Before I came to college, I lived and grew up in a predominantly Asian area. Most of my friends were Asian, and the majority of my classmates were as well. When driving through town, it would be normal to pass by Korean and Chinese churches and signs. Being Asian was a part of my identity that I never had to think twice about. At that point, it just meant that I loved eating Korean BBQ and drinking bubble tea, but nothing more. Rarely did I think about issues pertaining to my race or identity because of the bubble I lived in. I had more Asian friends than friends of any other ethnicity, but I never thought that was a problem. I was just more comfortable around people from similar backgrounds. Was there anything wrong with that?
I never really gave much thought about what my future friendships would be like and how my cultural identity would affect me when I ventured out to college. I was moving to a school in rural Massachusetts with fewer than 2,000 students from a diverse and metropolitan area. I had just assumed that I would just approach whatever Asian person I could find and go from there. Maybe I could just talk about how much I loved eating ramen or what my favorite K-pop groups were and somehow I could form a connection with some of the students. I acted as if I could just simply recreate my life back home in an area with probably one-fifth of my hometown's Asian population.
Little did I know, my plans to stick with what I was comfortable with quickly fell apart once school actually started. I struggled to make friends with the Asian students that I thought I would immediately click with. It turns out that just because you two like the same KPop group you won't be best friends immediately. A combination of being socially awkward and realizing that my interests and hobbies were shaped completely by the people around me back home made orientation week painful and lonely.
What finally made me reevaluate my goals and myself was at one of the first Asian Students Association meetings I went to a few weeks after orientation. Members of the club were discussing what type of events they typically host throughout the year, and what they said completely surprised me. While I was expecting typical events like cooking night, hanging out and watching Korean dramas, the club was leading serious discussions on issues pertaining to the Asian-American community, leading a project to establish Asian American studies as a major at the school and sending students to conferences to learn more about their identity.
Somehow coming to this meeting was like throwing a bucket of cold water on myself. The bubble that I had created for myself all these years had finally popped, and I realized that I needed to truly reexamine myself and embrace the discomfort. Being an Asian-American doesn't mean embracing only the fun and cute side, but it means embracing the dark sides parts. Underrepresentation in the media, dealing with microaggressions and being overlooked in history are just some of the issues that pre-college me would push aside, but now I accept it and try to be receptive to learning how to resolve these issues.
Coming to college also helped me to realize that I don't have to use my entire Asian identity to define my life. After dropping my plan to befriend all the Asian students and allowing myself to open up to everyone, I managed to find a group of friends that I feel the best around. The person that I was before I came to college does not have to be the same person I am today.
Through lots of self-reflection, lonely nights and stumbling across the right club, I think I've finally beginning to understand my Asian identity and control how much of it defines me. Being Asian-American is complex and multi-faceted, and I'm okay with that. Now I also know that I can be more than just my racial identity. It's a complicated and personal journey that many people have to explore once they start the next chapter of their lives at college, but it is worth doing.
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