unless another Asian has jacked our credit cards, the cashier would probably find something suspicious: “But you don’t look like the type who’d have three consecutive vowels in your last name…”  Thus, being Asian affords us peace of mind.

Of course, the one downside to being Asian is that it gets tiring to keep up the peace signs/bunny ears for every photograph we take.  But in spite of that, Asians in America have come a long way, and we haven’t peaked yet.  So watch out for us, because we’re taking over. After all, with our squinty eyes, straight hair, and aversion to sunlight, we’re pretty similar to vampires… and vampires are really “in” now.

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So, What’s Harvard Like?

I’ve stolen from several of my previous postings in an attempt to answer a question that I’m often asked about…

SO, WHAT’S HARVARD LIKE?

A Crap Factory

Back in 2003, a college interviewer asked me what my favorite movie was. In any other circumstance, the answer would have been easy: Miss Congeniality, a story about an undercover cop-turned beauty queen who saves Miss Rhode Island from exploding onstage as William Shatner  serenades the crowd. A true classic, in my opinion. However, in that moment, I reckoned that Miss Congeniality would be about as well-received as an outbreak of genital herpes.  A Beautiful Mind, I decided, was a safer bet. It’s my favorite movie, I told the interviewer, because it depicts how Nash overcame the psychological struggle within himself to bring about one of the most important mathematical theorems of our time.

And on that load of crap, I got myself into Harvard.

Defusing The H-Bomb

One of my mom’s favorite Asian soap operas is called “Love Story in Harvard.”  I watched the first episode with her, which featured two graduate students arriving in Cambridge.  They find that Harvard is every bit the torture chamber that they expected.  The students don’t sleep.  They don’t eat.  They spend all their waking hours poring over their thousand-page textbooks.  Upon the eve of a big test, one student starts crying and screaming bloody murder. 

That’s the outside perception of what Harvard students are like.  We’re essentially sleep-deprived, bookworm zombies with limited social skills and poor hygiene habits.  (Some of that is not far from the truth.)

Because of this, alumni like to talk about the best way to “drop the H-bomb,” which is telling people that you went to Harvard (eg. was part of the zombie clan).  The H-bomb is referred to as such because of its cataclysmic result, no matter the initial intention.  When you tell people that you went to Harvard, you get one of three reactions: awe, indifference, or “fight me.”

1.      Awe: “Wow! What was it like?  Do you really have Quidditch matches on Sundays?  You’re like a genius, aren’t you?”

2.      Indifference: “I heard they have good popcorn chicken.”

3.      Fight Me: “So what did you get on your SATs?  That’s not that impressive.  I heard there’s a lot of grade inflation there.  Did your parents go there?  Are they super rich?  Your grandfather donated a statue, didn’t he?  Whatever, I make more money than you.”

When I first arrived at Harvard in 2003, I was squarely in the first camp.  I was in awe of the place.  Save for the severely narcissistic, many Harvard freshmen come in believing that they were the admissions mistake.  I certainly felt like one.  I wasn’t the high school valedictorian, I didn’t have a perfect score on my SATs, and I had no unique talents, like playing the obokano.  The only reason I felt somewhat legit was that my grandparents hadn’t donated a statue.  At least I couldn’t be accused of being a legacy admit.

For some students, the question of “How did they get in?” was immediately answered.  One of my freshman roommates, Bella*, could speak five languages and was from Albania.  Don was a junior Olympian skier.   And Vinny won $25,000 on Jeopardy in high school and could recite the capitals of all the countries in the world.  But for the rest of us who could barely point out Albania on a map, we were mired in our admissions-mistake insecurity.

The night we threw burning boxes into the Charles

However, after a few weeks on campus, I began to see Harvard differently.  Yes, it was a place of high-achieving, intelligent people… but there were exceptions. There were people who were IQ-smart, but socially incapable of talking about anything but quantum physics.  There were people who received terrific grades, but did so as a result of studying all day and night.  And then there were people who were so clearly admissions mistakes that they simply gave up trying to prove otherwise, and spent most of their time doing coke at the Fly and ice-luging goldfish.

To be in awe of Harvard, the institution, was understandable… but as for us humble members of the student body?  The overachievers, the bookworms, the “How did they get in?” mysteries?  Well, we were just plain lucky (and good at lying about movies).

When asked to describe my experience at Harvard, there is one incident that always comes to mind.  A few weeks into my first semester, I was having dinner in the freshman dining hall when I overheard someone earnestly describing a night out with some prudent strippers: “They let us get real close, but we couldn’t touch them… it’s like they were asymptotes.”

I’m not even being hyperbolic.  True story.

Korean Soap Operas Had Nothing on Us

There were certainly moments of my Harvard experience that rivaled the drama of the Korean soap.  One night, I awoke to a loud, bloodcurdling scream from my multilingual roommate, Bella.  Something we quickly learned about Bella was that not only did she have a talent for languages, but she had a particular affinity for four-letter words.

“FUCK,” she screamed, “FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK!”

“Bella, what happened?”  I peeked out of my bedroom.  It was 2 in the morning, but Bella and Kendra, my other roommate, were still studying at their desks in the common room.

“Oh my God,” Bella exclaimed, “I’m FUCKED.  I’m so fucked.  Oh my God…”  She started crying.

“Bella, what’s wrong?”  I was genuinely concerned: did a scholarship get revoked?  Did a payment not go through?  What would elicit such a strong reaction?

“I got lotteried out of a class!”  Bella sobbed, “I’m so SCREWED.”

Street performer with a fire hat in Harvard Square

Some background: when I was at Harvard, we had to fulfill “CORE” requirements in areas outside of our concentration.  So for example, English majors would have to take a Quantitative Reasoning (QR) CORE course, to fulfill their math requirement.  CORE courses were typically a joke: one QR course was called “Counting People.” Another was called, “The Magic of Numbers.” Naturally, these CORE courses were always oversubscribed, mostly because they were so ridiculously easy (at least for anyone who could count).  Thus, some CORE classes were lottery-only; juniors and seniors received preference, while freshmen were frequently lotteried out.  But even if you were lotteried out of a course, you could always take it in a later semester.  You only needed to fulfill your CORE requirements before graduation.

“Seriously, Bella?”  It was 2 AM, and I was now pissed that I had been woken up because of this.

“What am I going to do?  I was planning on taking ‘The Magic of Numbers’ this semester!  Oh my God, my entire schedule is ruined!”  Bella was still sobbing, unaware that Kendra and I were completely unsympathetic.

“Uh, how about take a separate class, and then take Magic Numbers next semester?”

“I can’t take another class!  I haven’t sat in on any other classes!  Oh my God, I am so FUCKED!”

It took another hour to calm Bella down, and to convince her that she was not seriously fucked if she just took a different class.

Nights like these were rare, but they did happen at Harvard.

Another time, Bella and Kendra got into a huge argument about a class that they were taking together.  The professor had assigned a paper, and apparently they had discussed what they would write about with each other.  Somehow, each had gotten the impression that the other had stolen their original idea.  They both came to me, crying, and accusing the other of “stealing their thesis.”  Never mind that this was an assignment where all two hundred students probably had the same “thesis” for this paper… But Bella and Kendra didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the semester.

At most colleges, people fight over stealing boyfriends.  At Harvard, the ultimate sin is stealing theses.  These are dramas fitting for soap operas like “Love Story in Harvard.”

Crème de la Crème

At Harvard, there was never a dearth of stimulating conversation.  Even though there was a distinct liberal, do-good slant at Harvard, we were all undeniably snooty.  In a place where jocks complained about asymptotic strippers, we reveled in our seemingly superior intellectuality.  Just by virtue of being at Harvard, we convinced ourselves that we were the smartest, most accomplished, and best-looking scholars and future leaders of America… the crème de la crème.

This was not considered “classy”

There were all types of snooty, from grunge snooty to Upper East Side snooty.  There were artists who flocked together in their rebellion and harangued the world of conformists and sellouts. There were well-heeled suits and pearl-wearing debutantes-to-be who hosted chardonnay parties and talked about dollar cost averaging. Beat poetry coexisted with popped collars; debates about Burma with tirades about taxes.

Snootiness was commonplace, whether it was intentional or not.  One friend used to speak in only grammatically correct sentences, leading her to use phrases like, “Flo-Rida, whom I love…”  Another friend enjoyed abusing telephone operators when asked to spell out letters over the phone: “It’s ‘M’ as in Mary, ‘A’ as in Apple, and ‘P’ as in Pterodactyl.”

But at the same time, the intellectualism of the institution overwhelmed us.  After all, we were living in a world where Harvard had drawn the line between “high” culture and “low” culture.   We were supposed to value the New Yorker over Us Weekly, Italian wines over Franzia, and opera over Oprah.  Classical music and Jane Austen were culturally superior to Justin Timberlake and Agatha Christie.  There were entire departments dedicated to the study of Greek and Roman civilizations, and only a few sociology classes focused on modern culture.  Pop culture was considered so foreign and extraneous that it was relegated to the field of anthropological studies: along with Zulu tribesmen, Charlie Sheen is simply a curious human phenomenon.

It was quasi-sacrilegious to admit that one enjoyed reading undeep, unanalytical, unintellectual publications like InTouch Weekly, filled with uncompoundable compound words.  At Harvard, you could get away with being a Marxist, but it was something else to admit that you were an avid O-Town fan.  Miss Congeniality was not the same as A Beautiful Mind.

It’s no surprise, then, that GQ named Harvard the fourth-douchiest American university.  We were only beaten by Princeton, Duke, and Brown, which was first.  Of course, as this link circulated around our Harvard circle like wildfire, someone had to make the snooty, douchy comment: “I suppose this is the only list on which Brown will be #1 ahead of Harvard.”

Where My $150,000 Went

During my senior year of college, a relative asked me: “So now that you’re almost graduating, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from Harvard?”

The yard

It seemed like an innocuous question, but I knew that there was an already-implied $150,000 answer, thanks to Good Will Hunting (”You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library”). The best response to this kind of inquiry would involve something uber-academic and arcane, like “vector spaces” or the neurobiology of whales, with some Plato thrown in for good measure. Given my studies in Economics, Psychology, and Government, I tried to recall the most exotic facets of the social sciences. But at that moment, just a few months away from graduation, I could barely remember what I learned about convergence theorems, double-blind studies, or legal proceedings in the United States. I may have read Plato in my “Issues in Ethics” class freshman year, but I’d forgotten all of his issues. And I certainly couldn’t talk about whale brains.

I dutifully recited some boring tenets of basic economic theory, and my relatives seemed satisfied.

Two years after graduation, I went back to Harvard for a visit. Just walking around the Yard brought back memories from the streets of the Cambridge. As a freshman, I once walked into the Crate and Barrel on Mass Ave and asked for directions… to Mass Ave. On Saturday, as an elderly alum, I expertly weaved through the crowds and reminisced about the days when the campus was mine, when the memories were happening. And now that I’m a few years older, ostensibly wiser, and wholly entrenched in the “real world”, I can finally admit to what I learned (and retained) at Harvard:

I learned that Harvard students are the best and the brightest in the world at avoiding solicitors outside the Science Center. I learned how to make the perfect spiral on my fro-yo cone after years of trial-and-error (and a couple spills). I learned to dodge tourists like a running back, and not to rub the foot of the John Harvard statue.

With my $150,000 education, I know now that a naked run in the brisk midnight air is the key to surviving ensuing exams. I know that one shouldn’t venture into the Sanskrit section of Widener unless she want to see that same nudeness in full light. I know that it’s “ec”, not “econ,” and “gov,” not “political science.” I know that if you remove the “i” from “assistance” you have the labels on our blue light emergency phone stations.  Because even at Harvard, a pole that says “Ass stance” is funny.

So, what’s the most interesting thing I’ve learned from Harvard? It’s that these insights came far more rapidly than my recall of the Solow model. It’s that these learnings have taken priority in the annals of my tiny whale brain. It’s that these memories–from the dorms, from the tailgates, from the Kong–have replaced Adam Smith. It may not sound like the typical Harvard admissions pitch, but it’s definitely something you can’t get for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.

* All names changed to protect me from getting sued when these people become big shots and I’m still starving as a struggling writer.

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