Fire in the Belly: Being a Second Generation College Student
I've been thinking a lot over the past year about my experiences as a second generation college student as well as a third generation Chinese-American, and how that all relates to the idea of the American Dream. As I've learned in sociology classes as well as through having a general awareness of the world, the American Dream can be a fairly destructive idea in that it has created the illusion of equal opportunity for anyone who seeks it, when in reality, federal legislation as well as social dynamics have made it enormously difficult for marginalized groups to attain the "American Dream." And yet, I've found the idea of the American Dream to be extremely popular amongst the immigrant community I come from.
In the wake of recent events, I felt that I ought to share some fairly personal things about myself and my family, regarding their immigration to this country. I haven't told this story to many people before, so I apologize if it's a little longwinded.
My grandparents immigrated from China, specifically Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), in the 1940s. My Gong Gong, or grandfather, first immigrated to the U.S. when he was 16 years old. He came to this country as a paper son, the same way that thousands of other Chinese did due to the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882 that specifically denied entry of Chinese nationals. The name he passed on to his daughters as well as the one that remains engraved on his headstone is not our real family name, but rather the name of the deceased man whose papers he bought in order to immigrate. This, in turn, makes tracing my family history in China exceedingly difficult (besides the part where I can't read Cantonese). I didn't know that there was an actual term for this type of immigration, paper families, until I took Asian American History last year, and put two and two together between my family's story and the historical context they were in.
Gong Gong fought for the Americans in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, which is how he was able to become a naturalized citizen afterwards. Recently I came across his enlistment form and found out that he weighed only 116 lbs. at the time of his enlistment, which surprised me, because I never envisioned my grandfather to only be slightly larger than I am now. When he was deployed in the Pacific, he made it a point to bring a white friend with him wherever he went, especially at night, so that he wouldn't be mistaken for a Japanese soldier. It was after the war when he returned to China that he would marry my Por Por, my grandmother, and bring her with him to the States. They had an arranged marriage, but it was a loving union between two people that genuinely looked after and cared for each other.
In Manhattan, my Gong Gong and Por Por settled in what was then Little Italy, when the actual Italians lived there, and it was there that they raised their four daughters, the youngest of whom is my mother. During her years in school before she entered Brooklyn Technical High School, my mom had to fend off local Italian kids who would pick on Chinese kids, thinking that they wouldn't fight back when they asked to give them their roller skates (which happened to my mom and her cousin) or lunch money. So while Bruce Lee was shattering stereotypes for Asians and Asian Americans onscreen through his superior physical strength, so was my mom when she'd be rolling on the floor of her middle school cafeteria, fighting some other girl who tried to pick on her.
As immigrants hoping to lay the groundwork for the smoothest possible transition in another country, my grandparents gave all of their daughters non-Chinese names. Traditionally, in Chinese culture, sons are favored over daughters because they are seen as breadwinners and bearers of the family name (plus a whole lot of other reasons that are difficult to put into words), but the absence of a son did not stop my Gong Gong from supporting and believing in his daughters' right to get an education and have self-sufficient careers. It is quite a feat then that he was able to finance and send all four of his children to college, though it was not without its difficulties. My mother expressed that she wanted to go to architecture school. For her, architecture was a practical compromise between her true intentions of being a fine artist and the realities and duties of her generational status, even though math was not her strongest subject, and she had absolutely no connections to the world of architecture. Gong Gong was skeptical at first that she would want to make the commitment of going into a field that had little to no women, much less Asian women, and pursue a rigorous line of study where only the strong survive (there were 100 people the first day of her freshman year, which dwindled down to only 30 at the time of graduation). But my mother's steadfastness assured him that she would succeed as an architect, so he agreed to let her go to architecture school. My mom also had to do all of her college applications on her own without any outside help or consultation.
I've had a lot of conversations with my mother about her experiences in architecture school as a first generation student, and as a woman of color. My Por Por didn't want her to be all the way across the state at Cornell, despite the fact that it's the top undergrad architecture program, so my mom had to settle for Pratt Institute in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (though she wasn't "settling" that much). My mom talks about being insecure about her unrefined Lowah East Soide accent that stuck out from the news anchor accents of the kids with trust funds, and of her alienation from white middle-class values that her classmates espoused. She learned after a while to not give a heck about it, though.
So in a lot of ways, my Gong Gong and Por Por did achieve the American Dream, to use myself as an example. I grew up being able to pursue whatever activities I was interested in (except for being an equestrian probably), I went to private school, I never had to throw a punch to defend the dignity of my race, though I had to do this verbally on too many occasions to count, as white jocks bullied and excluded me because I was an Asian who was one of the best lacrosse players in the first middle school I went to (I was like Jeremy Lin except female and I didn't play basketball). But aside from that, I also had the option of going to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, as opposed to going straight into professional school. Neither of my parents had the luxury of getting a liberal arts education, so along with being a second generation college student, I make the most out of my studies as well as extracurricular activities and resources that Oberlin offers, because I can.
I feel that my generational status has fixed a motor onto the back of me that keeps me going at a brisk but steady pace at Oberlin. This motor propels my own sense of initiative, as well as the value that I have towards my education. In other words, I don't mess around. My orthodontist joked that I was "boring" because of this, to which I let out an amused gargle from the dental chair. I take my education very seriously, because, frankly, I'm privileged as hell to even be here, and even more so because of the way I've thrived over the past two years. My mom's experiences as the first generation to go to college cut the wind for me in having a smoother idea of how college works, even if there are massive differences between architecture school and a liberal arts college like Oberlin. There still are difficulties that both of us share in our college experiences, such as being one of few Asians in many situations, and having to "act tough" so that white people will take us seriously as Asian women, but that's not something that tends to get fixed over the course of one generation anyways. Personally, I sometimes feel really estranged from part of the Oberlin community where I can feel that my second generational status sets me apart, such as looking like I'm a super Type-A, nerdy Asian, because of how seriously I take my coursework. I guess I am a bit nerdy in areas of pop culture, and I'm obviously Asian, but in no way am I Type-A. I'm just passionate about the things I'm learning about in class, and the very fact that I can get the education that I have. I don't really care if that's not what the cool white kids do.
And that's not to say that there's an enormous part of the Oberlin student body that doesn't care about their studies--that definitely isn't the case. l also experienced this feeling occasionally at the prep school I went to for high school. I suppose this also depends on what qualifies as "cool" between certain social groups on campus. Perhaps there always will be that one group of people who will think that being like, "I hate school! People who love school are stupid nerds!" is cool or whatever. While I'm on the topic of coolness (ugh, that sounds so dumb to say), I'll reiterate that I don't care what the "cool" white kids do, because I essentially have the attitude of an immigrant Asian parent on this subject. I really don't understand why people care so much (I mean... middle school happened a really long time ago at this point), and it seems like a really time- and energy-consuming process. But whatever, they're doing their thing, and I'm doing mine. And I'd also like to clarify that my generational status does not require me to love going to school or anything of the sort, which I feel plays into stereotypes of Asian Americans. The passion I have for learning comes from my own desire to better understand the world and work out large, complex problems with no clear answer. My generational status only brings me a sense of gratefulness and motivation, because I'm still a trailblazer in my family.
I never got to meet my Gong Gong because he died a few years before I was born, but I often think about him and feel that he's supporting what I'm doing. In October, I lost my other grandfather, Jack, who I wrote about earlier, so it's been a new experience of only having grandmothers. These past few months, especially in the wake of the change in presidential administrations, have led me to reflect on how I got to be where I am at the expense of those that came before me. Indeed, my Por Por was only a couple years older than I am now when she immigrated to the States without knowing English. Maybe this makes me obsessed with the past, but the reality is that when you're one of the first generations of your family to be born in this country, you can't exactly ignore your past and the sacrifices that people before you made, also because they're still alive to remind you.
Perhaps this is also part of the reason why I am such a huge fan of Hamilton, because it conveys certain aspects of being an immigrant (or a child or grandchild of one) that haven't really been celebrated in such a wholesome and universal way, at least in the timeline of my pop culture consciousness. In all honesty, I could write an entire memoir on my experiences as a granddaughter of immigrants, but Hamilton captures a lot of the larger themes. It's no secret that I like to creep around Columbia's campus when I'm at home, but I also like to do so so I can visit the statue of Alexander Hamilton that's outside of Hamilton Hall. I look at that statue and I see a mold-breaker, a man that defied all odds of becoming one of the most influential statesmen in our nation's history, but I also see a young immigrant kid, working hard to get his college education. In looking at that statue, I see a testament to the fire that burns in my belly, and know that I was never alone.