My first impulse after our presentation ended was to pick it apart. What I wish I had said or done differently or how I left out this important thing. I found myself wanting to talk to each and every person to explain what I wish I could have changed.
A part of this is an openness to continue to learn and improve, but I think a lot of it is tied to the urgency and pressure of representing communities that have been erased, excluded, targeted, and often misrepresented. There’s a fear of perpetuating these patterns and being a part of the harm, trauma, and oppression, as well as an insecurity that if I too am a work in progress, how can I claim that anything that I produce is a finished product?
Another part of it is being an Asian woman taking up space in a society that tells me to be small, un-abrasive, and exponentially humble. We designed our presentation to directly confront and contradict these messages about ourselves, about people who look like us, about others whose oppression is tied to our own.
And yet I wonder if we did enough.
On Friday morning there was an incident on the subway that left me really shaken. It had been a long and exhausting week at work and I was so glad to have made it to Friday. On the subway I took my backpack off and nestled it between my feet. I held onto a pole at the center of a long bench of seated passengers as the car filled with people. As usual, I opened up my NYT crossword app and started solving the mini. As the train pulled out of the station, I heard a loud and clear male voice halfway down the car telling a young woman to take her off backpack or move it or something like that. I shrugged because I knew better — seriously, take your backpacks off when you’re on a crowded train. I kept one ear trained on the ruckus because it seemed like this guy was trying to move through the packed train.
At some point in my education I realized that, if I just stay quiet in class, people will often assume that I am smarter than I am. People reveal their stupidity all the time by speaking up, but I look like I would be good at schoolwork. I am East Asian and I speak English well. I found that if I quietly hit the markers of intelligent-enough, study up on the side, and try to figure out what the instructor is asking for, I can pretty much sail by, class participation be damned. I’m starting to feel the strains of this in grad school — my reticence to raise my hand, to take up space, to risk answering a question wrongly and reveal that maybe I too have faults. I can contribute this also to pressures as a young Asian female to not make waves. Everyone loves an amiable Asian girl, but one that rocks the boat? I can already feel the disgust and judgment. In the end, though, nobody questions my presence in class, at a university.
My mom once told me that she wondered, when she was at college, about whether she was an Affirmative Action student. She felt the questioning gaze of others, of whether she rightly belonged. Her advisor asked her if she was there to find a husband or take school seriously, because she wasn’t doing that well in class. I don’t know if her advisor knew that college was also a ticket out of the family flower farm, where she had worked with her siblings on weekends and evenings after school as long as she could remember. These are experiences that are difficult for me to grasp. I understand on an intellectual level what that means, but personally is a different story. I will never fully know how being a second generation college student has shaped my experience and helped propel me across the country to attend a private university, to fight for a space for myself and people like me — people of color — and to continue to be involved in this system professionally and academically. How would my experience have been different if I was the first in my family to go to college? Where would I have focused my efforts if I didn’t have this basis of knowing that, in the end, I deserved to be there?