April 24, 2022

GUEST ROOM | The Pressure to Represent Multiple Identities

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As a senior biology major with minors in inequality studies and Asian American studies, I stay updated on political milestones, from the victory of Kamala Harris as our first Asian American and African American female vice-president to the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first African American female on the Supreme Court. I think about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘54, the first to go to college in her family and one of few women at Cornell at the time.

I think about my own identities, as a first-generation, low-income Chinese-American student, daughter of immigrants. I feel the need to represent my hometown as a community of first-and second-generation immigrants who must navigate American institutions like healthcare and finances. A community that experiences microaggressions with an abundance of hurdles as well as racially charged acts of violence, despite a large proportion of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants living there.

Sometimes, I feel like I got the luck of the draw. When I was accepted into Cornell, I was given a generous enough offer of financial aid that my family could hesitantly afford. My mom valued my education, so she pushed me to pursue a degree at Cornell when I had offers closer to home in Boston. My friends from home wanted me to have the best education I could receive and joked about how I would be able to help them navigate life (but do any of us ever figure that out?). However, my mentors in my high school organizations and upperclassmen had warned me that a place like Cornell would not be kind to people like me.

Despite my hesitancy to come to the middle of nowhere Ithaca in upstate New York, surrounded by rural white counties, I eventually believed Cornell would be the best place to challenge me. And it has, for better and for worse. I have never been more questioned about anything in my life, about my upbringing, about my complicated relationship with my family, about the burden my parents have placed on me since I was a child and about how I could speak so eloquently despite being a first-generation college student. That is when I realized I had to work five times as hard to get half as far to where some of my peers were. When I realized marginalized students here at Cornell suffer under more external pressure than their cisgender, heterosexual, white upper-middle-class peers who will never understand the extent of their privilege.

Since I was the first person in my high school to go to Cornell in over 10 years, there were no upperclassmen I could turn to, no one to help me navigate the higher institution of Cornell. I was often left to fend for myself when I could not understand how financial documents or healthcare worked because I was never taught how to engage with authority.

I realized even amongst some of my Asian American peers, I was still an outsider; my parents dropped out of high school to work for their families and lived in poverty until immigrating to the States a few years prior to when I was born. Not to mention, my intergenerational trauma, racial trauma and mental health issues I can never explain to people except those back in my hometown. I align with the similar struggles of my working class peers, having to worry about problems at home while studying for classes and working a job because it will bring more income to your family while they pay for your college tuition. 

However, the installation of the Arts Quad does remind me that there are peers that do understand my struggles of honoring our parents because of the guilt we bear, recognizing all the sacrifices our parents made to come here. Since my parents immigrated to the US in their mid-30s, I have had to navigate American institutions and life at the same time as them, except I was a child at the age of seven. I realized the burden and expectations placed on me to ensure my parents could adjust to the States and feel safe enough to even speak English in public spaces.

In other ways that I’ve been challenged, I’ve learned so much about how to characterize my experiences growing up in a working-class family, the concept of concerted cultivation versus natural growth and how to navigate being an Asian American woman at Cornell, the idea of racial triangulation. I took classes in sociology, Asian American studies and English to challenge my current existing views of inequality. I took classes beyond my major requirements to broaden my learning of wet lab research and scientific analysis. I recognize my privilege in coming to Cornell and the opportunities I now have access to.

Knowing my privilege, I will excel and succeed for not my own sake, but for the sake of my family and friends in my hometown, the ones who could not afford to go to their dream colleges or even pursue an educational degree. Cornell has not supported me; I had to carve my own path here on campus. Sometimes, I blame myself for not putting myself out there more as a freshman, but how could I when every space I entered did not feel safe? I am able to confidently participate in public speaking engagements now and share my stories in the hopes that they will reach people, but I cannot help but think: why was there no one like that for me my freshmen year?

In the end, I know I have found where I belong at Cornell, but to get to this point has brought me a lot more pain and suffering than I wish it did. I know I will come out of Cornell feeling ready to take on the world post-graduation, but sometimes I do think, at what cost?

Gigi Wong (she/her) is a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.