Alumni’s lives as minorities

October 11, 2017 — by Elicia Ye

Alumni experience culture shock and stuggle to identify in areas with different racial dynamics

When Class of 2016 alumna Jasmine Qin’s Chinese immigrant father went to University of Minnesota to help her move in during Welcome Week last year, Qin’s Caucasian roommate pointed out how her father speaks English with an accent.

“That’s just not something you hear being discussed amongst friends in the Silicon Valley,” Qin recalled. “We all know our parents have accents, but it wasn’t anything new or something that was brought up to be talked about.”

Since the demographic breakdown of Saratoga differs drastically from that of most American high schools, many graduates notice a stark contrast when they attend college in other regions of the country whose demographics contrast with Bay Area.

With a 23.3 percent Asian and 23.5 percent Hispanic/Latino population as reported by the 2010 Census, the Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in the nation. The census also shows that in Saratoga specifically, where 53.9 percent of the city’s residents are Caucasian, the percentage of Asians is 41.4 while Saratoga High School reports its total minority enrollment at 72 percent.

Qin, who grew up in San Jose and attended Saratoga High for her senior year, experienced a sort of culture shock during her first year in the Twin Cities.

“Leaving the Silicon Valley will make you realize how diverse California is compared to anywhere else in the U.S.,” Qin said. “For me, it made me appreciate California so much more.”

While Qin said she never felt self-conscious about her racial background in the Bay Area, she almost instantly noticed how she stood out in Minnesota, where the percentage of Asians is 4.9 in 2016, according to the census. In fact, the overall Asian percentage in the U.S. is 5.6 percent, not that far off from the proportion in Minnesota.

Qin found herself in an even more awkward place when Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. Although Minnesota is by and large a liberal state, it is surrounded by red states that many of its students call home, and Trump supporters are everywhere.

“It takes some time to adjust, but after a while you start getting used to it and learn not to take it personally, unless they are racially attacking you,” she said.

Another issue Qin has noticed regarding her Asian American identity was that unlike second generation Asian Americans in the Bay Area, most Asians in Minnesota are international students who were born and raised outside the United States. Since there are not many Asian Americans like Qin in the Midwest, she found it difficult to fit in.

“People may take a look at you and automatically assume you’re also an international student because you’re not white,” she said. “The feeling of fitting in is hard and can feel really lonely and odd — I definitely had that struggle and I still do.”

Regardless of the adjustments Qin had to make in the past year, she said she is grateful of the opportunity to leave the Silicon Valley and explore other parts of the country, where she has been able to find some things in a positive light — not only is the cost of living cheaper, but she has also learned more about other cultures.

Class of 2017 alumnus Eric Sze, a former Falcon staff member, said he has also experienced culture shock earlier this semester when he first stepped foot on the Washington University at St. Louis campus in Missouri, where he initially found difficult to click with many people there.

Although people who live on his floor are “super nice” and greet him with “Hey, what’s up?” and “How are you doing?” conversation hardly goes beyond surface level. After moving to the Midwest, Sze experienced a whole new demographic of people that made him “miss the belonging factor” he had felt here.

“Being a lost freshman, I had no one to latch onto when I got here — barely even one friend because I found it so hard to identify with many of the people here,” Sze said.

The shock, however, lessened as Sze started joining clubs and meeting people he clicked and became close friends with during Welcome Week and at Asian American Association events. “The student groups made me feel like I actually belong to this school and have an identity here, which was something I didn’t feel like I had when I first got here,” he said.

But outside the university and the “WashU bubble,” St. Louis is an even less diverse place, with a 46.8 percent white and 47.2 percent black population, as shown on the census.

When Sze went off campus to a bowling alley for a club's executive board bonding, he experienced more than just cultural shock when a group of white men yelled at him, "Hey do you speak Mandarin?" "Run back to where you came from!" Similar incidents have occurred three more times so far when he went to Asian food places and grocery stores in St. Louis.

“Although this isn’t a bad thing per-se, it's definitely something I rarely experienced in Saratoga,” Sze said in a Facebook message. “For me, it's good to get out of California and somewhere I never thought I would ever live (who would've ever thought I'd end up in STL) because it has helped me grow so much learning to adapt to my environment and building me up as a person.”


Vermont school’s inclusive environment

Now just a couple of months into his freshman year, class of 2017 alumnus Andre Xiao said he has found it easy to adjust to Middlebury College in Vermont, which is 94 percent white, according to the most recent school report.

Despite its white majority student body, Middlebury boasts an open and liberal environment that emphasizes inclusion and acceptance, Xiao said.

“I haven’t come across racism here,” Xiao said. “Everyone here at Midd has made me feel comfortable, and I don’t feel any prejudice or racism toward me.”

Xiao’s experience parallels that of students from colleges with a racial composition similar to Saratoga’s.

Class of 2017 alumna Nicole Lin, for example, found herself at home at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where the student population is 18 percent Asian and 41 percent white.

From cultural-professional clubs including engineering and business to cultural-dance groups like Bhangra and dragon dancing, Cornell also facilitates appreciation for cultural diversity through different clubs and organizations. According to Lin, even fraternities and sororities are part of the Multicultural Greek Letter Council, so students always have the opportunity to learn about and participate in new cultures. Lin herself joined the Cornell Chinese Students Association, one of the many cultural-cultural groups on campus.

Nonetheless, even with the multitude of cultures present and celebrated, racism has stained the Cornell campus recently.

At the beginning of the semester, a member of the fraternity Psi Upsilon allegedly attacked an African American student, which authorities categorized as a possible hate crime.

According to the Associated Press, Cornell President Martha Pollack said the University would shut down the fraternity’s chapter at Cornell, revoking its recognition for violating its code of conduct.

In her statement to the Cornell community on Sept. 17, Pollack said the leadership team was working “to develop and implement steps to be a more equitable, inclusive and welcoming university.”

Class of 2016 alumna Nandita Mohan, now a Cornell sophomore, said recent incidents have raised tension around campus. She hadn’t realized how “backwards” someone of her peers could be, even when she herself was surrounded by allies who would stand up for their rights.

“Especially in these pretty dark political times is when you most expect people to stand up for you and be caring,” Mohan said. “But unfortunately, a lot of people also feel empowered to show what they truly think without facing any consequences.”

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