Checking boxes

When I landed in Beijing this past summer, everything was the same as I had remembered it: my house still had the same awkward color paint cracking off of its sides, the air was still filled with an unique mix of cigarette smoke and smog, and the street food vendor I always frequented had the same smile that he used to greet me with every week. But one thing was remarkably different, I checked a different box. Instead of checking the “returning home” box, I claimed I was just “visiting” as I passed customs.

It is a weird situation to be in when you can no longer call the place you lived in for seventeen years “home,” weirder yet when you realize this is exactly what you wanted. Sparing details, I had been bullied up until junior year of high school for being obese. Even as the bullying ceased I often found myself at odds with a large portion of fellow students and teachers in high school as many saw me as an archetype raging liberal: a situation I am sure many of my fellow Swatties have experienced. I longed for a change of setting and when I discovered Swarthmore I thought I had found myself a new home.

Honestly, Swarthmore has yet to disappoint. Sure my bowels may disagree with Sharples even more so than it does with all the gutter oil that goes into Beijing street food… but who am I to complain? I love Swarthmore, I really do. But something I never could have foreseen happened to me over the course of my freshman year—I became more Asian.

You may ask, “How the hell does one become ‘more’ Asian?” This transition has nothing to do with changes in the way I behave or look or anything intrinsic to who I am at all. Rather, this augmentation of Asianness arises from changes in those who surround me. Never have I had to check a box that identified my ethnicity as “Asian” before arriving at college, nor had I ever experienced being stuffed inside the same box I had been forced to check.

Growing up, being an American citizen in a British international school in China, I had always been seen as “American.” Yet now, in America, I was not American enough, I did not act American enough nor did I look American enough. As a Toni Morrison quote helped me realize, in this country “American” means white Christian. Everyone else gets a hyphen. Last year someone told me that I should not be allowed to claim I am Californian, in spite of the fact that I have San Francisco’s motto tattooed across my heart. You see no matter where you go, they take the most distinct difference about you and confine you within the boundaries of a labeled box.

They call me a third culture kid (TCK). I was born in California, raised in Beijing and attended a British international school there for ten years. My mother works in Hong Kong. I have spent an entire summer with Canadians studying abroad in Europe and I also speak a little Spanish. Ask me where I come from and my answer may vary.

We TCKs have many unique privileges related to our background: having our experience and the ability to shift identities in different situations is not a power many have. I sometimes wonder if we use that to become as different as possible or if we package ourselves within easy-to-define boxes for others to check. I also wonder if it truly is a privilege to conform to one of these boxes when one has to leave out everything that does not ‘belong’ inside. I know not who defines the boundaries of these boxes, but I do know that these boxes were not designed for all of us.

My cultural identity confuses the hell out of me and I think the standard of writing I present here really encapsulates that confusion. To the class of 2020: Swarthmore will challenge your conception of identity and personhood in more ways than you may foresee, but I hope you are not afraid of that challenge or the uncertainty that may ensue. I believe it will forever remain important that we, as a community, embrace each other and the difficult questions about ourselves that we may never be able to answer.

Swarthmore is the little box that I call home now—whether I chose to check that box or was forced inside it against my will is yet to be seen.

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