Chelsea: Hi, my name is Chelsea. I’m a senior in Pauli Murray College.
Oriana: And what is your major?
C: I’m double-majoring in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, or MCDB, and Political Science.
O: Let’s start maybe by… can you talk a little about where you were from and where you were born, what your relationship with your parents is like?
C: Yeah, sure. So I was born in China, specifically Dalian, and moved to the States when I was five, when my mom got a job at a medical school in Georgia. And then we moved to Nashville when I was seven when she got a job at Vanderbilt, which was where I grew up basically until college. And I’m an only child, so my relationship with my parents is really special and is really great. They’re basically my best friends, I talk to them all the time, and they’ve never—they’ve never hovered or helicopter-parented me. My parents were kind of the opposite of tiger parents—they just let me run wild, run free whenever I wanted, and pretty much let me explore my own identity and my own passions, which, for the first—for most of my life before high school, I was pretty unfocused, I didn’t really care about academics, or extracurriculars, or, you know, doing anything or going to a certain college. But I do think that that freedom really let me have a childhood and really was very important in letting me develop kind of like basic principles, basic ways of seeing life, before focusing on my ambitions.
But yeah, I really see my parents as my best friends. I trust them with everything, we talk—I mean, kind of the, like, stereotypical parent dynamic between Asian American children and their parents, like, I think, mine didn’t—was kind of opposite to maybe that stereotype, in that my parents do engage with me on topics like sex and drugs and alcohol, don’t lay out strict rules when it comes to those things, have never told me, like, you can’t do this or you can’t do that, and they’ve never made a value judgment on what I do. Instead, they’ve treated me almost as an equal ever since middle school and have really explained to me why, like, as—they’re very religious, they’re Christians—why, like, sex before marriage might make them uncomfortable, but why they recognize that I have to kind of come to that conclusion on my own, and why I have to make my own decisions about how I view sex, or how I view my relationship with drugs, or drinking, or partying, or stuff like that.
Religion & spirituality
O: Mmhmm. So you talked about your parents being religious—are you yourself religious, or did you pick up the same—did you go to church with them, or do you identify differently?
C: So I grew up very religious. I taught Bible study all throughout high school to little kids, and, you know, when I was a little kid, I went through the same Bible study stories, and grew up in a church community. And so I definitely—when I think about the role of religion in my life, it definitely forms the foundation, I think, for a lot of my principles and my moral values. And I think that it has especially played a large role in how I view the role of women in society, as well as sex. It’s… it’s defined me in ways that I am just now coming to realize. It’s not a conscious choice of like—it’s not a conscious thought process of, oh, “The Bible says sex before marriage is a bad thing; therefore I think it is a bad thing.” It has never been like that. It’s more like coming to realize that when I feel uncomfortable in certain situations, having to step back and think, “Why do I feel that way? Oh, it’s probably because you were raised with certain religious values.”
I no longer go to church, ever since coming to Yale. I was involved in a, like, a student Christian group my first two years of college, but right now, no longer involved, and no longer go to church. I think honestly that’s mainly due to just laziness—both not wanting to get up Sunday morning, go to church, and not having my parents wake me up, but also laziness in like the intellectual exploration of religion, and almost just being okay with thinking more about morality and these, you know, deeper questions of how to be a good person separate from religion. And I realize—you know, recently realized that’s actually a pretty lazy way of thinking, and for me, personally, I really do need to continue exploring. I need to continue exploring the role of religion in how I think of myself as a good person. And realize that, you know, when I—I think a lot of people in our generation—and I’ve said this too—say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Well, what does that really mean, you know? I do think a lot of people, when they say that, or at least when I’ve said that, [I mean that] I do believe that there is some higher power, some—maybe it’s not a god, but just this concept of a universe that might have some power or control or force over our lives and over the way the universe will continue to progress.
But ultimately I still think that a lot of these feelings that we have around spirituality still stem from a long history—including a long psychological history—of religion, especially of Western religion, especially of Christianity. For me, when I say that I’m spiritual, it still means that—I’m not atheist. I might not believe in the Christian God, but I still want to believe that there is some higher power, and that there is some meaning to all of this, and that, you know, the religion for me might not be Christianity, but right now, I’ve concluded that there is already and will continue to be—and must continue to be—a religious force in my life and a religious grounding in my life.
O: When you go back home, do you go to church still, with your parents?
C: I do. I do. But I will say that when I do go with them to church, or when I do attend their prayer sessions, things like that, I do feel some sort of cognitive dissonance, like a little bit of hypocrisy that when I’m in these spaces, other people, like outside of my family, know that my parents are very religious, and know that I grew up very religious, and so kind of think that I’m there because I’m still religious and expect me to hold the same values I once did about—and still believe everything that I used to. But internally I know that’s no longer the case, but I don’t want to create some kind of awkward—put my parents in an awkward position and tell these people, “Oh, I’m currently… exploring my identity and currently rethinking a lot of these things.”
O: Is the community that you’re part of—is what binds you together just the religion, or is it also, like, a primarily Asian community? Like in your church?
C: Yeah, so we were part of two churches when I was growing up, both of which—the first one was predominantly Chinese. They were all Chinese immigrants, and we were in that community until middle school for me. And I think that for that one, the community aspect of it was, for my family and for me, even more important than the religious aspects. Like we were all drawn together because we all believed in God and believed in Jesus and came together to read the Bible and to study the Bible, but ultimately a lot of the time spent together was also just things you do in other communities: eating, and talking, and loving each other, and singing. And kind of this other force of a shared experience of all being immigrants was definitely the predominant force there in that all of these people could come together and know that we’re all kind of struggling through the same things, and that if something—if anything happened, there was that religious aspect, we would all pray for them. We would pray that they will get better, or that they’ll make it through this, or we’ll pray that they’ll get what they—whatever they need at this moment.
O: You played the violin?
C: Yeah. So I played violin for thirteen years before coming to Yale and then dropping it [laughs]. Violin was my main extracurricular activity before I got to college. Like I think violin was kind of the only thing that I felt good at before college, and I felt this is… mine. Getting concertmaster, or getting awards or whatever, it is because of all the hard work that I’ve put in, and it truly… violin just felt like a very meritocratic system, where if I just practiced more and practiced precisely and focused in on every note and every transition between every note, I could get what I want. And that’s such a good feeling, that’s a really big confidence boost. But on the other hand, after graduating, after getting into Yale, I realized that I had put a lot of my self-esteem and self-worth on violin, and it became really unhealthy. Basically, I felt really down—I would just cry for hours if I felt like I had a bad audition or a bad recital or anything. Even if I got the result that I wanted, if it wasn’t up to my standards, I would just shut down and not know how to emotionally deal with that. And I realized that that was just extremely unhealthy for my mental health. It had become this, this monster, no longer an enjoyable activity—it became too close to who I was and my whole identity revolved around violin. So after coming to college I decided to stop. And currently trying to get back into it, you know, slowly, and just enjoy playing violin for itself, and not for getting, you know, getting a certain position in the orchestra or not getting into an orchestra. Or getting into college because of violin, but actually enjoying the music, and enjoying being a musician.
O: Wow. That must have been a hard decision.
C: It—I think it was, this is probably the one time that my parents stepped in, because they realized how much I was struggling with this decision, and they were just like, you know what, no. You gotta stop. And immediately afterwards I was pretty resentful that they had done that, I felt that they took away my identity. What am I without—you know, I feel like at Yale, we create these identities, like, oh, I do a cappella, or I do YDN [Yale Daily News], or I do YCC [Yale College Council], and for me, always, that was, I do violin. That was my thing. And now, I remember, I had a boyfriend at that time, and I remember telling—I distinctly remember this conversation, where I was like, shoot, I don’t have a thing, who could like me or want to be in a relationship with me if I don’t have a thing? Like how do you introduce your girlfriend if you can’t say, like, oh, this is so and so, she does a cappella, or whatever? Like I felt so, so lost, but finally, two years later, I’m finally coming to terms with it and feeling okay with not having, you know, this one activity define my entire identity.
O: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. I definitely feel like I came in thinking like, yeah, this is what I do.
C: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I hate that. I hate that we—I hate that when we talk about people here, we list out their résumés. Like, that’s… dumb. I don’t want to know that, I want to know if they’re funny, or if they make really good food, or, you know…. I don’t want to know that they interned at Goldman Sachs last summer [laughs], or like was the editor of YDN, why do you think that that matters to me, you know.
O: How do you think you would define yourself now?
C: I think I define myself… I think I… unfortunately, my ability to define myself beyond my résumé came from a very résumé thing, which is being a FroCo [First-Year Counselor]. But being a FroCo has made me reflect on what type of FroCo I am or what is my style of FroCo-ing, and that has made me realize that my identity, first of all, is—like, I can wear different hats, I think everybody does, in that it doesn’t have to be defined by, oh, she’s the introvert, or she’s the shy, quiet one. No, sometimes I like to be loud and obnoxious and scream and dance and whatever, I don’t need to just have the same personality all the time. But I think predominantly how I like to think of myself and think of my identity is I’m a really good listener, and I think I can—like I’m very trustworthy, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at getting people to open up to me, and I’m good at probing and asking questions and really listening to people.
And what I’ve come to realize recently is that I—I just—I like to think about what I…. Three years ago, I was on a date with this guy, and he asked me, like, what are the three things in life that you value the most? And to be completely honest, it threw me off [laughs] on the date, and I thought about it carefully, and what I told him actually has not changed since. And they are one, optimism—like you have to just be optimistic about human nature and about life and about how good people can be, in that if you are pessimistic about our future, if you’re pessimistic about how people will treat you, or their intentions or whatever, then I’m not sure that we can be very close, to be completely honest, because I just need to be surrounded by people who are optimistic about other people and about themselves. The second one is kind of like, the thing that I value is strength of mind, and this comes in a lot of different forms, and it’s—it’s kind of not just being able to control your thoughts and being able to tell yourself positive things and practice self-love, but it’s also being tactful, or being diligent, or being, you know, able to stay true to your word whatever you do—like loyalty, to me, is a very mental thing. It comes from how much mental control you have over your own actions and over your own thoughts. Honestly I’ve never—like I think my mom has always tried to help me be able to deal with bullshit a little bit more, and be okay with other people being, I don’t know, like letting their self-interest direct their actions, and being okay with not being internally consistent all the time or sticking to their values. But for me, like right now, I’m just realizing, like, no, I just can’t deal with that. If you’re gonna—if you don’t know what is truly important to you and you’re just acting in your own self-interest all the time, we just can’t be friends. I can’t deal with people who act that way.
But the first one just absolutely is just kindness. Like, I think I value kindness over everything, and if you are a person who cares about other people, or cares about anybody, then that sort of empathy and that sort of kindness towards that one person shouldn’t be limited to just that one person. Like if you truly care about somebody else, that care—it’s only logical that that care extends to everybody, that you care about everybody beyond yourself, in that you are able to, like, take on other people’s emotional burdens and truly want to do that and truly want to help other people work through their emotional problems. I think that that, to me, is how I have seen my identity grow in, like, in a way that I’ve only recently realized is something that I should be proud of. And right now I do take a lot of pride in the fact that it might make—it has made some people very uncomfortable in how, like, emotionally deep I try to get in our conversations, and probe into their emotional well-being. But you know what, fuck it, like I like it about myself, I like that I care enough to want to know you deeply, want to know everything that you’re thinking, want to help you through whatever, you know, pain that you’re going through. And that I’m no longer scared to show that I care.
O: Yeah. It sounds like it’s been good to do that reflection.
C: Yeah, no, I think it has been really helpful. You know, just from, in terms of confidence and self-esteem, I feel a lot more secure in myself now, now that I, like—my first three years were all about figuring out how to make people like me. And how to be—I played all of these different roles, and it’s not like they were one hundred percent fake, but they were playing up certain parts of my identity in certain spaces, which might be necessary, but ultimately left me pretty shattered as an individual, and just very fragmented as an individual. And I found myself, like, in these different social environments thinking, “Okay, how do I make this person comfortable. And how do I, you know, mold my personality around what they want to see.” And ultimately that led me to never really think about when am I actually comfortable, is this who I am. And it’s only this past year that I’ve realized, no, a lot of the times when I was changing, or not changing, slightly altering myself to fit their expectations, I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t truly being myself. And I think the really insidious thing about that is that I, deep down, knew that I wasn’t being myself. So when they liked me, or when they wanted to socialize with me or want to hang out with me more, it didn’t feel like they truly liked me. It felt like they liked this, you know, this persona that I created, and it didn’t feel like they truly cared about me, because maybe if they had seen who I truly am they wouldn’t have liked me anymore. I always had that constant fear that if you show who you truly are, like, oh, like you really just want to talk about everyone’s feelings all the time, then everyone will think you’re weird, and you won’t have any more friends, and the people that you currently call friends will also leave you. And overcoming that fear this year has been really important in recognizing that it’s more important to have—to be surrounded by people who truly care about you and who you know truly care about you because you have shown them who you are and they have still stayed around and stuck around and still want to be your friend.
O: I think before we move on to talk a little more about that—have you enjoyed being a FroCo? It sounds like yes.
C: Oh, so much. It’s been the most fulfilling thing that I’ve ever done. Ever done in my whole life. It’s honestly—it makes me feel useful, it makes me feel like my life has meaning and worth and that I’m providing some value to other people. Because everything else that I’ve ever done in my whole life, like violin, like Yale, academics, extracurriculars here, they’ve always felt very self-serving, and, you know, they were mainly for me. They were mainly because I either enjoyed the activity or was doing it to further my success. And it didn’t feel like I was helping anybody. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe I was—in some very tangential way—but I doubt it. This, this feels like the first thing I’ve done that… this is the first thing I’ve done that feels like I’m actually providing, I’m actually helping somebody else, and that I’m being useful to the world, and I’m using my talents of being a good listener, of being able to probe deeply into people’s lives and help them emotionally—yeah, it feels like I’m using these talents to actually, you know, help people love themselves more, and help people be happier and have a better time at Yale than I did.
O: Yeah. Um—something that you mentioned that you wanted to talk about is people coming to you with problems, as a FroCo, so what are some of the things that people have been coming to you with, and how have you been, I guess addressing that?
C: Um… it’s a lot of different things. And they’ve kind of been about—if I were to distill it down to a couple of themes, a lot of them are about challenges to your identity, and in so many ways. Like you come in thinking—again, like I did, I came in thinking I am, I play the violin. Or people come in thinking, you know, I’m going to be this major and do this internship, or run this club, because that’s who they were in high school. And coming here and realizing, oh wait, I don’t like it, it’s not enjoyable, realizing that they have full control over their lives and can make decisions based on what makes them happy is something that a lot of these first years have come to deal with. And this idea that you can dictate how your life is going to go and you can dictate what you’re going to do on campus based solely on what you feel, I don’t know why but it’s like revolutionary. It’s no longer what is most useful or most—makes the most sense given your background, or even…. Like the worst advice I have ever heard was this older guy telling me, “You should pick your career by finding something you’re really good at and becoming the best at it.” And I think that is just such a backwards way of thinking, of trying to choose your whole—a career, something that is humongous and will take up so much of your time in life based on what you’re good at? Instead of what you enjoy and what makes you happy? I think that’s just so flawed. And so trying to tell my frosh that—and having them come to me and say, I thought I would really like this and I don’t, and helping them explore that problem, like why don’t you like it? What do you value, what are you trying to accomplish with your time here, has been most of my conversations.
O: Yeah. I think that would have been really helpful when I was a freshman.
C: Yeah, I think it would have been helpful to me too. [laughs] I think I definitely—it took—I’m still going through that, honestly—it took four long years to finally be okay with prioritizing happiness. Like I used to be so self-sabotaging and tell myself, like, happiness is not the most important thing in the world, you can do something better with your time than just pursuing what makes you happy, because that felt selfish, that felt arrogant. But you know what, no, being happy is the most important thing, you should take care of yourself first and you should do, only do, what makes you happy. And that is a really hard thing to tell yourself every single day and force yourself to make decisions around that. But ultimately I think it leads to a more—honestly a more impactful life.
O: Do you want to talk about yellow fever?
C: Sure. Yeah, sure.
O: So I guess, like, have you personally had experiences with it in your dating life?
C: Definitely. You know there are these experiences where you’re just kind of—you’re at a club or a bar or whatever, and somebody just completely—a racist asshole just comes up to you and is like, “All of my girlfriends are Asian,” and you’re just like oooh, what? [laughing] And then he just starts speaking Chinese to you, and you’re just like, hmm, no, bye. You’re a racist asshole. I’m leaving. When I’m in Nashville, hanging out—now that we’re all 21—going to a bar with my friends, sometimes, some random guy will just come up and say, like, “Oh my god, you’re Asian!” And I’m just like, “No shit, Sherlock!” [both laughing] Jesus, is that really your pickup line?
But I have experienced it at Yale, and somewhat in kind of surprising ways. So this one time I was at a mixer with my sorority, and there was this really cute guy that I was, you know, making eye contact with across the room, and I told my friend, “Oh, I think he’s really cute.” And she says to me, “Well, you’re in luck, he’s really into Asian girls.” And the thing is, my friend is also Asian American. At the time, honestly, it’s bizarre, because I felt happy. I was like, “Oh, good!” [both laughing] Like I have my in, I can go talk to him and approach him. But you know, thinking back on it, that’s kind of bizarre that this other Asian American woman was telling me, like, oh it’s—you are, you are attractive to him because you’re Asian. And didn’t really see the problems with that. And didn’t see how that later, honestly, was a minor hit on my confidence.
I don’t think my friend should feel guilty for saying, oh go for it, he’s into Asians. I think she meant that with the best intentions of saying, “Go for it.” That’s literally it. But I do think that, I mean, one, the onus is on the man to not be an asshole and not be racist and not, you know, only dating or hooking up with Asian women. But, I don’t know, this is a tricky thing because we shouldn’t be shaming anybody for hooking up with anybody else. We shouldn’t shame Asian American women for hooking up with potentially problematic men. Instead we should keep having these conversations of, like, yeah, he’s cute, but it is kind of problematic, and it does make me feel kind of weird. And then validating each other and making sure we boost each other’s confidence after this and saying, like, okay, if that made you feel weird, it’s probably because of him, and because he’s racist, and not because you are not valuable as an individual.
O: Do you usually see this in white men?
C: Yeah, I’ve only—only seen it in white men. Yeah, I think the history is there. The thing is, I think all of these prejudices have historical roots, and this one is grounded at least in World War II, and a lot of American troops—I think there’s a study that showed that 80 percent of American troops that were overseas in Vietnam sought prostitutes? And there is that history there of white men oversexualizing Asian American women because they were in those scenarios, because they had those experiences, and kind of pass that mindset onto their—onto the next generation. And it’s… once it becomes part of a culture, it’s super hard to remove, unfortunately. This whole culture around Asian Americans being portrayed as geishas and as docile schoolgirls has—was—and hopefully is declining in its prevalence, but was very prevalent at one time. And we’re still experiencing the leftover effects of that. Honestly, yeah. For me it has all been white men, and I’m not surprised that it has been white men who have exclusively had those thoughts.
O: I guess, out of the people that you’ve dated, have you dated, like—do you typically date other Asians or do you typically have interracial relationships, or is it just kind of like, that’s really not what’s on your mind?
C: It’s hard to say that that’s not on my mind. Again it’s not like a conscious thing, like I am only going to date Asian men, but I do think that subconsciously there is something that was influencing it. It felt more comfortable and it felt like these people… not only was I not intimidated by them, but I felt like these people understood me more deeply than a white man ever could. Because one of them, also one point five—one and a half generation, or like, you know, born in China, raised in the States sort of childhood, and another was a third generation but still Asian American, still looked Asian American. And I felt like they could really understand my torment and all of the problems that I went through being an Asian American sometimes and feeling… I don’t know, it was almost like I felt good that they understood my suffering. They kind of had the same suffering at times, and they felt the same prejudices.
But, um, after—after both of those relationships ended, I realized that a relationship has to be grounded in something more substantial than that you’ve had similar life experiences. That even if you did, even if you are both Asian American and you do experience similar cultural upbringings, your parents are somewhat similar, you eat similar, you eat the same food, and your grandparents live in China and they’re, I don’t know, and they have similar life experiences—it’s not enough. Even if all of those things are the case, which they were for me, I realized I had fundamentally different values in life and had a different way of seeing people than both of these ex-boyfriends. And that that difference was much more, much more important than any similarity that we had in our upbringing.
And so now currently I am dating—I am in an interracial relationship and I am dating a white man, and —like, we share so many more similarities in these fundamental traits and values than I did with either of the Asian American men that I dated. And it feels much more comfortable, I feel like I can honestly be myself, even if—even though the guy that I’m currently dating, he’s not, you know, he hasn’t experienced racial prejudice, he hasn’t experienced what it feels like to, you know, again, have yellow fever, or any of that, to be discriminated against because of the color of your skin. But that’s fine because we share deeper values. And I know that he’s willing to listen to all of my experiences as an Asian American woman and not just assume that he knows everything and be willing to learn about that.
O: What are you thinking about doing? If you’re comfortable talking about it.
C: Yeah, of course. I’m not one hundred percent sure yet, but I definitely want to go into academia. I think the idea of one, just being a professor, being able to teach, being surrounded by young people all the time sounds fantastic. And I would really, I think—and also just sitting around, in my office, surrounded by books, and thinking and reading and writing all day, I can’t believe there’s a job like that? [laughs] I can’t believe how lucky I am to be born at this time to just sit around and think, I think that’s amazing. The specific field that I would want to be a professor in is, currently, I’m not sure yet. I think there’s nothing better than philosophy. It’s just…. One, I think there needs to be more diversity in philosophy, but also two, it’s just everything. For me, it’s the… most pure form of knowledge and of searching for truth, and it’s purer than science, even. And I would love to perhaps pursue that option, but if that doesn’t end up working out, I would also really love political science, which just came out of the liberal arts education at Yale, and would love to pursue, like, comparative politics and look at Chinese domestic politics, which is kind of really what I’m writing my senior thesis on. And yeah, I just want a career that allows me to basically explore any intellectual question that I have, and have the resources to do so and the time to do so and be able to travel. And again to kind of be a FroCo and mentor young people, and be surrounded by, like, really excited students all the time.
O: What are some of the favorite, I guess, academic things that you’ve done—classes, maybe, anything really, that you’ve done here?
C: Yeah, let’s see. So… there was this one class junior year [2016–17], I think, that was called the Ethics, Politics, and Economics in an Age of Extinction Risk, and it was cross-listed between EP&E [Ethics, Politics, & Economics] and PoliSci, and basically it was looking at all of these existential risks that we face today, including, just, climate change in general, potential nuclear weapon destruction of the entire world, but also looking at artificial intelligence, or bio risk, or genetic manipulations. And that just, like, that was such an eye-opening experience that my science background has a place, has an application, a use, in philosophy, in tackling these moral issues. And it really turned me especially onto the field of AI, which is what I’m currently trying to do in the immediate future is focusing on the existential and ethical implications of AI. It’s what I was doing last summer—I interned at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, looking at AI global governance structures, and looking at the value alignment problem, and specifically looking at—which is what my thesis is currently on—how China is approaching AI, whether they’re taking a different approach than the U.S. is.
And I also took a class on the global politics of AI, which is super super interesting, and looking at all of the different ways in which AI becomes a political issue. There are similarities that can be drawn between the, like, artificial intelligence race and the nuclear weapons race, and even the space race, and looking at how we have managed those scenarios in the past during the Cold War, and how those structures can be applied to this new technology, whether we should see it as, you know, the greatest thing that could possibly happen to mankind, and as the last invention we’ll ever need to make, or seeing it as a really, really scary existential threat that maybe we won’t be able to control but that we have to at least prepare for.
And… I think just in general, a lot of these things that I like to think about are all about personal morality, but also what is, like, how is morality shaped by society, and how do we define our morals. And this has led me to think a lot about religion and the role of religion in forming the moral foundation of society. And also, what are the moral implications of scientific progress? What, you know—is science moral? Or do scientific advancements, like CRISPR, like AI, do these things lead to moral progress as well? And I think also, a lot of these questions ultimately boil down to what is our nature, what is human nature, is it in our nature to have agency, to be able to control how we use these scientific advancements and how we apply them, or is it in our nature to just not know, to just have zero control over anything that we do, and therefore, if that’s the case, is governmental regulation needed to, you know, to prevent us from destroying ourselves? Should the government intervene in the application of science, or even in pursuing certain scientific advancements in general? Should governments tell us, like, don’t design your babies, or don’t use AI in this certain way, don’t weaponize it? Or tell Google, don’t pursue AI in general, it has to be more tightly regulated by the government? I think these are all really big questions that ultimately boil down to not objective, not quantifiable or empirical questions, they all boil down to what is our nature, what is human nature, are we fundamentally moral beings or are we this kind of blank slate idea of human nature where all we are is like the product of these regulations and cultural norms that are imposed on us?
And so the other class that I’ve really really enjoyed was one I took last semester [Fall 2017] with Boris Kapustin, who is just the most brilliant professor ever. But his class is called Moral Choices in Politics, and it was exactly looking at how morality is applied in making political decisions. Because we have this conception of morality, of what it means to individuals, and what an objective morality may look like. But even if those things can be defined, when you apply them to politics, they become this, kind of this warped idea, they no longer become any—like we can’t have any principles, fundamentally; we can’t have an objective morality that applies to every situation. And in, you know, in a political theory class, I’m currently taking one on Rousseau, we’re reading about his human nature theory, reading about how he thinks man in the state of nature is fundamentally good and self-sufficient and that society corrupts him. But then when we see that mindset applied in political decisions, we get the French Revolution. We get, you know, the Reign of Terror. And we get this crazy person, you know, Robespierre, telling everyone, “If you’re not on the side of virtue, then you must die.” We see that morality becomes a very dividing line in a population in that it distinguishes the good from the bad and then the bad must—are all punished, arbitrarily. And so morality itself becomes perverted, sometimes, when it becomes political.
And so I think that’s why—you know, why I’ve become so drawn to these classes, because I’ve always had a simplistic idea of what it means to be moral, what it means to be a good person, that it’s not such a hard thing to think about, or it’s not even a hard thing to really, like, to really discuss in a vacuum, to think about behind the Veil of Ignorance, what would people be like. That’s—that’s a lot of fun and not as troubling. But then when you apply it to politics, when you apply it to actual society, it becomes horribly complicated and a lot more disturbing to think about. And especially, especially when it comes to something that should be quote-unquote “objective” like science. Science has no political or moral agenda, but then when we begin to apply it, it has, you know, it has the deepest moral implications, and as we begin to discover more and more about ourselves, about the human body, about the world, there are going to be even more moral implications, and I want to be there to help answer these questions, or at least to be able to think about them myself and have the time to reflect on those questions.
O: Wow. That sounds so exciting.
C: [laughs] I’m really excited. Oh, I, I—again, I can’t believe that there’s a career that would give me the time to think about these things.
O: Yeah, I’m currently taking the Bioethics and Law class—
C: Oh nice, nice!
O: Yeah, and it’s really—I mean it’s been…. Stuff that I thought was more black-and-white…
O: Is… incredibly shades of gray.
C: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think, like, if there were one thing—two things. If there were two things that everybody should take away from a Yale education, it’s that all of these social issues are never black-and-white, they’re always some shade of gray. And the second is that I think everybody should leave—this is, I think, special to Yale, and might not be found at every other Ivy League university, but the belief that we can pursue these questions without objective answers. That it is important to think about these gray areas, knowing that there are no—there is no black-and-white, there is no empirical answer to these questions, and yet we must think about them anyway. We still have to have these classes and try to grapple with these really complicated issues. And know that—while, again, knowing that there is a good chance you’ll just die without having ever answered any question, and that’s fine.
O: Yeah. Has your mind changed about anything?
C: Oh, a lot. A lot of these things I just didn’t—I think especially, with our more science-focused debates, just didn’t realize that my… um, perception of science was very limited to, like, “science is a very amoral, apolitical pursuit,” and I’ve always had this underlying awareness of that, that it doesn’t feel enough for me, for what I want to with my life, but I could never vocalize why. And now I can. It’s all forced me to realize that, shoot, there are a lot of these scientific developments that have all of these really troubling moral implications that have nothing to do with science, and that I want to be more involved on that side of it.
Chinese American community
O: Is there a big Chinese community, or Asian American community, there?
C: There’s a pretty sizeable Chinese American community at least in Nashville. Like it was—we would always have holiday parties together, or just parties whenever. And it was a really, especially a really big deal in high school, when everybody begins thinking about college. And I still have, like, the current high schoolers who are in this community, and their parents, still reach out to me all the time, asking like—no longer, because they’ve all gotten in [both laugh] as of yesterday—but yeah no they all reached out asking for advice, on extracurriculars, on which ones to do, on the interviews, on, stuff like that. And I think it is… it is a really good resource for this college application process, and for, you know, parents who have no idea what any of it is and have never been through it, it is helpful to have other parents tell you exactly what they did to get their kid into Harvard or Yale.
But on the other hand, it is kind of—it puts a lot of pressure on all of us, on all of the high schoolers who are going through this. Because you see all of these older peers who have gotten to Yale, have gotten to Harvard, or any school that they wanted to, and you inevitably compare yourself to them, and think, like, shoot, this is the standard in my community, this is what I need to live up to, or else I won’t be regarded as highly by my parents’ friends. And that’s kind of damaging, I think, to anybody’s psychology, when you kind of think that you’re not as worthy, like—it’s a very stereotypical thing to say—but kind of bringing shame to your family if you don’t get into an Ivy League school. Which is just wrong. Like that’s not at all what you should be thinking about when it comes to the college application process. But it’s definitely something that I was thinking about. I had always felt very, like, under… not underappreciated, but just not living up to the standard that this community in Nashville had. And all through middle and high school I didn’t have the same grades, I didn’t have the same accomplishments, I didn’t go to math competitions or science competitions. Therefore I just felt like—my parents never showed any disappointment in me, but I felt like—they didn’t feel disappointed because they just accepted it, I just wasn’t like all these other Chinese kids who all did have these accomplishments, who did have the best grades. So senior year, or junior year, even, when I began thinking about colleges, I thought, no, I want to make them proud and I want them to have that high standing in the community, and when college apps came around I applied to basically all of the Ivies and applied to 21 schools and got into most of them, which was… I think, for me, I felt very much vindicated. It didn’t feel like a pure happiness, like oh I wanted this for myself, it did kind of feel like, oh I’ve vindicated myself, I’ve proven myself to this community that I can be just as good as—I can reach their standard, I can get into Yale just as their kids got into Yale, I can have my parents be seen more highly among the community. But I think that that pressure is just really damaging. No high schooler, no high school senior should be thinking about, like, God, all of the older kids got into Yale, I have to do that too so that my parents, you know, aren’t shamed by their friends. That’s just unnecessary pressure.
O: Yeah. It’s interesting because it sounds like there was more pressure from other people in the community than from your own family.
C: Absolutely. Absolutely, it is really interesting. My parents never once pressured me to apply to any Ivy League—I applied early to Vanderbilt and got in and got a good scholarship, they were super happy about that. But yeah, they never pressured me to apply to all of these schools or to get into Yale. They just wanted me to be happy. And they honestly thought I would be happier—at the time—would have been happier at a, like, maybe at a state school. Not saying that state schools are lesser in any way, but that it would have been less pressure on me academically and I could keep up with people more at schools like that, and all of this pressure, all of this negativity that was in my head at the time, like I want to go to Yale, I need to go to an Ivy League, was just coming from the community.
O: [Something you said you wanted to talk about was] mental health. What did you… what were your thoughts on that that you wanted to—like what made you want to talk about it?
C: I think the main thing was that I wanted to just touch on how much of a stigma there is around mental health in the Asian American community. Not necessarily just from the community back home and from your parents, but also it’s still here, it’s still prevalent among your peers. I think I was reading something that said that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek out mental health services than white Americans, and that’s so disheartening.
But I see the effects of that happening, like I see it in myself, of struggling through a lot of mental health issues, specifically with depression, which started around sophomore year and has only gotten worse throughout college, and only recently going—seeking out professional help to treat it. And I think for the longest time, it just wasn’t taken seriously by the people around me, by my parents, or even by me. There was always this thought that, like, oh, I—I can’t have depression, there’s nothing that I struggle with, really, there are no, there have been not a lot of hardships in my life, it’s not something that happens to me, it is something that might happen to other people and I recognize that is a problem, but recognizing that I needed treatment for it? It just didn’t seem real.
And especially when I told my parents, I think their main reaction was actually panic. Like internal panic, of feeling kind of hopeless that they can’t help me, that they don’t really… you know, this isn’t something they, like—in their community they talk about like, oh, how do I get into Harvard, how do I get into Yale, what are the test scores needed, what do you write about in the Common App. They don’t talk about mental health issues, they don’t talk about what happens when your kid can’t get out of bed and is constantly crying and doesn’t, you know, doesn’t have the energy to do anything anymore. They don’t know how to deal with that.
And I think like, for me at least before coming to college, the stigma was just so, so freaking prevalent in these conversations around how to succeed at Yale, how to succeed in Ivy League colleges. Like a lot of my parents and their friends would tell me, like, oh, a lot of Asian Americans can’t finish college when they go to these Ivy League schools, one in four Asian American students drop out because they end up failing their classes. And I remember my freshman year my parents would push me to take the easiest classes that I could. Make sure you do not fail, make sure that you’re not putting yourself in positions that are too risky and that are too difficult for you.
And looking back at it now, all of those horror stories of Asian American students who dropped out of Ivy League schools, I’m now 100 percent convinced that it was because of mental health issues. It wasn’t because they were failing, it wasn’t because they weren’t smart enough, or because they were taking classes that were too difficult—it was because we have this crisis of mental health in the Asian American community, where these kids were probably doing fine in school but were struggling severely internally. Because I think there are specific mental health issues that Asian Americans face because of these tensions between what is expected of you in your community and in these cultures versus what you are actually able to deliver on and what you actually might care about. I think there are a lot of—you know, mental health is a very biological, chemical monster to tackle, but nothing is purely nature, nothing is purely nurture. I think mental health does also arise from our surroundings—mental health issues do arise from our surroundings—in that if there are tensions between what is expected of you by everybody, by your own culture, and then tensions between that and what you actually want to do with your life or maybe what you’re actually good at or how you define your own worth, then yeah, that’s gonna cause constant stress, constant feeling of like letting yourself down, letting everybody else down, constant self-doubt, constant self-sabotaging, self-hatred.
O: Yeah. Was it really hard to tell your parents—to bring up the topic? Did you have the vocabulary to do it?
C: Oh, god no. It wasn’t very hard but I did not have the vocabulary to do it. When it started sophomore year—
O: Of high school or college?
C: Of college. I would just call my parents crying, and they’d be like, Are your classes going okay? Did you get a bad grade? And I was like, No, everything’s fine, everything is objectively fine, but I feel awful inside. I feel lonely, I feel like I don’t belong here, I feel like I’m never good enough, I feel like nobody likes me, I feel like I don’t even like myself, all of these things. And on top of all of that, I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t know why I feel so awful all the time, and it’s turning me into a recluse, into an anti-social hermit, somebody that I don’t want to be. And this past year, when I finally got—when I talked to a couple of friends about it who have also struggled with mental health issues in the past, I realized that maybe, maybe this is more serious than I’ve been treating it. But… yeah, not having the language for it, for the longest time feeling like why, why am I just struggling so much, it was the most frustrating feeling.
O: Yeah. So—you talked about talking about it with your friends. And you also talked about stigma at Yale. Could you talk a little about that?
C: I think the thing… I tend to…. What I’ve noticed is that I don’t like to bring it up with friends. Not necessarily because I don’t trust them to handle it well, but just because I don’t think they, like, know how to handle it. Like I think that they would have the best intentions and would try to help me and would try to say the right thing, but the thing is, tackling these mental health issues is not a social thing. It’s not like I—I don’t want to share with you just so you know more about me. I would want to share with you because I feel like you could help me. And… what I found is that sometimes when I’ve told other people, it made it worse, and their responses to it made me feel worse about it and made me feel worse about myself, and it made me feel like that almost became my identity. That people kind of changed the way they look at me after knowing that, and that was an awful feeling.
And it’s not their fault, it’s not that they don’t care about me. It’s just that, um, sometimes, if you haven’t gone through something like this, you can’t really empathize, and you can’t really…. Like the thing is, I have only really found help in those people who have also dealt with mental health issues. Because they understand that this is something that…. What is constantly on my mind is how do I not let it show. How do I make people treat me normally. How do I act like a normal person throughout the day. And that’s really, sometimes just really, really freaking difficult to do when I’m going through an episode and I just want to, like, stay in my room all day and not talk to anybody and not do anything.
But also these people who have also gone through it know how much I want to be seen as normal, know how much I don’t want this to become my identity, that I’m still like a—you can have these issues and still be, still want to have a lot of fun, still be happy, still be carefree, and it’s not, this is not a constant thing that is always there. And… yeah. But sometimes talking to my other friends who really just don’t understand it to that level of depth, there’ve been some responses of also like hopelessness, and feeling like I want to help you but I can’t. And to them it’s almost like I have to reassure them that it’s okay, I’m not expecting you to be a therapist, I’m expecting you to just understand if I am going through one of these—if I am having a bad day, don’t hold it against me too much if I distance myself for a few days. And then with some other friends, it’s… like ignoring it doesn’t help either. Like if I have told you, I don’t want you to completely just ignore it, I would want you to occasionally check in. If you see me kind of struggling, reassure me that, you know, that maybe I can take some time to myself, reassure me that it’s okay to take care of yourself first. Yeah. I get that it is really… it is really difficult to know your role as a friend in this, and to not, like, one, not be scared of, like… of too much vulnerability and helping the person more than you think might be appropriate based on the community stigma, but also not treating them any differently, treating them as this disabled person.
O: Right. Yeah. I guess what do you think—or what do you wish was different, I guess, either at Yale or with your family or in the Asian American community in general?
C: I wish that if I say that I’m going through a—if I say that I’m having a bad day, I’m going through a thing right now, that people take it seriously. And that they don’t deem me as lazy, as, you know, just, like, a bum if I don’t show up to a meeting, if I take—yeah, basically. Our lives here revolve so much around extracurriculars, and that’s the main thing that’s taken a hit by my mental health issues. This was especially bad sophomore year: I remember not going to a lot of these meetings and just feeling so shitty about myself and just feeling like, God, these people think I’m just so lazy, these people think I’m just so incompetent, and I hate that. We have to change something—we have to change the way that we—mental health is no different from physical health, is no different from getting sick. You wouldn’t judge someone for saying, Oh I have a cold, or I have the flu, or anything like that, but for some reason when somebody….
And the thing is, people don’t even say it. I never actually used mental health as an excuse. I’ve never said, like, Hey, I’m not doing so well this week, like, I’m feeling pretty low, I think I’m going to miss the meeting today. I don’t know why. I should’ve. But I think part of me knew that that wouldn’t be taken as seriously. Including academics, honestly. I think that Dean’s Excuses should include mental health, in that if you’re seriously struggling, like you can’t get out of bed struggling, that’s a health issue. That is—you should go to the hospital, and you should be excused from taking exams or going to class or whatever. You shouldn’t be dealing with this and worry about failing a class. Um… yeah, I just think it’s… it’s really shitty that a lot of people I know who deal with these issues cover it up with other excuses rather than actually giving it its due weight. And then a lot of people—not a lot of people, I’ve seen this happen a lot where people will judge somebody for being lazy when I know that that’s absolutely not the case, that they’re going through something that that person just has absolutely no idea about.
O: Okay. Well, that’s all I have. Is there anything else that you wanted to say?
C: No, I don’t think so.
O: Well, thank you.
C: Thanks for coming.