The dictionary sits in the back of my mind, always.
After two years, its pages are now thumbed-through, new entries are penciled in, notes I’ve gathered as warnings linger, red in the margins. In my mental dictionary, I use a lot of red. In red, I mark the reality of the clear cut definitions, the lessons and the consequences of such words.
March 28, 2019, I received a letter from Princeton which changed my life. A small-town, low-income, Japanese-Latina managed to beat the odds and hit the Ivy League. When people asked how she did it, she’d answer with a laugh, “I sold my soul to the school.” That high school senior was on top of the world. She was confident, bold, and was often told that she had her stake in every corner of the school. No one questioned the fact that she got in because everyone knew she challenged every odd just to get there. They just wanted to know the recipe so they could recreate it.
I look back and wonder if that girl would recognize me. If she, like everyone else I encounter these days, would squint and stare for a moment too long, thinking, “Do I know them? Should I say hi? Oh, god, they’re waving. Wave back.” Because in small-town Florida where no one talks about identity, where microaggressions are normalized, where anyone different is taught that “others have it worse,” it’s easy to think hard work is all you need to reach the top.
But when I reached campus in the summer of 2019 as a Future Scholars Institute (FSI) participant, it became painfully evident that I could no longer simply be comfortable in white spaces. In fact, it seemed the university in general was intent on giving me lists and lists of reasons why I should not be comfortable. The first entries in the dictionary were written during FSI. They were handed to me in meme-ridden powerpoints during orientation, words that once meant nothing at home suddenly defined me on campus. “Low-income,” “minority,” “privilege,” and, maybe most importantly, “imposter syndrome.”
I was not prepared for the burden of the dictionary. Each entry weighed infinitely more on me. Words that were not new, per se, were redefined in such a way that I trained myself to reevaluate my own presence. “Low-income” and “privilege” were two labels in particular that became inseparable from each other. I was no stranger to low-income student groups, having been in one all through high school. Although I am grateful to all the ways they helped me, my membership even in that group seemed precarious at the time. I was reminded every once in a while that I was near the cap of who was considered low-income. Once, I was told not to bother to apply to Questbridge because I was “too rich.” I’d only find out later, after the deadline had passed and curiosity got the best of me, when I looked into it, that the advisor had been dead wrong. My parents didn’t make nearly as much money as they presumed, and I still don’t know what it was about me that falsely exuded the image of wealth.
Nevertheless, their words followed me. All through FSI, I excluded myself from conversations around finances and experiences growing up. I was terrified of being caught as a fraud, and I berated myself by saying I had no right to step into the conversation when “others had it worse.” Coming to Princeton meant stepping into an identity that I had no idea how to handle. I was told to balance both this new label of “low-income” and the fact that I was privileged to have lived in a suburb with two married parents who had cars, parents who could afford to give us necessary technology. I was both a disadvantaged student that needed help and should be pitied as well as someone who needed to check their privilege. Simply existing was no longer an option.
I realize now that even with some privilege, I was disadvantaged and misinformed. When mentors warned me that money would be present on campus, they painted it as classmates taking vacations in the French Alps. They did not say it would be in professors being shocked I hadn’t taken private lessons in Greek or Latin, in friends paying me 20 dollars to replace a 2-dollar plastic plate of mine without second thought, or in the strangest competition of “who pays the most tuition in the group.” (Answer: It is absolutely never me.) This presence of wealth hits at odd moments.
Socioeconomic status wasn’t the only shift. When the fall semester started, I was forced to become very aware of my other identities. In high school, in the pool of students I’d known since elementary school, it was just another fact that I was a Japanese-Latina. I never had to defend myself on this front. Yet, on campus, in a single month, I lost count of the number of people who didn’t believe my background, as if I was joking about having immigrant parents and grandparents. It seems absurd that I’ve ever had to combat the phrase, “No, you’re white,” with “You’re actually 100% wrong.” In a majority white high school, I was obviously a minority. On a significantly more diverse university campus, I am white-passing, and this again, is another privilege. And because it is a privilege, it seems almost incorrect if I label the white identity people try to impose on me as erasure. I convinced myself that instead of being angry, I should laugh it off when a fellow Cuban calls me a “Mudblood Cuban” or smile while correcting another Asian American when they insist I am white. I convinced myself nothing was wrong until I entered an affinity space and recounted the story, finding that instead of laughing I was almost crying. The joke had lost its touch.
Entering a diverse space puts pressure on me to claim identities. To not claim an identity was to be ashamed of it, and I am not ashamed. So, I claimed them all. But, in the process, I drowned myself in so many labels that I felt disconnected from them all and that disconnection spread from an internal struggle to fear. I feared being called out in spaces, being told I didn’t belong when I knew I did. I questioned my place in the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) even while knowing I was hardly capable of paying any amount of tuition on my own. I questioned my place in racial minority groups because perhaps I was too whitewashed to be welcomed or too uninformed to be a real member. I thought about privilege until it devoured my words, leaving only silence.
Thus entered another entry: imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome was also an entry that was redefined. I’d never heard of such a thing until FSI, but then it was painted as the feeling that one did not belong on campus. My sister calls me a narcissist because I never once questioned my place at this university as a whole. I still don’t. I know what I did to get here and how I earned a place at the table. However, the problems come when I need to put food on my plate. I wasn’t taught that imposter syndrome might manifest in different ways. That it would mean I would question my place in student groups or even just my place in a minority. The questions seep in and it’s impossible to remove the stain.
Princeton puts a magnifying glass on identity. In places where I am typically comfortable, where I don’t feel silenced, invisible, called out, or in any way differentiated, the attention can shift so the ease that was once there disappears. When the word “diversity” enters the conversation, I am to be made an example and a representative. “Let’s talk about your experience. How do we help you, poor troubled child?” It’s as if I cannot possibly be content simply existing. A normal conversation goes awry when a well-meaning person suddenly wants to ensure I’m “comfortable,” although I can’t imagine what made them think I was anything but comfortable in the first place. The magnifying glass shifts to me, and suddenly I am to represent a group although I had never accepted that responsibility in the first place. One of my dictionary marginal notes: To outsiders, being born as a minority means that you are born with the responsibility of representing your community even when you do not want to.
This responsibility combined with imposter syndrome forces me to act. Those two are what make me uncomfortable, and to get rid of the discomfort, I decide the problem is me instead of others. I am commended for the changes I make, as if it was expected of me all along, as if not doing them sooner made me any less of any identity. I actively read authors of color, and suddenly I am accepted further by racial minorities. I attend talks by other FLI students and alums, and I get a gold sticker saying I am a responsible low-income student. I write about my minority experience, and I am applauded by white allies telling me how brave I am. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy doing the acts, but the reactions to them transform from simple conversation points to grand endeavors that I painstakingly accomplished—or at least, that’s how everyone else sees them.
I’d be lying if I said the reactions didn’t make me feel better about myself. They’re reassurances that I can survive another day without being called out, without adding “imposter” to my endless labels. So I keep taking notes in my dictionary. I keep adding entries. I keep myself in line through the rules I learn by observing.
But recently, with anti-Asian hate crimes becoming more and more visible across the U.S., I’ve found myself taking a new approach. The hate crimes became unignorable after the shooting in Atlanta on March 16 which took the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women. For a while, it seemed to be the only thing the news and social media wanted to talk about. My dictionary took on new meaning as I tried to define “visibility,” “white ally,” and “trend.” All the questions I had about whether I belonged to a group faded after, again and again, social media became a place of agony. Instagram, once my most popular app, has become a space I try to avoid because the stories are filled with pretty infographics posted by so-called allies. My network is flooded with information that I am disappointed to know is just a trend.
What? How can this be? I am upset when people suddenly want to talk about my experiences, but don’t I want things to get better? One might think I can’t have it both ways—desire change and then be upset when someone initiates a conversation to enact such change—but I disagree. I have every right to be upset when someone uses my struggle to absolve their guilt. I have every right to be upset that people see this as the new trend and then forget in two months all the pronunciation guides, stereotypes to avoid, active-thinking tactics to be a better person—all the information that I know some other POC put together as useful guides, in hopes that someone would retain it. As for those who truly care, I am glad to see them listening. However, I can no longer ignore the overpowering numbers who flood these streams and take up space without listening. My problem with this is the fact that it isn’t a conversation. It’s a feed overload where I can’t even see myself anymore.
Every once in a while, buried in the mainstream posts, I find content from another Asian or Asian American. And not someone’s post that went viral, but someone who I am acquainted to. Someone who doesn’t feel like an abstract post on the web. They enter the conversation so over-saturated by white ally reposts and voice their own stories, their own pain, their own anger. “This is what I needed,” I think every time. I feel seen but also know that I see them. They resonate with me. In those moments, I don’t question my identity at all. In those moments when I can finally say, “I know what that is like,” I feel like I belong.
The fundamental problem with this is the fact that I feel validated by shared devastation—that it takes tragedy for me to finally understand that I don’t need to bury myself in labels and can instead throw the dictionary at someone else because I am so tired of trying to explain myself. The silence of my social media presence rings in my head. Sometimes I, too, repost the pretty infographics because I feel like I need to say something. Gloria Anzaldua once wrote about a shadow beast that lived within women, a beast that the women would keep close, and although there was something terrifying about it to the people who surrounded it, there was a strength hidden in the shadows. Years of telling myself that I can’t speak up in certain spaces has taken my own shadow beast and locked it up tight.
Through the recent vocal and visible outrage by the AAPI community I have another entry to explain what has conditioned me to be silent: model minority. Atlanta was only the most visible event. These hate crimes had been occurring long before this year and even long before people decided to turn on the AAPI community and blame them for Covid-19. Yet these prior events remained almost invisible as others buried AAPI struggles and pain under “model minority.” My experiences and expectations in grade school finally got their own definition, and one that seemed common among countless others. I’d heard of the model minority before, but from my peers who pressed the traits of being smart and hardworking upon me, I had thought it was something to be proud of. I surround this definition with lots of red pen, stripping away the misconception and the lies that defined my perceptions. Still, even knowing the falsehoods behind the cage, I am both afraid of what will happen if unleash the shadow beast; I am afraid that I will let it out only to find that no one cared about my fear, anger, and pain in the first place.
But the silence is worse than the fear. I start to release the shadow beast. First, in letters to that small-town, low-income, Japanese-Latina senior year girl who I knew would be devastated to see how our confidence took a hit. Then, in actually replying to the stories I see on social media. “Thank you for saying this,” I write. Thank you for saying what I could not gather the courage to say. Thank you for making me feel seen. “You’re not alone.” Most recently, in my writing, acknowledging that identity is a tangled and disastrous network to try and unravel.
Slowly, I thumb through the dictionary again. At the end of it, I add another word on a bright sticky note, marking it an essential addition and one entirely my own, undefined by others around me: mixed. Among all the definitions that I, at some point, had allowed to control my life, mixed is a word that seems hardly defined at all. It’s reclaiming. It puts an umbrella over all the labels I’ve struggled to juggle and leaves my identity as something I can choose to either explain or leave alone. As being a part of the AAPI community has been at the forefront of my identity these days, I know my racial identity is only a piece of me, and the rage, pain, and frustration around one piece encompasses and intertwines with all the others as well.
Despite all of the emotional and social challenges it presents, the dictionary has helped define my opinions on what I value and how I’ve come to know myself. The danger was in letting it control my fears, and I’m still learning to pull away from the scripted definitions and instead add sticky notes with my own. When I mentor high school students, I think about that senior girl who was so unprepared for the dictionary. I tell my mentees all the things I wish I’d been told. I validate their feelings and let them know that they deserve to be seen. I see a piece of me in them, in their ambition, in their dreams, in their determination. They’ve already begun their own dictionaries, and I tell them we’ll figure it out together, one entry at a time.