Serena Li is a writer, artist, high schooler, and, most importantly, one of our very own editors. We had a second between interviews to share some earl grey and ask her questions on her own life, from social bubbles and "otherness" to education and equality.
Samantha: Okay (laughs). This is strange. So, tell us—no, tell me—about your cultural identity.
Serena: I’m Chinese. I grew up in Basking Ridge, and I’ve lived there my entire life. I feel like I’ve always grown up around Asian people; my friends have mostly been Asian. So, I’m very close to my culture. I think it’s a very big part of who I am.
Samantha: Do you think you were fortunate to grow up in a town where, like, you have people like you? Or do you think that makes it harder to adjust to the outside world, where the demographic is not at all what it is in Basking Ridge?
Serena: I actually think it could be both. On one hand, I have a lot of friends who are similar to me. But on the other hand, sometimes I feel like I get caught in this bubble, where I’m this perpetual outsider to everyone else, when I only surround myself with people like me.
Samantha: Okay. No, I agree. I forget who it was that we were talking to, when they talked about how having such a robust Chinese-American community in one town. And it’s great until you see this self-segregation occurring, and it’s like all the stereotypes are just becoming more dichotomous. But, onto our next question, why don’t you tell me about your favorite part of being Chinese-American?
Serena: I think that I really like Chinese culture and history. I’m really proud of it because… um…
Samantha: Because of how rich it is, right? The way you have this tradition that’s so grand, almost, to attach yourself to. Which you don’t get in America.
Serena: Yeah! And I was talking about this with my mom, and we thought the difference between Chinese and American history was both in value and depth. Maybe I just really like history in general, I don’t know. But it’s such a rich heritage you can learn about, which you’re a legacy of.
Also, I really like Chinese food. It’s really tasty.
Samantha: Nice. Are there any things you resent about your culture, then? Things that weren’t so easy to accept?
Serena: I think being, kind of, an other, in general? Where I’m not really like the rest of American society? Especially around elementary school, a student just looking at me and knowing nothing else might not consider me cool or popular?
Samantha: Let the record show that I think Serena is both very cool and very popular (laughs).
Serena: (laughs) And, you know, that’s not specific to being Chinese, though. That’s just about every minority, and I should be grateful for already being in an accepting neighborhood. Plus, every culture has its share of shame in its history. So maybe some of the more negative stereotypes associated with Chinese culture, a lot of it more political, is stuff I’ve come to resent, because then people turn around and judge me because of it.
Samantha: So, you talk about otherness, even though you mentioned that wasn’t too present in your community. Would you feel comfortable maybe sharing a time where you experienced this feeling of otherness? I’ll also add that it’s so hard, as a kid, to wrap your head around that kind of experience, because every kid just wants to fit in, right? So do you have any stories you’d like to talk about in retrospect?
Serena: Well, I do remember throughout middle school, people of white descent would make these really racist jokes toward me. And just making me feel like I didn’t belong. This one time, I was in gym class and these two white kids came toward me. And they started dancing around, just singing “ching ching chong.” And I didn’t really know what to do, because, well, I didn’t do anything to you. It just didn’t make sense.
I also remember this one time in English class where this boy came up to me and asked me if I ate dog. Of course I told him I don’t, but I also tried to tell him, you know, “What’s so weird about eating dogs? Some cultures eat cows.” And even though he nodded like he understood, it was pretty obvious he didn’t really. And that’s a result of the stereotypes about Asians being so entrenched in non-Asian society. That can be really harmful to all people of Asian-American descent.
Samantha: Now, let’s move onto the present, where I’m sure that your perception of Asian-American identity has evolved quite a bit, particularly with respect to Atlanta. Because on one hand it’s a story of oppression, fear, and now physical harm. But on the other hand, you are seeing these really great messages of solidarity, of Asian-Americans coming together to protest and raise their voices alongside other races. So, what are your thoughts and your family’s thoughts on this entire line of recent developments, and what do you hope to see in the future?
Serena: So of course the recent crimes and violence is disheartening. It feels like this recent turn of events—okay, well, before this, there was violence against Asian-Americans, but nobody really paid attention to these issues at all. It never really gained traction until this year.
But for my family, we’ve reacted pretty strongly against this recent wave of violence. I know my grandparents are taking efforts to walk earlier in the day, and it’s terrible because it all comes from a place of fear. You know, my parents are like, “Be careful, there’s bad stuff out there, and you don’t want that to be you.” It’s so disheartening to see, but maybe it’s also hopeful that change can be made. Because I think no matter who you are, the story of an eighty year-old grandma being pushed and beat on the street—it takes your attention, and it makes you want change. So maybe we can look forward to that.
Samantha: Okay, well, we’re using the word “change” a lot, which is like this huge and abstract sweeping term. So let’s break it down. What does change mean to you, first on a personal level, then a national scale?
Serena: I agree. I think people say “change” all the time, as in something they think is nice, but until they treat themselves as the one doing it, I guess nothing will happen. Until they really dedicate themselves to the cause, addressing that they may have had an imperfect past on the issue, understanding they might need to educate themselves. I think it’s important for each person to learn about said issue, including me.
And on a national scale, there’s that hate crimes bill that’s been passed—I think that’s really good. But I guess there’s no way to dismantle something so woven into our society, so I don’t know how to answer your question.
Samantha: I think what’s interesting is racism toward Asian-Americans isn’t so institutionalized anymore. Which is good, of course, for obvious reasons. But on the other hand, it’s this insidious and kind of untouchable system that you can’t really unravel, because so much of it is built in stereotypes and mental prejudices. But anyways, the last question is, let’s pretend you achieve every single change you want to see and we are twenty, thirty, maybe forty years into the future. The world is equal. What does that look like to you?
Serena: I think equality is kind of a system where everyone gets the opportunities that they deserve and need in order to live well. Maybe that’s equity, I don’t know. But I just think that it means people treat everyone as they are, which is like fellow human beings, without prejudice. Which is a lot to ask, but that’s what an ideal vision of equality looks like for me. Just people being nice to each other.