It was my final graduate school visit to decide which of a few chemical engineering PhD programs I’d spend the next 5 to 6 years in. I was eating in the university’s mansion-like faculty club. Over orange juice served in goblets, my table of prospective students rifled through information pamphlets, one of which highlighted a campus diversity panel. The student on my left mentioned that during a previous grad school visit, she had attended a panel in which every speaker was Asian, and felt as if that belied the school’s commitment to inclusion. Immediately, the student to my right, a Chinese American man, replied, “We don’t count?”
Half-listening to the ensuing flustered clarification about the inherent definition of diversity, I wondered why that simple question seemed so momentous. Perhaps it ran counter to the narrative of Asian American apathy, of our resistance to strike back against those who leveled remarks they wouldn’t dare level toward other marginalized people. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t ignore the fact we were in that polite, ornate setting and reply, “If those students were of any POC group other than Asian, would you have said the same thing?”
In the early 80s, my father moved from Shanghai to Texas to pursue a PhD in physics. He was fueled by a desire to have his own apartment and kitchen, conduct elementary particle research not accessible in China at the time, and eventually earn a Nobel Prize (a dream harbored by many young physicists, according to him). When recounting his experience in graduate school to me, he would emphasize the culture shock of moving from a place in which acquaintances would offer their help without hesitation, to one in which every man was for himself. Only when pressed by my curiosity would he describe how Chinese international students faced undisguised racism from professors and other non-Asians on campus.
Throughout my childhood, any time I branded myself as American or not-truly-Chinese, my father would remind me, “You’re Chinese. There is no halfway.”
The head of the physics program wanted no more than one student from China in the department per year. This directive was not surprising, considering the university founder’s wish for the school to admit no black students was written in his will. Many professors took advantage of the fact that international students were on visas and depended on their research advisors for financial support. They did not fear that their advisees would speak up against them, much less quit. Outside the lab, my father took refuge in the company of other Chinese PhD candidates. They all knew acutely the price they were paying for a chance at academic recognition.
It was not so much these experiences, but other exasperating circumstances such as a long stint at a national lab that dragged on his PhD, that made my almost-always supportive father hesitant to support my decision to go to graduate over medical school. I began my undergraduate years excited about and academically preparing for working at the frontlines of human health. After joining a biomaterials lab in my sophomore year, the freedom of pursuing unknown answers to questions in medicine increasingly appealed to me. As rewarding as the research itself was sharing my results with others in the scientific community and seeing theirs in turn, an intellectual openness that crossed boundaries in disciplines, generations, nationalities. The same summer that I took the MCAT, I prepared my applications to PhD programs and graduate fellowships. Aware of growing Sinophobia in STEM fields stoked by the Trump administration, my father insisted I write “U.S. Citizen” at the top of my resume.
When I heard the news that the FBI had urged US universities to keep a watchful eye on Chinese researchers, I asked my father if being American-born protected me from that gaze, then immediately regretted my question. I remembered that 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese Americans were still forced to relocate to internment camps. My naïveté was indicative of a mindset that Chinese Americans should distance themselves from their “fresh off the boat” counterparts, should view themselves as safe and immune when they serve white institutions, marry into whiteness, or stay silent in the face of racism. Throughout my childhood, any time I branded myself as American or not-truly-Chinese, my father would remind me, “You’re Chinese. There is no halfway.” And during those times I did not know that being Chinese was more than saying my favorite dish was 番茄炒蛋 or humming Mandopop hits when no one was around.
In my first week of graduate school, I attended my university’s Association of Chinese Students and Scholars welcome dinner. It was my first time that week being in a crowd of only Chinese scholars, many of whom were international students. I was acutely worried about standing out by conversing in either English or imprecise Mandarin — the only Mandarin I spoke was in sheepishly explaining to a student that I spoke mostly English with my parents. The jokes cracked by the invited Chinese professors flew over my head. Towards the end of the event, one of the professors talked about “researching while Chinese” in America, and warned the crowd to never send software or any other technical information to China. “Our loyalty is being questioned,” he said in English, perhaps to remind the half-bilingual like me that it didn’t matter where us ethnically Chinese spent our childhoods — if we had Chinese names and (Asian) faces we would never be seen as truly American. During the final applause, tears stood in my eyes, and for a moment I imagined that I was my father in 1980s Texas. I wished that this crowd were my whole and only world, a world of my own people.
Being pro-Asian in America…is not stifling or burdensome, but the most self-liberating thing I can do.
The graduate dinner was one in a string of moments that crystalized how I wanted to carry my yellowness, my Chinese-ness outside of my ancestral country, while continuing to value the fundamental tenets on which America was founded — namely, the freedom to challenge the status quo. Being pro-Asian in America is doing what the student at the grad school visit did. It is unabashedly asserting my ethnic identity in a profession wary of CCP spies and intellectual theft, an assertion that my father’s generation of immigrant scientists hoped to see in its children. It is realizing that there is no halfway. Being born in America and growing up in a white-majority city does not give me an excuse to think that my US citizenship and American accent will hide the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. There is no halfway, because as a full-blooded Chinese woman, I have a responsibility to fully embrace and defend yellowness and all the people from whom it is inseparable. Doing so is not stifling or burdensome, but the most self-liberating thing I can do.