Problems of Place: Creating Belonging

Prior to starting a PhD in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, I had not lived anywhere outside New York City. Throughout this chaotic year, there were times where I became engulfed in longing. Longing for the fragrant streets of New York City’s Chinatown, vibrations of muffled rap music from my neighbors, and the sea breeze of the ever so polluted waterways. Of course, all of these things are also here in the Bay Area. Yet, when I feel hopeless and overwhelmed (as one does in this time of COVID-19), I try to remind myself of the reasons why I uprooted my entire life to move across country. Being here is a privilege most, especially most folks who grew up the way I did, do not ever get a chance to have.

Therefore, I would like to share the personal statement that I wrote to apply to my PhD program. Just in case there are any other low-income, first generation, queer, femme students of color reading this. If you identify as any of the above and if you have ever felt like you do not belong in the academy, I am here to remind you that it is okay not to belong. I urge you to find a place where you do belong, where you can be the best version of yourself for yourself, your community, and your students. If you cannot find community, build it. I guarantee there are others who are looking for belonging too. 

As a second generation Chinese-American and a lifetime resident of public housing, my parents have always framed education as the path to prosperity. Throughout my life, school has consistently served as a personal respite for social, economic, and cultural turmoil occurring both inside and outside my ever-changing definition of home. In the classroom, my only responsibility was to learn. In the classroom, the mistakes I made bore no consequences to someone outside myself.

For that and several other reasons, the classroom served as an alternative to reality during my formative years. In high school, I suffered a panic attack because I could no longer draw a clear distinction between school and everything else in my life. Once I started to draw these connections and consciously apply what I learned in school to the lived experiences of myself, my family, and my communities, I felt free for the first time in my life. I learned to ask questions instead of blindly answering questions. I learned that everyone, regardless of their background, knows something that I do not. It took a panic attack for me to look outside myself and to learn that with the right mindset, education truly is liberation. 

Education cannot be truly liberating if it is not accessible to all. I am fortunate to be the beneficiary of a robust public education system—after completing my Master’s degree in Spring 2019, I will have attended public school tuition free for twenty years. Through navigating various education systems as both a student and an educator, I have been fortunate enough to interact with a variety of folks in a myriad of settings. I have learned that I thrive leading workshops with participants most like myself—low-income students of color. Although I spent most of my formative years surrounded by other people of color, there were few educators who truly understood my lived experience. The education environments I passed through decontextualized the various identities I held from the systems that created them. This made it easy for me to be one person in the classroom, and a different person elsewhere. As an educator, I aim to guide students to understanding the world and its systems through their lived experiences. To my students, I aim to be the role model I needed when I was younger.

My experiences co-facilitating political education programs has taught me how challenging facilitating political education workshops can be. Political education workshops need to be both specific to the audience and the topic. In my experience, people share and facilitate the same political education workshops regardless of audience. This is not an effective way to move people, nor it is an effective way to build community. All the work that I am involved in seeks to create or preserve spaces where different marginalized identities are protected from the various -isms in the world. I work to create safe(r) spaces for everyone who needs it in the communities I inhabit. I am grounded in my communities and will continue to fight for them as long as I can. 

The public education system has been kind to me; it is only fair that I am kind to it. My parents were right, but not necessarily in the way that they expected—education has brought me much intellectual, social, and cultural prosperity. The classroom is where I feel most at home. It is where I go to educate myself and others from my mistakes. It is no longer where I go to hide parts of myself, but where I go to be my whole self.  

As I re-read this statement, and reflect on it, I am in the midst of preparing for the second year of my PhD program. Being here, in the Bay Area, surrounded by community, studying Ethnic Studies is a literal dream come true. No other way to describe it. For these spaces I inhabit in this academy, I am indebted to the brave students of the Third World Liberation Strike in 1969. Without them, this program would not exist. I, along with so many others, would not be doing the work that we yearn to do. In the creation of these spaces, our elders shed literal blood, sweat, and tears. We owe it to them and to ourselves, as historically marginalized people, to remain steadfast in our dedication to anti-racist practices and pedagogies.

I remain grounded in my scholarship by reminding myself that I am building on the legacies of so many others—the students who fought and continue to fight for the existence of Ethnic Studies, educators who continue to encourage curiosity (and perhaps more importantly, generosity), and the everyday residents of Chinatowns and public housing. I am here, sitting in my apartment in Berkeley, because those who came before me built a place where they could imagine a future where they belonged

*Cover image credit: Picture of poloroid taken by author.

[Cover image description: Polaroid of four women smiling, standing in front of a white wall with red Lunar New Year decorations. One of these people is holding a small dog.]