Many of you have read my Common App essay, one part of my applications to the Ivy Leagues and beyond. I’m overwhelmed, humbled and deeply grateful for all the love and support I’ve received from across the world. I never expected so many people would be able to connect to my essay.
Beyond the struggles of learning English enveloped in the so-called “immigrant experience,” I think people are responding to the theme of feeling like an outsider. My essay isn’t about someone showing hatred to my face—rather, this is about the subtleties of assimilation, or integrating cultures. It’s about finding my voice even if what I say may sound funny to some people’s ears.
It’s interesting to see the varied responses from different countries. Comments from America have turned my story into a political one (cue the emphasis on legal, immigrant, affirmative action, and sheathed variants on the good ole’ “Go back to your own country”). And while I have received so much love and encouragement from my “own country” Malaysia, numerous people say I can’t claim it as my home country. Not American enough to be American, not Malaysian enough to be Malaysian.
One tweet in particular from Malaysia made me laugh. It said, “Me when Malaysians glorifying Cassandra Hsiao” attached with this gif from “Mean Girls”: “She doesn’t even go here.” While funny and apt for my generation, the questions still sting: do I even belong anywhere? Can I truly call anywhere home?
For most of my childhood in America, I was blessed to never feel out of place. My tiny suburb in SoCal is filled with people like me. They look like me, talk like me, and go back “home” across the ocean every couple of years like me.
It came easy to write about the culture back home in Malaysia and Taiwan. Too easy. Include descriptions of your typical Malaysian fruit and it sounds exotic. But could I write about the culture in this way, as if I grew up there? Or was I just an impostor capitalizing on the poetry I found in the foreign? I had even lost touch with my first language. Could I be considered true Malaysian, Taiwanese, or Chinese for that matter?
So I stopped writing about my culture thanks to the guilt that gnawed at me. But even outside my writing, I sensed it. No, I’ve never been told straight up to go back to your country. I’ve never been called chink or gook or coolie, or had people pull up their eyes to mock mine. But I have witnessed discourtesy towards people of my color at school, in an apartment complex, and on the subway. I’m not sure if it is “major” enough to be classified as racism, but all I know is what I’ve experienced. I will never know what it is like to not be a Chinese-American woman.
My experience will always be framed by quotations and hooked by question marks.
In recent years, I’ve come to embrace that. I still write about my home culture from time to time. And home for me has come to mean many places: Taiwan, Malaysia, America, Southern California. Church, school, fantasy kingdoms that I’ve created in my own stories. I don’t feel guilt any longer because I recognize the importance of what I’m doing—I’m telling the stories only I can tell. I’m just one voice out of many, hoping to dispel the blanket narrative of “immigrant” and push for Asian American representation in Hollywood.
I want to create characters and stories that inspire, comfort, and say, yes, you may be a fish out of water. But look around, there are so many fish flopping on the shore with you. All different types of fish too: catfish, salmon, sharks, guppies, carp, swordfish, angler—every species possible. This feeling of displacement may last your whole life. But after flopping around a little, after running out of breath and energy, maybe you’ll grow legs. Maybe you’ll learn how to walk and swim, and experience the best of both worlds. Whatever happens, you’re not alone.
I don’t even go here. But what does it matter? I’ll never quite belong, but that’s not going to stop me. The girl from “Mean Girls” didn’t let that stop her from making her inspiring, deeply moving, legendary speech we all still quote today, and she did it because she “just had a lot of feelings.” So what if you don’t go here? Tell your story. Make your speech. And say your feelings loudly, so all of the world can hear.