“Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” Those who applied to University of California schools before 2016 might recognize this as one of the two personal statement prompts required for the application.
Most prospective students knew what the admissions committee was creatively asking — how are you going to contribute to the diversity of our school? It was so unambiguous it might as well have been a yes or no question. If there was no diversity in your family, community or school, you’d probably be all but disqualified.
I was lucky. I had the story they wanted to hear and I knew exactly how I was going to frame it. In that essay, I talked about my experience growing up in a multi-ethnic family and the impact it’s had on my identity. I talked about visiting Algeria and going to Japanese cultural events as if those experiences shaped every aspect of who I am. I milked the “exotic” parts of me until I cringed at every word, and played down my American upbringing as much as my conscience would allow.
I wrote my narrative as if the relationships I had to my heritages were always clear to myself and my peers. I talked about these “rich cultures” as if they were at the center of my upbringing and my everyday life. I focused on the parts of my childhood that would illustrate how I was unique and I neglected to tell the stories that would have exposed the whole truth. With a limit of about 600 words, brevity was in my favor in constructing the culturally vibrant narrative.
But with more words, I would have mentioned all of the parts of my culture that were missing in my childhood. With more courage, I would have told the real stories of my mixed background — whether they satisfied the admissions committee or not.
For example, I could have talked about the times I felt like a foreigner in any of my parents’ cultural spaces. Until I was in second grade, my family had the privilege of living close enough to Boston, a diverse and welcoming cultural hub, to expose my brother and I to the cultures we were so far removed from. We went to celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, for my dad and celebrations of Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year, for my mom. And despite my parents’ best efforts to involve us in Islamic and Japanese traditions, I felt small each year as I watched the other attendees answer trivia about Islam and recite “ayat,” (verses) of the Quran while I tried to avoid anyone’s eye contact. And I felt small every year at that Oshogatsu celebration, trying to tune out the overwhelming sound of the loud taiko drums and mochi pounding while I stayed at the table quietly eating rice.
When I started school at UC Berkeley, I still struggled with my relationship to my identity. I realized I wasn’t the only one with a unique cultural background — as soon as I walked through the doors at orientation, I learned that I was one in thousands of other students in my class who also had one or more foreign-born parents.
Not only did I not feel special — I also felt like a fraud. In the identity discussions we took part in, I didn’t have concrete memories or customs to back up the ethnicities I laid claim to. I didn’t have the years of annual trips to the “motherland” or language barriers or cultural dissonance that other students had experienced. My anecdotes were not as vivid, and they were so scarce I constantly had to dig to find a new one.
I began to realize that the story I told in my UC application was losing legitimacy. Constant comparison and inundation with more powerful narratives suffocated the voice that wrote my original statement. Everything I engaged in as a part of my social life — the late-night talks, the restaurant outings, the student organizations — strengthened my understanding of all other identities at this university but my own. I felt estranged in so many social spaces and often I questioned how I fit in on this campus.
But what I forgot to acknowledge is that those feelings are fundamental to the mixed experience. Being a combination of ethnicities means losing part of one to make room for the other. It means seeing two or more sides as equal parts of yourself. It’s about feeling stuck on intersections because you’re always too much of one thing and not enough of the other.
It took time to understand my identity as a mixed-race American. And after trying to push it away for so long, I’ve accepted that feeling culturally disconnected is just as valid a feeling as being in touch. That is the story that feels the most genuine to me — and maybe that was the narrative I should have written from the start.
Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.