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Listen to Learn: A Personal Take on Cultural Identities

Every month, the Diversity and Community Office shares and educates about a holiday or observance as a way to build and support an inclusive community.

E-chieh Lin, UPrep’s director of diversity and community, ponders the importance of role models with diverse identities and perspectives

May is Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month. This month, we celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of AANHPI and Jewish people. However, we often only learn about the discrimination, internment, and persecution of AANHPI and Jewish people. As May begins, I’m thinking about what I’ve learned about AANHPI and Jewish people in school. A correlation that arose was these two cultural identities have ethnic groups (Jewish and Japanese) who have been imprisoned in internment camps. I have also been thinking about how crucial it is for people with AANHPI and Jewish identities to surround themselves with people who will amplify, support, and embrace their identities.

From my own childhood, I know that only learning about the discrimination, internment, and persecution of AANHPI people made it more difficult for me to feel successful. Having few positive role models of success affected my psychological well-being. As an Asian American immigrant to the United States, I grew up in a predominately White area, where, if I was lucky, I would only have one other person who looked like me in my class. Every two to three years, I would switch schools and school districts. I was made fun of for having an uncommon name, wearing glasses, and looking different. In early elementary school, I was outgoing, rambunctious, and extroverted. By the time I was in high school, I was introverted and never wanted the spotlight on me. I remember learning about the Chinese exclusion act, the holocaust, and the Japanese internment in school. I remember my best friend’s mother talking too slowly, annunciating her words, and speaking only to me in broken English, because my appearance told her that I didn’t speak English. I grew to loath my appearance, name, and body. I struggled with mental health issues throughout my adolescence.

The only positive reinforcement I received about my culture was through performing my Chinese musical instruments, the yang ch'in and pipa. The strangers watching me perform would praise and clap for our group and my solo performances. I never invited anyone I knew to my performances. I was afraid of being jested at for the clothing, the instrument, or the makeup. The overwhelming negative reinforcements I received outside of these performances always overpowered the positive reinforcement.

As an adult, I have experienced people befriending me because they fetishized my identity, size, and appearance. At first, I was flattered because I had never received attention like this, so I thought the attention was positive. I grew to realize they didn’t like me for who I was, but who they thought I should be. I now surround myself with people who value my identities and culture. This is a small circle of people who have become my insular group. My experiences growing up as an Asian American in the United States has shaped my personality, and, as an adult, cultivating these positive influences around me has rebuilt and reinforced my confidence. My positive role models were Akio Takamori, my ceramics professor at the University of Washington, who was the first of two Asian American teachers I ever had; and John Forester, the first Jewish professor that I worked with while building the Intergroup Dialogue Program at Cornell University. 

Through my role as an educator, I work to be a role model for all students, but especially for AANHPI students. And, if I am not the right role model for students, I try to help connect them with role models that are positive influences for them. It is important for UPrep to have a diversity of identities and perspectives to make sure that all students have positive role models in our community.   

As I help the teens who I work with build their self-confidence, I wonder why AANHPI Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month are celebrated during the same month. When some cultural identity groups are lumped together—while others are not—it feels like those in power are placing a hierarchy on oppression. As an Asian American, it feels like sharing the month is a metaphor for how Asians are seen and recognized in this country: constantly set aside for other identities. I look forward to talking with other AANHPI and Jewish Americans about how they feel about sharing the same month.

As you think about honoring the heritages of AANHPI and Jewish Americans in May, I suggest taking the time to learn more about these cultural identities:

By Directory of Diversity and Community & Director of Hiring    E-chieh Lin

Read more blogs in the Listen to Learn series: RamadanWomen's History MonthBlack History MonthMartin Luther King Jr. DayNative American Heritage MonthNational Disability Awareness Month, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

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