Rachel Zhang is a 16 year old Chinese-American who currently attends the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, NJ. In this interview, she talks to us about the beauty of Chinese culture and reviving activism in a predominantly white school.
Jordan: What is your favorite part of your heritage or culture and why?
Rachel: I adore my heritage’s food culture. Sitting at a dinner table encourages interconnectedness, homeliness, and comfort. A huge aspect of Chinese culture is to encourage eating. During a meal, one can sit back, let their guard down, and enjoy the meal in front of them. Go to any Chinese household and the first thing they will ask is if you have eaten yet. Aside from Chinese people encouraging you to eat, the food itself is simply incredible. Every region of China has their own unique standards of cooking. Travel to Shanghai and you’ll find their cuisine is sweet, simplistic, and rustic. Head to Chengdu and at every corner there’s something spicy, numbing, and will make you sweat. The hundreds of varieties of food are so intriguing because each dish has a long history tied to it, probably too boring for the average diner to consume. But all in all, the vast spectrum of Chinese food is absolutely incredible and our loving culture is indomitable.
Jordan: What was it like living in a predominantly white neighborhood in your youth and do you think it had a significant impact on the way you perceived your Asian-American identity?
Rachel: I am immensely grateful for living in a neighborhood that is predominantly white and very open to my family’s Asian identities. I rarely felt discriminated against and my neighbors never highlighted the fact that we were racially different. If anything, my Asian-American identity flourished and it made my family and I want to express our Asian heritage to a greater extent. But even though I was never targeted living in a non-diverse neighborhood, I know this is not the case for so many AAPI families. It is so easy to be content in this bubble I live in and neglect what is on the outside of my white, suburban neighborhood. The home is where families should feel secure and at ease, but millions of other Asian-American families are terrified to go home because of intense prejudice in their neighborhoods. I hope one day soon in the future every AAPI family feels safe and secure in their own home, and I encourage every AAPI individual safe in their own neighborhood to recognize how fortunate they are to live in an area where they don’t have to worry about being hate-crimed.
Jordan: In your response, you mentioned that you also attend a predominantly white private school and have faced quite a few microaggressions and incidents of racism as a result of it. Would you like to elaborate on your experiences?
Rachel: The tolerance of racist jokes and microaggressions that I have built up over the years at my school is impeccable. I have attended the same school since kindergarten, which allowed me to experience every aspect of racism the students have to offer. There is the classic “chink”, teachers confusing me with other Asian students, pulling the eyes back, calling my food “gross”, and insensitive comments about Chinese language. Of course these microaggressions hurt at first, and the severity of them heightened as I grew older. But quite frankly, every child and teenager is guilty of being racist at times; it’s inevitable as it’s a part of growing up and becoming mature. At every school in the US, you’ll most likely find counts of racism and bigotry towards BIPOC students. But at my predominantly white school, the racism was definitely intensified. When a school is geared towards white students, it is nearly impossible to create equality among the community. And it is so common that white students are uneducated about racial topics, because why would they be? They never had to face bigotry firsthand. However, my school has been taking extremely thoughtful measures to compensate for the insensitivity that has permeated my school’s environment for the longest time. Processing spaces, affinity groups, and guidance counselors are all being offered and as a BIPOC student, I can appreciate the lengths that my administrators are taking for us.
Jordan: Has your view on your AAPI identity shifted or changed since the start of this pandemic?
Rachel: I never experienced such a high degree of anti-Asian rhetoric until the pandemic began. Whether that was first-hand racism, or racism that I witnessed happening across the globe. Even though I questioned my Asian identity my whole being, there was nothing more palpable than the possibility of going in public and being assaulted in the pandemic-era. Seeing the hundreds of hate crimes targeted towards AAPI is beyond disheartening and terrifying. Every hate crime and assault that I come across feels like a personal attack. At any given time, it could be my mother, father, or sister being targeted. I am aware that there has been a surge of anti-AAPI feelings recently, but it has been present for centuries. The pandemic cannot be an excuse to stir up violence against Asian Americans. The implications that all Chinese people brought COVID to the US is unbelievable and borderline laughable. It is heartbreaking when all of this recent violence could be prevented if some people took the time to educate themselves. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve despised being silenced when I should be proud of my ethnicity and who I am as an Asian American. Even though I feel as though my entire livelihood has been forced to go mute, I am still not ashamed of my identity; no ‘China-virus’ or ‘Kung-flu’ will make me feel otherwise. As Asian Americans, we took a hard hit in the beginning of 2020 and the pandemic as a whole has had an inconceivable effect on us AAPI and our Asian-American pride.
Jordan: Finally, what does it mean to you to be AAPI and could you maybe predict how you think your views on your Asian-American identity will change overtime?
Rachel: To be AAPI means to be a part of one of the greatest, loving communities on earth. AAPI individuals have endured countless hardships, privations, and torment. I represent every macroaggression, every assault, every racist remark, and the collective pain that we, as AAPI, have faced. To be AAPI is to demonstrate how far we, as a culture, have come, and how much harder we will fight to bring ethnic equality.
Truthfully, there is nothing on this planet like being Asian-American. I know that throughout my life and moving forward, I can confidently say that I will never be ashamed of my Asian heritage and I will continue to assert my cultural identity to whoever I come across.