After dropping my kids off to nature camp, as I walk out of Schrader Environmental Center, I hear a little girl say “That’s that Chinese girl.” My reaction: “I am sorry, I am not Chinese.” This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I have wanted to write this for a while. I am finally sitting down to share my experience of what it’s been like to live in Wheeling. I have to confess, after living in this country for more than a decade and a half, most of the time I do forget I look different. One funny reminder of what happens when you live in a place for a long time is that you sometimes realize, “Wow, I am not white, I look different!” Have you ever felt that way?
As we are talking about bringing positive change to our region and making this good place an even better one, I would like to engage in a conversation about how everyone who lives here can feel comfortable calling this place “home” without constantly being reminded, “I am an outsider.” This area has a great sense of place and value, and I have gained so much as I have mentioned in my other stories, despite its lack of diversity. As the only faculty member at West Liberty University who is a native of Nepal, a country in South Asia, I do feel that I have a competitive advantage. I feel like I provide a unique perspective to teaching and learning, and to our culture here, especially when I am teaching courses related to international business and sustainability. Being “different” here has its perks and its challenges. I feel appreciated, but there are occasions when students will refer to me as “the other Chinese faculty,” and have claimed that they have difficulty understanding my “accent.” It honestly is different around here than it is in other places I have lived in the past — namely Maine, Morgantown, and Washington, D.C. In those places I found people curious about who I was and where I was from, but no one ever assumed I was “Chinese.”
As a parent, it is very common for me to hear my girls tell me that their schoolmates thought they were Chinese or Japanese, or that they asked if I, their mother, was from China or Japan. I don’t get offended or expect everyone to know exactly where my native land is, and so I always try to explain where Nepal is, and I ask my kids to do the same. My challenges are not similar to my children’s challenges as elementary school students. I can accept being treated as an immigrant, which is true; I am one, and I am proud of how hard I worked to come to this land of opportunity. However, I do have a problem when looking different can make you feel insecure or less American, or that you get too used to being an outsider forever. And my children are not immigrants. They were born here; they are Americans.
I overheard my 9-year-old daughter having a conversation with her recent college graduate cousin.
Cousin: “How is school? Do you have good friends?”
My daughter: “Have you seen my face?”
Cousin: “What do you mean?”
My daughter: “No one wants to be my friend because of the way I look, and I thought segregation was over back in the ’70’s.”
It just broke my heart; I felt responsible for putting her in that situation. It reminded me of the time she was in kindergarten, and I told her that she was “Asian American” back in 2008, when Obama was running for president, and conversations about race were all around us. She was very surprised and said, “Mom, I am American. I was born in Morgantown!” It is interesting to navigate racial identity in this country, and I am still working on it. An interesting thing that I’ve realized is that having one parent of Asian descent, as my daughters do, automatically makes you an Asian American.
My husband is Caucasian; my daughter puts it as cauc-“Asian”and says that he also has that “Asian” in his race. But I did not marry him because he was white or an American from West Virginia. It was because he was a compassionate, well-travelled, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally stable man, and I loved him for the human that he was. I knew we would be better together. Race and cultural differences were irrelevant when we decided to become a family.
In Nepal, we have four castes, and 36 different ethnic groups. But we are all human, and I do see some of my American friends could fall under each ethnic group. However, I also have to confess that I thought every white tourist in Nepal was “American” although they could be European, Australian etc.
When I was being naturalized for U.S. citizenship, the speaker made an interesting point. He said, “Most people who were born in the U.S. acquire this citizenship by default and take it for granted since they did not choose to be American. However people like you worked hard to earn this citizenship, which just makes it extra valuable.”
Just think about all the documentation you need to provide and tests you have to pass to become a U.S. citizen. The beauty of this country is that there is no caste barrier that you cannot move across, and with hard work you can always move across social hierarchy. It is filled with diversity, as we call it a “melting pot of culture” where there is perceived freedom of choice. That is what appeals to most immigrants. In most other parts of the so-called developing world, society dictates whom you can marry, what career and jobs you can choose, and inheritance is a huge part of what you could be. I think it is a common misunderstanding that most immigrants are attracted to money and luxury, where it is really these opportunities that draw them. If I had not taken that chance, I would have missed out a lot in my life.
One benefit of our family structure is that we get to celebrate cultures and customs that add the most value to us as a family. We get to share festivals, celebrations and religions from two cultures. What a great privilege and advantage. We have also learned to ignore the ones that are burdensome.
I believe that children are more curious, accepting and embracing of diversity than adults. Although outright exclusion because of race may not be what my daughter is experiencing; increasing diversity in thought and behavior in our community should be something we all could actively work toward as a community. We always tell our children to be kind to and accepting of others with disability and not to judge them for their uniqueness. However, when we think of racism, it always revolves around African Americans or Hispanics. How about celebrating humanity and differences that extend beyond race? How about teaching our children that our society is evolving, as we see more and more multiracial families and immigrants, and that race should not always be a concern?
In most management courses, we emphasize how valuable diversity in thought, ethnicity, experience and background is for a successful organization. How about instilling those values in our communities and schools as parents and educators? We do not want our children to be ethnocentric, which is the cause of most global conflicts. We want them to be culturally literate and tolerant. We may be happy where we are and think that they don’t need to have it any other way, but we don’t know where our children will end up, and we must expose them to diversity and tolerance so that they can survive and excel in this globalized world.
Here are some ideas. We could encourage our children to get out of their comfort zone and befriend people who have different interests or are from different countries, like exchange students; we can travel with them, host a foreign exchange student, or take them to diverse cities, various local multi-cultural events and spark their curiosity.
I am not offended that the first question anyone sometimes still asks me is, “So where are you from?” or that most of my kids’ friends think that we are either Chinese or Japanese; however it does show that we have a tremendous opportunity to expose our children to diversity and to educate them about the vast diversity within a single region like Asia.
One of my WVU professors originally from Switzerland told me when I announced that I am going to be teaching at WLU, “This would be great for the students; they will be exposed to your accent.” At that time, I thought, “I don’t have one!”
Now I know what he meant and am happy to engage in this discussion and actually look forward to inviting more students and families of diverse cultural background to Wheeling. Based on personal experiences, I feel welcomed and accepted and also do see Wheeling evolving as an increasingly diverse community, becoming more accepting and inclusive. However, we can make this surface-level diversity issue a more trivial part of our lives and create a culture where all are appreciated for their contribution to this society where they live and work, and as who they are as an individual, not because of their race, family structure, skin color, or accent.