Given that the perfect girl is petite, thin, and porcelain-skinned, has straight, jet-black hair, plays piano, and has a 4.0, which best describes you?
1. Wide load, thunder thighs, double eyelids, plays tuba, irresponsibly didn’t study for the SAT, and doesn’t know her GPA.
2. Fragilely skinny, too-big eyes, no bust, handles a balance between extracurricular activities and schoolwork.
It’s a hard choice, really, between (1) the option I’d select if I were in China, and (2) what I would be in America, when the girl described in the prompt was a reality that surrounded me in Asia and an abstract standard of Chinese women in America. Having been treated as the unwanted half in a gendercide back home, a racial category to tick off in the American modeling industry, and somebody who can do it all “because she’s Asian,” it’s comforting to come to a place that, despite its widely ranging perspectives, has principles of acceptance.
Girls back home in Taiwan and China are meant to be quiet, meek, and humble—at least in public interactions. But, better yet, those qualities should be a part of one’s core character. I, unfortunately, embody none of these covetable traits, except perhaps meekness in my great Taiwanese fear of offending. One of my vivid childhood memories is not being able to look at a male teacher in grade school whenever I spoke, because I wasn’t used to talking unless I was spoken to, much less directly to men.
Here at Columbia, this tendency manifested itself most strongly in my Literature Humanities class, where class contribution was expected and exciting—just the American style of participation and discussion that I had looked forward to all my life and would not have the opportunity to experience at a local Chinese school. Yet my first few weeks here, I felt a mental paralysis in which I couldn’t bring myself to express my ideas, thinking them offensive or inferior to those of my peers—people meant to be my equals. It wasn’t even a matter of getting comfortable with college dynamics, but a constant struggle to remind myself that as a student at Columbia, I can be in awe of other people’s knowledge and achievements without having to feel inferior and be silenced for the same reasons that I was back home.
But, above all, as a Taiwanese girl you’re expected to have it all together, or at least look the part. Even if you’re having a truly awful day, you have to smile. The less somebody is able to tell how off you feel, the more you’re allowed to commend yourself for your success. A not-so-stellar performance will garner you a reprimand from a loved one who truly means best for you, and certainly a judgmental whisper amplifying outward from a nameless mass of people watching you, now placing you under a spotlight for your deviance.
As somebody with idiosyncratic behaviors and interests, I once thought to buck the system through razorblades. Instead of receiving horrified responses, I was rebuked for being inherently weak against pressures that no child should have faced alone. The marks disappeared quickly, but I only healed mentally at Columbia. I shared stories with other Aspies—what those of us who suffer from Asperger’s syndrome call ourselves—about my first tell-tale obsessions, and I could stand straighter in our collective refusal to be victimized. No longer does anyone tear apart my poetry when a stray page is found in a homework booklet, or insinuate that I’m unsuitable to be a church student leader because of my penchant for conspicuous denim maxis.
For somebody unhappy in the restraints of her culture, America is a better place because of its more open, accepting nature—as is expected from a “melting pot” encompassing wide varieties of people. Regarding mental issues or personal decisions, encouragement is always seen as the better response. Here, there have been “Silver Linings Playbook” screenings and marches against sexual violence, and there is just a general willingness to advocate and learn about “taboo” subjects to make them less so. There have been outright attempts to show Columbia students that it’s normal when everything’s not all right—that you always think everybody else has it all together, when they don’t, and they think that you do.
At home, my 3.7 GPA was considered “too low for an Asian,” and my various 650s on SAT subject tests were deemed not enough to make it into “decent universities” (read: the Ivies). As the girl who wanted to be the unpredictable wildcard, I was relying on what other parents and competitive students had denounced: 11 extracurricular involvements on top of several jobs and internships. In their analysis of the American college admissions process, the traditional fight for grades prevalent in China still won out. For me, I was glad that Columbia looked past grades alone and welcomed me in, telling me that I was good enough the way that I wanted to be. Never one to find self-validation in admissions—I didn’t take the process seriously enough for that—I still found hope in coming to a place where whatever decision I make, it will always be my prerogative. While I hold responsibility for my actions, America promises me the agency to do what I desire with myself. It has confidence in my intelligence and ability to understand, learn from, and create experiences.
Many times throughout the year, I’ve forgotten these initial reasons why I came. But no matter how many times I ask, “Why America?” I remember that it’s for the promise of not needing to be everything to everyone, and for the freedom to choose my own identity. Thank you, America—and thank you, Columbia.
Yvonne Hsiao is a Columbia College first-year. Happily Homeless runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.