If you ask me where I went to college, I’ll say Columbia, here in the city.
And that’s true. I graduated from there in 2001 with a degree in radio.
But the other truth is that I spent the first year and a half of college at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale and Grand Rapids Michigan.
If I recall, they sent some literature to my house and had a couple of scholarship opportunities and also offered broadcasting as a major.
It wasn’t my first choice, but after applying to only a handful of colleges, my parents persuaded me that the low cost was hard to pass up. So I conceded.
I didn’t know anything about Grand Valley or Allendale or Michigan. But I learned right away that if you weren’t pointing somewhere on your hand about where you were from, you were an outsider.
And that’s what I was.
It’s taken nearly twenty years, but I realize a lot of what happened my first year plus at GVSU was only partly due to my hometown and probably had more to do with being Asian.
I came to this conclusion from simply looking at who I was before college. I grew up in predominantly white communities and did what I could to “blend” in, trying hard not to stick out more than I already did. Actually, I thought I WAS them until people started calling out my ethnicity.
I was an American Girl, raised by parents who were born and raised in Chicago. In high school I wore flannel shirts and Converses, listened to The Smashing Pumpkins, went to the theater to see Romeo + Juliet.
But when I ended up in the middle of nowhere Michigan, I didn’t fit in. Anywhere. Almost half of the campus was empty every weekend with people going home to visit. There weren’t many minorities, especially East Asians. Thankfully my roommate was from Troy, on the East side of Michigan and we commiserated over Ani DiFranco and Bjork. My two other close friends were from Chicago and Indiana.
I tried to “fit in”. One of the girls down the hall was a bouncy, somewhat ditzy, dirty blonde who roomed with her best friend from high school and right next to two other girls from that same high school. I liked her and tried to be a part of their tight knit group.
I even went as far as getting an unofficial bid into their sorority. I was a Sigma Kappa for three days before I came to my senses and quit.
Instead, I stuck with my roommate who would eventually get a boyfriend I wasn’t super fond of. She and my friend from Indiana got their tongues pierced, so I decided to get my eyebrow done.
When I came home that first Thanksgiving, my friend’s dad joked that I looked like I’d been in a fishing accident.
I smoked pot, drank a ton, went to my first rave where some girls in the bathroom called us posers, rightly so.
I drifted into whatever alternative group would have me.
Even though that wasn’t me.
The thing is, maybe neither world was the one I belonged in. But I resent the fact that my being foreign, both in where I grew up and how I looked, is what led me to not being accepted or welcomed in many situations.
I also see why minorities can identify with “other” in any context.
It’s taken a long time for me to understand what really happened that first year and a half of college.
I always assumed I was having the same experience as my white high school friends.