Costa Rica Revisted. 2015 Global PEACE Program Initial Reflections.

I’m feeling a surge of emotions.  I think that happens a lot with me.

I’m happy, sad, and feeling an overwhelming sense of loss & purpose at the same time. I feel like one minute I could cry and the next, I’ll start laughing.  It’s like puberty all over again.

Going back to Costa Rica was a completely new and enriching experience for me. When you go to a place for the first time, everything is exciting.  All of your senses are soaking in new details.  But, when you return to a place, especially after some time — a year, in my case– different things happen.  You begin to analyze the things you never really noticed before.  You see a lot of good things that you saw before, but you also begin to evaluate other nuances.  It’s something I never really experienced before because I’ve never been to a foreign country more than once.  And out of the things I’ve learnt from this trip, I’ve learnt that revisiting places can be a very valuable and important thing.

I feel like I will say this about every place in the world I’ll travel to, but I can say with confidence that Costa Rica will always hold a very close and special place in my heart. I learned a good amount from the people I’ve met there and the friendships I’ve cultivated.  And, I’d be lying if I said I weren’t getting a bit emotional as I’m typing this whole thing.  I’ve only been in my apartment for less than an hour and I’m already dreading so many things that come with returning home from somewhere else.  I am thinking ahead–thinking of ways to return to my home away from home, to a place where I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at peace with myself and my place in the world, even when I don’t speak the language completely.

From Alajuela to San Jose to Caldera to Mastatal, each and every person I had the privilege of interacting with have given me so much strength and joy.  I am so grateful for the group of peacebuilders I worked with and to the many individuals I’ve met along the way.  I think of them and I am filled with so much happiness, and I know that that is what peace is.  That it is powerful and capable of doing so much good in the world.  Because what happiness I feel inside of me, I know I can use to motivate others around me.  It has shifted and guided me, even when I am 100% sure that I do not know what journey I will take to attain my goals in this world.

When I left, I told my peers that I did not want to go back to the US–that I did not want to return to reality. But, upon reflection, I know that sentiment to be flawed.  My reality is what I choose it to be.  Costa Rica is a lovely, wonderful, powerful reality for me.  I learned about peace as a system from professors and citizens alike.  I learned that demilitarization cannot be the only answer and that every government has its flaws, but that people everywhere are resilient, beautiful, unique humans.  And that gives me an amazing amount of hope about our world.  I am amazed at how at home I could feel in a foreign place from only being there for a short amount of time, and if I could feel that connected to people and places in less than two weeks, I am so excited to think of how much love can flow from person to person with more time than that.

I don’t know what will happen in my future, but I know that I am capable of doing and creating great things in the world so that others can learn what I have learnt and live purposeful, extraordinary lives.

All I know is that I will do everything in my own power to return to Costa Rica again, to work with and perhaps live amongst the families and friends I have met there, and to create a more peaceful & prosperous global community.

Even though I am thinking about my future and how I can return again to Costa Rica, I know that living too much in the future can do no good for our present.  Although it will be an internal struggle for me, I’m ready for today and cannot wait for the many tomorrows we all have to build a kinder world together.

With peace, love, and pura vida,

Christina

Chinese Amer-I-can’t Deal With This Question Anymore

I have been having issues as of late with the idea of ethnic and national identity. I have always considered myself Chinese American, or Asian American in broader contexts. I still think those labels define me adequately, and yet there is something very unnerving about the ways in which others react to my identity.

The most common question I get, right after “so, what ethnicity are you?”* is the dreaded, “You speak Chinese, right?”

I always smile a pained, forced smile and shake my head no.

That question is one of the most irritating, ostracizing questions I get. And I’ll tell you why.

That question constantly reminds me that I am out of place—that my fragmented identity is, in fact, a reality; that I am neither fully Chinese nor fully American; that no part of me belongs anywhere.

When a person asks me if I speak Chinese, they already assume they know the answer. They know how the conversation will go. They think I will say “yes”, that my parents or I immigrated to America fairly recently (within the past twenty years), and that I speak it at home. Maybe I’ll make a joke about a Chinese curse word or my parents’ inability to clearly enunciate the “l” sound. We’ll laugh and move on with our conversation.

But, the thing is, that is not how the conversation goes because that narrative is not my family’s or my own.

Assuming I speak Chinese automatically otherizes me in the eyes of the asker. If I speak Chinese, it makes sense to them. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, so you speak Chinese. You’re not really American—you’re Chinese.” And, if I speak honestly and say that I do not speak Chinese, at home or anywhere else, the immediate follow-up by the asker is when my parents immigrated to the United States. My own history and life is not the topic of conversation. My being born in America suddenly has no bearing on if I’m considered American or not.

My issue with this is not isolated or a standalone situation. America, a cultural melting pot (though now I think people are using the metaphor of some kind of mixed salad), has produced a generation, my generation, of people that are excluded from specific cultural contexts. The problem with being Chinese, but not Chinese enough; American, but not American enough, is a universal in the immigrant and descendants of immigrant community. You would think that after twenty-two years of living, I’d have come to terms with this state of limbo—of navigating between cultures and contexts. But, no matter how old you get, I think cultural identity is something you will always struggle with.

Further, aside from this personal struggle with identity, the question of native languages connotes the issue of belonging, which has historical proportions. Chinese immigrants were by no means welcomed with open arms. The denigration of the Chinese through dehumanization and exploitation of labor should not be taken lightly. Surviving in such an unwelcoming environment meant working as hard and as fast at becoming “American”. It meant blending in. And blending in meant speaking English and being as close to your white counter parts in dress, language, and mannerisms as possible.   It was the only way to escape the bullying and harassment that came with being a Chinese immigrant (or any immigrant, really).

It is why my father doesn’t speak Chinese fluently, and why my brother and I never learned. It is why growing up, I naively conveyed confusion and slight embarrassment that my mother’s mother never learned English after over forty years in the United States. It is why not one of her ten grandchildren can have legitimate conversations with her and why she still laughs at me when I struggle to convey affection in broken Cantonese. It is true irony when you uproot your family to find a better life, only to realize that that life includes ten grandchildren you can never communicate with.

In short, it matters a great deal to me that I cannot speak Chinese because it is a symbol and a symptom of the oppression of my ancestors, of the collateral damage we all have from being children of immigrants.

It is also a constant reminder that in my life, no matter how hard I try, I will never be Chinese enough or American enough to even the most well trained eye.

So, the next time you ask a question about speaking my mother tongue as some form of introduction by saying, “It’s curiosity. It’s just a simple question meant to spark conversation.” I will not smile and nod. I will be sure to tell you otherwise.


* I could dedicate an entire collection of blogs on this. The worst part about the “what ethnicity are you?” question is when people try to guess before you answer by running down the list of every single type of Asian ethnicity they can think of. And when you finally confirm one, they say, “I knew it!”

How on earth was it so glaringly obvious to you if you had to guess a number of different countries before you landed on the right one? It’s not that hard either—China is the biggest Eastern Asian country there is. You do not win a prize for boiling my ethnic and cultural identity down to a super fun guessing game.

Nationality and Nationalism: Oppressive Forces?

I’m sitting on my bed finishing some class readings for my intro course on race & ethnicity–my last political science lower division course I need to finish my degree.

And by now it should be pretty basic and easily understandable, considering I’ve taken several courses on race, ethnicity, and social oppression.

But, I feel like I’m still learning new things.  Learning new things is always a great thing–especially for someone who considers herself an avid learner and appreciator of knowledge.

Here’s the issue I’m having though.

I thought I was pretty well versed in forms of oppression: economic, race, ethnicity, gender, species, sex, mental and/or physical disabilities, and a variety of other ones that I could spend my days discussing.

But in this one chapter I’m reading, the author nonchalantly mentions how race can be linked to other forms of oppression like gender and nationality.

Gender, I understand completely.  But, nationality?  I never even thought that you could consider nationality a form of oppression.

And then, all of a sudden, it really is making me think that, yes, of course nationality is an oppressive force linked with race, ethnicity, and geographic oppression.  It deals with issues of immigration and what country is better and why?

It’s really making me think about how our frame of mind is shaped by the nations at the pinnacle of our global society, these so-called “first world countries” or “developed countries”.  And what makes them “developed” and others “developing” or “undeveloped”? Why do we consider certain nationalities better than others?  Is it pride or misinformation from our government and education system? Or something even deeper than that?  Can we even begin to dismantle nationalism as a form of oppression?  Are nations and countries even the same thing?  And if not, which is more valid–does it even matter if one is more valid than another?  And why is nationalism or nationalistic sentiment always seen as a positive?  Why are vehement individuals that display their nationalism through flags on their front porch seen as dedicated and passionate, while others are discredited as backwards or over-emotional?

I have a lot more questions than answers.  And this new insight is definitely something I will be trying to explore further.

Maybe nationalism works to benefit us, but right now, it appears like it does nothing but divide us into hierarchical positions of power and prestige, which is another issue entirely.

All I can say is that I have a lot more to do if I want to learn more, and that is not always a bad thing.