I was born into a family that did not want to — or could not — keep me. They dropped me off on the front steps of a nursing home in Shangrao, China, knowing the next face I would see would be a stranger’s and never again theirs. At three months old, I was thrust into the world with no knowledge of where I came from or what my future would hold.
It turned out my future was an entire world away. I was adopted into a white American family and grew up in Midwestern suburbs. In photos of family reunions I am all too easy to locate –– a small Chinese girl in a sea of my white relatives.
As one of the few East Asian students in my year, I stood out at school as well. High school, in all objective measures, was far from bad. I got good grades, I worked on my school newspaper and like any other Midwestern kid, I went to Culver’s with my friends after dances and football games.
However, during this time, I was also extremely estranged. Estranged from my past, my culture, my home country, my language –– all of it. It felt like my connection to China was held by an extremely loose thread, one that could break with the lightest tug.
They tell you not to put all your eggs in one basket, but I certainly did. Growing up, I assured myself that my estrangement was only temporary, that it could be fixed by a change of location and demographics. For me, college was the light at the end of the tunnel. A time and place where I’d shed my white upbringing, where I’d go from being the only Asian person in the room to being in rooms where there were only Asian people. When I committed to UC Berkeley in April 2021, I felt like I was on the precipice of self discovery, of cultural clarity.
Yet, the self-assurance I possessed going in ultimately turned out to be naïveté. After a year here, I can confidently say that Berkeley is not the Asian haven I was so desperately counting on. My freshman year was, if anything, a reckoning of sorts.
One of the first courses I enrolled in was History 6B, “Introduction to Chinese history from the Mongols to Mao.” My classmates of Chinese descent already knew how their families connected to the history we were learning, and shared how they’d been affected. For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that although I’m a product of the same history, I will probably never know the stories of my ancestors. That is a loss I will always have to contend with.
To fully take advantage of the resources at Berkeley, I also started relearning Chinese. Nothing is more humbling than learning a language, especially when it’s supposed to be your own.
Even with class five days a week, my journey towards fluency has been excruciatingly slow. When I successfully identify a character on a storefront or a menu or in an online post, for a moment, I am proud. But then, it hits me that I don’t even know enough to decipher the entire message. Patience and practice are all I have to remedy my frustration.
Amid everything, what has been hardest for me to come to terms with is that I don’t fully fit into the community I’ve been chasing my entire life.
I wasn’t raised by Asian parents, I didn’t grow up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood and I had to go to restaurants if I wanted to eat Asian food. An Asian face but a white name and upbringing –– I’ve spent my whole life existing in a hazy in-between. I began to envy my Asian peers who had never had their “Asianness” called into question on a fundamental level, who had never been othered by their own community.
Contrary to my expectations, my first year at UC Berkeley has left me with more questions than answers. With every step I’ve taken towards reconciling with my identity, I’ve realized how much there is still to learn — or how much I’ll never be able to learn.
The best analogy I have is to describe it as being stuck in a room. When you finally stumble through all the obstacles in the middle to the door on the other side, you open it only to discover that there are a million more doors that lead to a million more rooms you need to pass through. It’s an extremely daunting journey, and one that I ultimately must face alone.
The good news is that I’ve still got three more years ahead of me here, and the rest of my life thereafter. Though being here has made me confront what I’ve lost, it’s also given me immense opportunity to find myself. A million is a large number, and I’ll probably never make my way through every single room. Luckily, I have time and circumstance to explore many of them.