Seewai writes about how she developed her bi-racial identity through her education. This is the third article for the Defining Amherst column in The Amherst Student.
Before coming to Amherst, I had a very noncommittal stance on my mixed race. I laughed along with both comments of “you’re basically white” and “you’re so Asian.” Depending on the situation, I was one or the other. Without realizing it, I let myself believe that I could only be one race at any given time. When I got an A on a math or science test, I was Asian. When I had slumber parties with my friends, I was white. The only time I was ever really both was when I was explaining to someone “what” I am. My lack of self-confidence only made matters worse. I was very quiet and found it difficult to speak up. Explaining the pronunciation of my name was the farthest I could get when it came to asserting myself. Although I was smart, I didn’t feel like I had any authority over matters of race. When I was only Asian sometimes and white sometimes, how could I ever really know what it meant to be either of those things?
My high school in New Mexico had very few Asians compared to Amherst, so when I came here I found myself faced with a new, stronger force of authority. My new friends grew up in communities where white people were the minority. They have shared understandings of what it means to be a young Asian American. As we got to know one another, they would make jokes about their own culture or reference childhood experiences. I understood some of their jokes and references, but each one I didn’t get felt like a wrong answer on a test. While my new friends didn’t care too much about how Asian I was, I could feel their confusion on where to place me. Their usually silent hesitations about my race were enough to return my mind to the question of whether I am more Chinese or more white. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed to answer.
I have since slowly come to the decision that I’m always both Chinese and white. Recognizing the unchangeable nature of my multiple races sounds straightforward and obvious, but it hasn’t been easy to get here. The thing that has helped me the most is the academic growth I’ve made at Amherst. I have learned not only how to develop my ideas more fully but also to trust that they’re good enough. It’s this small confidence boost that has made me realize that my opinions have value and that my voice has authority.
It also allowed me to start feeling like I have a place in the classroom. Class participation is something I always have and still do struggle with. I used to attribute this to my quiet and shy temperament, but I have discovered that classroom dynamics are much more complicated than can be explained by students’ dispositions. Our race is an important piece of who we are and for many people, it is a defining part of their lives. Inevitably, the way we feel about our own race and how we see others perceive it contribute to our sense of self-worth. We have to feel like we are worth something as people, before we can feel our ideas are good enough to be shared in a discussion.
I still often feel conflicted by my dichotomous race and by others’ perception of it, but I no longer feel like I need to choose between its two components. This experience has showed me how my education can help me grow personally, which is not something I expected. Coming to Amherst, I knew education was important, but I saw college mostly as the inevitable next step in my life and as a place to figure what I want to do with my life. Now, the purpose I ascribe to my education is more meaningful. Its purpose is to give me the tools I need to figure out who I am.