As we were walking from one side of the campus to another, my friend said: “Literally every Asian here knows each other.” This seemingly careless remark stayed with me, and led me to a very unscientific experiment: make up a Western first name, and then pair it with an Asian last name.
When talking to someone from my own culture, this made-up name often rings a bell in their head as they start suggesting all these other Asian names you might have been thinking of. On the other hand, asking my friends from other cultures often only yielded blank stares. It is true – minorities here form their own communities, and almost everyone knows everyone.
Perhaps this phenomenon is caused by Penn’s support for diversity, and the many ways you can get to know other members of your cultural community – there are so many opportunities for students here to embrace their identity, ranging from clubs and organisations, to cultural spaces classes. Personally, what has tied me to home the most has been Hong Kong Student Association, which I am very much involved in. Weekly meetings, membership events, executive board socials … all these have constantly reminded myself of my identity: a Hongkonger.
It is the kind of relief of someone understanding you, when you revert to your mother tongue under extreme stress; the kind of Chinatown trips where you stock up on anything that feels like home; and the kind of warmth you get for finally making a dish the traditional way, the way your parents make it.
As we all leave our parents and go to school with a bunch of new people we do not know, we need something to hold us to who we were before this whirlwind. This does not mean staying in an “Asian bubble”, or not exploring things in the name of staying true to yourself. In fact, it means the opposite – it takes a certain level of security in yourself to try new things and to meet different people, which can be achieved by staying in touch with your cultural identity. As an international student, the ties to home are particularly precious, and learning about others’ identity as Asian Americans also helped me gain a different perspective.
With the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits” taking the internet by storm, there has been no better time for cultures to come together and celebrate their identity, including the little things that make each culture unique. By staying in touch with my cultural identity, I have realised that I am never truly alone, as I share space with so many others who grew up in similar environments and cultures.