Cultural Identity

Pick a photograph and describe its significance to you.

The gold embroidered collar of the traditional Chinese blouse tickled my neck. The costume was old, musty, unwashed, and uncomfortable. Are family photos ever enjoyable? Far to my right, through teeth clenched by a top-heavy headdress, my oldest sister Megan mumbled for me to stop itching. Finally, the photographer motioned with a forceful wave of his hand for us to gaze up to the ceiling of the studio. This ordeal was orchestrated by a man who spoke little more than five words of English, his favorite being “cheese!”. As he readied his disposable camera, we assumed the facade of three ancient Chinese empresses looking toward our sky of destiny. Such a pensive moment would make for a quality Christmas postcard. Our contemplative posture was rewarded with one revelation: our family photo shoot had attracted a sizeable crowd. Tourists and locals alike stood outside the studio window to witness our photographer and his genuine attempt to portray our Caucasian family with the honor and intrigue of imperial China. This slightly ridiculous photograph now sits in the office of our stereotypical home in the Chicago suburbs.Exchanging this house for a 33rd floor apartment on the south side of Hong Kong island at age six seemed like a natural progression of events to my pre-K mind. After four years in Hong Kong, and three years in Singapore, living as an expatriate was the only life I ever knew. However, my return to the US at age thirteen afforded me the sudden realization that my childhood was, without question, unique and extraordinary. For seven years, I had had the opportunity to live as a minority both racially and culturally. My social and cultural development stemmed from bargaining with the street vendors, being pulled aside for photographs with strangers, due to my blond hair and blue eyes, and taking field trips to visit pen pals in China. I automatically immersed myself into Asian culture more than a majority of my American classmates and subconsciously plunged into the challenge of living overseas. Despite my joy at the opening of Taco Bell I preferred to eat at local hawker stalls while my classmates craved McDonald’s. I was placed in the accelerated stream for Mandarin while others viewed this mandatory class as useless and impossible. And I joined the percussion group and developed a specialization in the gong and Chinese drum.My youth kept me from realizing the full effect of such experiences on my American identity; the person that left Illinois quickly and happily adapted to the world perspective that thrived in the Asian cities. I returned to the US with a foreigner’s outlook and a bit of ignorance about America. It came as a surprise, though understandable, that most of my friends had barely left the Midwest, much less the country. Regardless, I was shocked to find an absence of curiosity for the rest of the world, despite their lack of travel. My experience as a minority was one that others could, and should, benefit from. Thus, I began my immersion back into American culture cherishing this strange photograph that hung on the inside of my locker at Kennedy Junior High.For the past five years, I have carried my childhood experiences with me to better my community. Rather than remain passive and disappointed, I have made it my priority to expose the world of diversity to my peers and to highlight the diversity that exists within our own community. In high school, my uncondescending and unoppressive manner helped this project meet success. Through class projects and a plethora of extracurricular activities, I found many avenues to convey my childhood values. Academically I wrote persuasive letters, and did presentations crusading for more history classes to focus on Asia. I became the News Editor for the school paper where I wrote features on cultural apathy in Americans. I acted as the President of Junior State of America, a political forum for sharing ideas on policy and ethics, as well as the Co-Captain, and co-founder of our school Debate Team. These political organizations have allowed me to learn about domestic and international issues, while exposing my peers (and me) to many opinions and varied backgrounds which I find to be intellectually stimulating. I have continued to witness different forms of diversity in action by serving on the Naperville Fair Housing Advisory Commission where I was a student appointee. Socially, I am known as a human geography book as well as resident supplier of the latest Hello Kitty fashions.While my efforts to make Naperville’s students a bit worldlier were met with occasional success and oftentimes skepticism, I am perhaps equally proud of the cultural re-education that Naperville has given me. I have learned a great deal about America. I now have an intimate relationship with American pop culture, where I have established a firm bond with US Weekly, as well as many cult classic films. In the end, I see this exchange as quite healthy and beneficial to both parties. I have opened my eyes to American culture and values once again, and I believe that I have made an impression of global importance on many of the people that I interacted with. Regardless of whether my friends in Naperville know their geography, it is clear that many will leave high school realizing that there is more to the world and to the human experience than that in the contiguous United States.It can be discerned from our most recent family photograph, where we are clad in jeans and black T-shirts that we have adapted well to our new lives. However, we still carry our experiences in an active manner, as the subtleties in the photograph attest – my ring with the Chinese character for prosperity, my sister’s jade necklace, and the glint in our eyes. We are not quite the average American family.

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