Back when I was at Berkeley, I worked as a writing tutor at our school’s Student Learning Center for two years. I’d initially been reluctant to even apply for the position because, I claimed, “I hated teaching.”
Thanks go to my brother, and the joke is now definitely on me because I massively enjoyed working as a tutor. It wasn’t the red-pen-to-paper job that I had been anticipating before I’d applied. There ended up being many more intellectual conversations about a myriad of topics from all different disciplines across Cal, and almost every day, I was able to learn something new from a class I would never have taken and never did take. I loved talking to different people all the time and hearing about their lives and how their growing up changed how they perceived the world.
Although the Cal community as a whole is generally assumed to be diverse, once you form communities among the group(s) of people from your major, your dorm, or other extracurriculars, you tend to run into the same people time in and time out. Your friend groups tend to remain as diverse as it was when you first found it.
Because of this, I found it refreshing and enlightening to meet students I wouldn’t otherwise have run into. But there were times when this also became a burden and one of the aspects of the job that I didn’t like.
As a Taiwanese American (or American born Chinese) student who majored in English and minored in Music, I did not follow stereotype, to say the least. In my classes, I was always part of the minority, not just in terms of my race, but also in regards to the demographics of each of my classes. (The only class where I was part of the majority was in my Chinese for Mandarin speakers class.)
The longer I served as a tutor, the more common it became that other students of color would ask me, “Where are you from?” Most often, the question came from international Chinese students. Then it was any other international student (of color).
It was discomfiting to be faced with this question.
In the context of my tutoring sessions, I could feel how these students compared themselves to me, someone who also appeared to be a minority in the States but was studying and speaking the language of the majority with seeming ease; wondered why my parents, who immigrated from Taiwan, would allow their daughter to pursue the humanities rather than the hard sciences; and occasionally even became jealous of how I could navigate their essays and readings without having attended a single class.
(Necessary tangent: English is hard and grammatically makes less sense than the other languages I’ve tried to learn. This post makes light of this topic, but the only reason why it’s so hilarious is because it’s true. Why don’t “cough” and “tough” rhyme, but “rough” and “tough” do? The heck if I know.)
Because this question came from students whom I was supposed to be helping with their writing as a peer, it made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like that they used our backgrounds as a point of comparison between us, because it allowed me to sense that they somehow perceived me to be “better.”
I haven’t heard the question, “Where are you from?”, since graduation and since I left my job at the Student Learning Center.
This past Wednesday, at the bachata class I attend, was the next time it was asked of me.
“Where are you from?”
The words came from a man, perhaps around my parents’ age, of mixed ethnicity. And though those words dragged up uncomfortable memories, this time around, I felt a sense of pride in explaining to him that I was Taiwanese, which wasn’t the same as being Chinese, and yes, my parents had come from Taiwan. Without the context of a tutor/writer relationship and that inherent comparison, I felt wholly proud of my background.
After he broke floodgates, I then found it acceptable and appropriate (for the first time) to ask the same of him. His mother’s family had originally come from the Philippines, his father from Puerto Rico, and they’d met in the States.
I’ve been wondering why he chose to ask this question now. We’ve been familiar faces for several months at bachata class, but this was the first time we’d ever spoken of anything aside from dance, or work, or other general small talk.
There is, of course, the chance that the question did stem from inherent curiosity. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that can’t shake the thought that perhaps now, we’re all feeling a greater urgency and desire to better understand those around us.