Ananya: Why don’t why you start by telling me where you’re from, how you ended up at Yale, and where you see yourself going in the coming years.
Michelle: So, 19 years ago, I was born in Berkeley, California, where my dad was working as a postdoc for Lawrence-Berkeley Natural Lab. My mom was also working at some company in the area and staying home to take care of me and my brother. We moved when I was about one to Fayetteville, Arkansas where I grew up. I think I was really lucky to have grown up in Fayetteville. It’s a really tight knit community that has a strong sense of civic engagement just because it has a long history of inclusivity. Of course, it has a lot of problems. But it is home to one of the first public schools to voluntarily integrate, it was the first city in the state to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance that covers sexual orientation and gender identity, it has never allowed a gated community, and we also have a local government that's very responsive and very involved with the local community. Everyone knows the mayor. He’s friends with the limit of people you can be friends with on Facebook. I think that growing up in Fayetteville, I have a really strong sense of wanting to be part of making change and to be always thinking about progress. I think that’s part of what brought me to Yale. Because I think Yale, when compared to its peer institutions, is the most civically-minded. Of course, there are so many snakes everywhere. A third of us will go to finance and consulting after graduation, but I think that there is a culture of being involved in activism, political action, whatever you want to call it. Whether it's the Yale College Democrats, or single-issue groups like RALY, or YUPP. I also think that Yale is a kind of quirky place and Fayetteville is also a quirky place. It’s like the best place in the world. I really love Fayetteville. I think, of course, these are within the lens of going to an elite institution. I selected Yale out of twenty schools that U.S. News and World Report thinks are worth going to. I think that had a lot to do with family pressures to go to an “elite” institution. I think also because of pressure during school, during middle school and high school, as someone who is “smart” and “successful” I thought I was going to go to a school like Yale. But that being said, I think that it's a really great place to be.
A: Do you think those pressures were imposed by your family or more by your community because of the commitment they have to civic service?
M: I think a lot of it was my family. But I think that because I was conditioned to believe these things, I ended up having the group of friends that I did. Many of them are at Ivy League schools or “elite” institutions. Also, it was an additional ambient pressure to add to go to a school like Yale. But that being said, I don’t feel like it was ever a competitive or cutthroat environment, even among my group of friends who all wanted the same things. I think that our high school and our town had a very collaborative environment and we just did cool shit. We did things that were good, right, and important because that’s just what we want to do. I think that is a unique part of our town’s culture. And part of that is just because it's a university town. There’s a spirit of civic engagement, creativity, and being inquisitive.
A: Do you see yourself going back there someday?
M: Oh yeah. Definitely. I think Fayetteville is a great place to raise a family. I also think that there is so much work to be done in Arkansas, and there are so many people who have inspired me and taught me so much about public service from Arkansas who need help. I really want to be able to use what I’ve learned in this beautiful ivory tower to work towards the goals that I grew up around.
A: You see yourself going back there to raise a family, maybe work service, civic engagement, or politics in the area. What do you see yourself doing in the coming years, before you return to Fayetteville?
M: It’s a weird question, right? Because I don’t know. I think there is so much good work to be done in Arkansas. I think there’s a pressure to go back immediately. But on the other hand, I want to be able to see innovative solutions, I want to cast a wider net and learn from a larger set of experiences. And so, I don’t think I’ll go back immediately. Of course, this all depends on who will give me a job. But I would of course love to work in a bigger city where there’s more innovative work being done in the non-profit or governmental sector. I’d love to work in D.C. and see how the federal government works, or doesn’t work. But it’s such a hard line to draw. What is that point, what is the balance: x number of years somewhere else and x number of years back home? I’ve kind accepted that I don’t know what my life is going to be like in five and ten years. I’m just rolling with the opportunities that come up, and constantly reflecting on what is the important thing for me to do at this moment, and the most important thing to experience so that I will be able to do good, important things.
A: You talked a lot about how your hometown has a really unique culture. How did your family engage with the town or react to the cultural change between Berkeley and Fayetteville?
M: So, my dad is actually living in China now. He moved back to China for good. That’s always something he wanted to do and he came to this country knowing that. So I think that that really prevented him from putting down roots and falling in love even with California, because they lived there for almost ten years, or Fayetteville. My mom, on the other hand, is both a more sentimental person and gave herself more opportunities to be sentimental about Fayetteville. She recently considered moving to California. She spends a couple of weeks there every year. But every time she goes, she’s like, California sucks. I just want to stay in Fayetteville.
A: Do you have any siblings?
M: Yeah, I have an older brother. He’s eight years older than me.
A: That’s a big age difference. Where is he right now?
M: He’s in San Francisco, being a bum. He’s kind of… I don’t know.
A: So, he’s very different from you? What does he want to do with his life?
M: Yeah, I think he’s a very different person than I am. I think he doesn’t have the same passion I do for Fayetteville. I don’t know whether that’s because he moved there when he was in fifth grade and so doesn’t see it as the place he grew up, or because the people he was around didn’t inspire him the way I was. I don’t know. I think that because our parents were not plugged into the main community because they weren’t really politically engaged, like my mom just got naturalized last year, they were mostly involved in the Chinese American community in Fayetteville. And my brother, for whatever reason, because he was born in China maybe, felt the pressures of assimilation more harshly and rejected that community and didn’t really want to be a part of that. He didn’t really find another niche for himself in Fayetteville’s community, I guess, and so didn’t form the bonds that would lead him to feel sentimental about his town.
A: So, who were the people who inspired you? Were they teachers, friends, community leaders?
M: Teachers definitely. But older students really inspired me throughout my schooling, and really in particular people who were involved in the Young Democrats of Arkansas. I saw these 17, 18, 19, 20-year-olds doing amazing, great work that had an impact on the democratic party of Arkansas as a whole. It really made me think about the impact that I could have and the people that I could lead and inspire. A lot of those people were from my high school, some of them weren’t. I think they broadened my perspective of what it meant to political in Arkansas because right now Arkansas is so highly controlled by Republicans. Being political right now means thinking about equity and thinking about opportunities in ways that aren’t necessarily connected to electoral wins. Whether that's in the legislature or more direct service opportunities. That really made me think about public service kind of broadly. I think, not politically, a lot of older students were intellectual role models of mine. I think about this pretty often now with my friends who graduated with me and the people that we knew who just did cool shit. Like I had a friend who started a musical group and they all played instruments and wrote their own arrangements, and they would play at the local farmers market. They would collect money and donate that money to some service organization in Fayetteville.
A: So wholesome!
M: It is! There were all these people who just taught themselves instruments. I know these people who just knew so much about history or music, or I don’t know, philosophy. I think that experience made me really think about the kind of people I want to be around. I want to be around people who make and do beautiful things, good things.
A: Did you ever feel like you were frustrated because your interests diverged from your parents, especially given their lack of engagement with the public service agenda of Fayetteville?
M: I didn’t really ever feel any conflict with them. Maybe that’s because my home life and my political life were kind of separate. But also, I think part of it is that my parents did a job instilling in me compassion and kindness, and I think the way that they approached their lives inspired me in different but important ways. My dad very much views science as something that can bring about progress and makes peoples’ lives better, and that’s why he does his research. That’s why he started his company. He thought he could make life easier for people. He has this visible passion and interest in doing science. And sometimes it's a little bit much. He’s a very deeply flawed person but I think that's something that had a profoundly positive effect on my life. My mom is just very kind and selfless. Unfortunately, she was not able to find a career that she was very passionate about and excited about. But in spite of all that, in every single job she’s done an amazing job because she’s on top of her shit and gets shit done. Also, my mom’s so smart. I think those things are important to me. And I think even though my parents weren’t involved in civic life, they were leaders in the Chinese American community. The other newer families definitely felt very welcomed into the community. I think that’s also very central to who I am.
A: What did you in high school outside of political activism?
M: Nothing, really. I did debate in high school. That was interesting. I was involved with various political things and various public speaking type things. Model UN, one conference, which was trash and no one knew the rules.
A: Why didn’t you come back to debate in college?
M: I thought it was time to dedicate my energy to making a difference and doing shit. Tyler Blackman, who was president of the Yale College Dems when I was a first-year, who was also my freshman counselor, super wise. At Dems Formal, my freshman year (he was very drunk) he said, “Some people on this campus debate shit. Some people on this campus write about shit. But the Yale College Democrats, we do shit.” Something like that. He articulated in a really silly, fun way, what I feel really deeply. I’m kind of done playing pretend. I’m ready to do things that make life better, easier, and more beautiful for people. That’s not saying there’s not a place for political discourse.
A: You’re clearly a Democrat. Is that a product of your parents, your town, or something else?
M: I really don’t know at what point I became a Democrat, because my parents never talked to me about politics. My parents are both pretty clear now that they would both vote Democrat. I think that probably had some effect and probably influenced me subconsciously. But it was never overtly shown. Fayetteville is quite blue. It voted for Hillary 66 percent, but at the same time, the schools I went to were more conservative than that. I always lived on the wealthy side of town, so because of the way schools are districted, there are Republicans around. The district representative is the only Republican among the Fayetteville representatives. Part of that is because it includes rural areas. And part of that is because the wealthier people are the more they lean to the right. So, I don’t know where it comes from. It just makes sense to me.
A: How do you think your experience would have been different if you hadn’t lived on the wealthy side of town?
M: I think about that sometimes. What if my parents weren’t highly educated professionals? I don’t know. I think if I lived on the other side of town then I think I would have had a better understanding of race earlier in my life than I did. Just because the wealthier side of town ended up being whiter. I think growing up in that environment where I knew so many white people, and fewer Asian people, and even fewer Latinx and Black people, really affected the way I saw things. I just think diversity is important. And I think that maybe I would have been more understanding of that if I was exposed to different narratives from an early age.
A: So, what was your first experience with race?
M: I don’t know. There was a kid in junior high who would bully me on the school bus for being Chinese, so that sucked. Just the typical stuff in elementary school, taunting me for being Chinese. Very early on I realized that. I don't know what made me think about racism, race, and like anti-blackness. Because my parents are, unfortunately, very racist.
A: Could it be that it was the concept of racial equality, or the concept of race as being purely conceptual, was your first intellectual encounter with it?
M: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I think the Internet helped a lot too. I know some people like to shit on Tumblr, but it was great way for me to be exposed to different political beliefs as well as people talking about race, sexuality, and gender. I think that was important for my education. I’m also glad it didn’t just stop there. I think it was a good starting point to know.
A: It seems like you really value being challenged and pushed. I wonder what your opinion is on the “liberal bubble”?
M: I think that there’s a couple different parts to this. One part of the reason I think the bubble exists is an ignorance on the part of “coastal elites”. I think part of that is a classism and elitism that is definitely something we should be working against. But on the other hand, I feel like it’s important for people to build communities where they can amass solidarity and learn how to build more progressive and fair policies. So, I think part of the conversation of “real Americans” is based on this idea of citizenship that privileges native-born, white, working or middle-class Americans. I think that’s an assumption that we should break down, and we should consider why we think those people are “real” Americans. I also just think the concept of the “Heartland” is so interesting to me. Why we think that’s true, and why that’s considered the most American thing. There are so many thoughts I have about this. It also just really fucks me up when people don’t take Arkansas seriously. There’s no reason why we should care more about “real America” than “fake America”. But I think we need to give real consideration to why we think of it that way: historical reasons, the way power is structured in this country, etc. But I think that privileging certain voices in middle America and in the South is bad. I think that in considering the “Heartland,” we should be thinking about the diverse voices that come out of there. Alabama, Mississippi. I had someone ask me if there are non-white people in the South, and I was like, fuck yeah. Some of the southern states have the highest number of non-white people in origin. So, fuck you, the Hopkins School, in New Haven, founded before Yale University, older than this country. Fuck your stupid, dumb prep school where you didn’t learn anything about the South. Sorry. It’s a whole thing. Because, you know, that sucks.
I think that there are unique problems people in rural areas face that both white people and people of color experience, and I think that’s something that should be part of the conversation. I think we should talk about how politics work in a very, very, very diverse country, but not in a way that fetishizes rural America, fetishizes the rural poor, fetishizes an imagined America that does not reflect our current realities. And that’s hard, that’s so hard. I don’t even know how to do that having grown up in Arkansas. I’m constantly finding out about different narratives and different histories that non-white people in Arkansas present. It’s a difficult thing to do. Part of my difficulty in understanding this debate is my own inability to reconcile the different things I’ve experienced growing up in Arkansas, things I’ve learned from Arkansas, the different things I’ve encountered upon leaving Arkansas. I think that’s a part of what’s missing from the larger debate, from the New York Times op-eds, that complexity. That’s so hard. This country is just way too big. It should not be one country. It takes just as long to fly to London as it does to fly form one coast to another. What the fuck? This should not be one country.
A: Do you feel like you connect to this really big country and the different selves it portrays? Do you feel like all of America belongs to you?
M: I think I should start by prefacing this answer by saying that my experience of Arkansas is not everyone’s experience of Arkansas. I grew up in one of the most cosmopolitan, educated parts of the state. So that’s very different from growing up in a rural county. Even though I just talked about how different this country is, its less different than you think it is. People are just kind of people. People are always like Wow, you’re from Arkansas? Wasn’t that such a huge adjustment? And you know, I’m fine. I’m here. Maybe that naiveté, maybe that's unique to my experience. Maybe someone else had a different experience. I’m just such a deeply sentimental person that I have not given up on the idea that America can be for everyone. We can make America better. And I realize it’s terrible. I realize it’s not for everyone right now. People are excluded because of capitalism and anti-blackness are so central to this country’s identity. We can do shit to make it better. We can mitigate this mess. We don’t have to burn anything down. So, I don’t know if that was coherent, but that’s what I believe.
A: Do you feel like coming to Yale was a letdown? Was it what you expected? Given, of course, your knowledge that this is an isolated, privileged place, one of the most “liberal” institutions in the country.
M: I think I came in few expectations and preconceived notions of what it would be, just knowing that college is new, amazing, and big. I think that some things were surprising and an adjustment for me. I’m thinking mostly about the relationship Arkansas has with Yale. I’m thinking about the ways I’ve been forced to confront race while at Yale that I didn’t have to at home. I think that I have experienced a lot of people with ignorance about anywhere that’s not the West Coast or the Northeast, and it’s so terrible the assumptions that people make, and just how little people know. It’s so bizarre. It’s so bizarre in the wake of the election, where there’s the pressure to understand them. And that’s almost even weirder. But also, on the other side, whenever I leave Yale (I worked in Birmingham this summer), or whenever I go home to Arkansas, people put Yale on this pedestal, because it literally is on a pedestal. Metaphorically literally. And it’s like, why is me going to Yale such a big fucking deal. Everyone I know goes to Yale. Everyone! And I know that’s so silly. But it’s hard to understand all these aspects of my life that are very important to me as exceptional for anyone. Being from Arkansas as being exceptional when I’m here, being a Yale student as exceptional when I’m at home. Of course, these things have shaped how I think and the way that I am. It’s difficult for me to see it the way other people see it. I think that’s a real clash.
On confronting race… Well this is really the first normal year we’ve had since I came to Yale.
A: I remember this from when I was applying. Wasn’t there like the “white girls only” thing [the Halloween controversy in the fall of 2015]?
A: Has there been something every year?
M: Yes, because there was that whole thing, the FKA [“formerly known as”—before its name was officially changed, the residential college Hopper College was called “FKA Calhoun”] SAE “white girls only party,” that’s what I call Leo, I think it’s kind of funny because they are formerly known as SAE. That’s what I call them. They had that “white girls only” party when they were still SAE. And this was amidst all the nationwide criticisms of SAE as just a racist, terrible organization. So, they decided to disaffiliate from the national organization because they thought it would help their branding or whatever. So, there’s that whole thing, and then the Christakis email. The response on campus was just so beautiful and meaningful. There was the March of Resilience, I don’t know if you saw pictures from that, but it was just so many people who were marching through campus and on Cross Campus in response to all these events that made people of color, women of color, especially black women, feel undervalued and disrespected on this campus. And here were hundreds of people showing up for them, in solidarity with them, recognizing the resilience of communities of color. It was so amazing. I think that was an important time for me to consider how race has affected how I go through everyday life, both in the way that other people treat me and the ways that I have been complicit in racism. After the election last year, it was kind of a similar experience. Here we have a president who is basically a huge, well, d-bag. And I think that’s been really important for my critical consciousness. I think also coming here, a community that is so much more diverse than my high school or any of the schools I had, and also moving through sexualized spaces really made me think about what being an East Asian woman is like. Having a white man trying to justify his Asian fetish to me by using Aristotle was one of the worst times of my freshman fall. This was like Halloween, right around the time all that shit was happening. So, I was like, hmm… race is a big deal, isn’t it? I already knew race was important.
A: But it’s one thing to understand it conceptually and another entirely to feel it personally affect you.
M: Yeah, and I think because of all the stuff that was going on I felt it more deeply, I felt I should push back more, which is an interesting dynamic. But I think that’s definitely been something that I’m more aware of, race and sexuality, which are important.
A: Can you develop on that?
M: This is kind of unrelated, but recently there’s been an organization formed on this campus: Asian Women at Yale [Yale Asian Womyn’s Alliance], or something like that. Their first conversation was about Yellow Fever, which was interesting choice. Because that refers to East Asian women exclusively. It’s also the conversation East Asian women have about being East Asian women. Why is that all we talk about? I mean, it’s not all we talk about. Why is it that these spaces are not developed that we can go towards more in-depth conversations? Because I feel like that’s Being an East Asian Woman 101: Yellow Fever. And I think that part of it was what I experienced, which was not having encountered things like that, not being in sexualized spaces. Also, not being in sexualized spaces that have some kind of diversity. It just made me conscious of race, specifically in sexual and romantic contexts, which I think made me think more about race in other contexts as well. So, that’s interesting.
A: Is there anything that you’ve been grappling with recently that you’d like to talk about?
M: I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome because I’ve realized I have really bad imposter syndrome. When before I was like, I don’t have that.
A: Can you describe imposter syndrome a little bit more? Is it more along the lines of feeling fake?
M: Well for me personally, before I definitely felt imposter syndrome. But there was a difference in my mind between having imposter syndrome and actually being an imposter. I was just actually an imposter. There’s a difference in feeling like other people are doing more or doing better or doing more important things and I thought it was real.
A: So, you felt it didn’t really apply to you and then realized it did.
M: Yeah. And this was really recently. This was after years of me telling other people that they had imposter syndrome.
A: What led to this realization?
M: I think part of it was applying for competitive, important things, especially this year. Thinking about that, feeling insecure about these things, realizing that I’m pretty insecure about some things. Before I was like, I’m not insecure. Because in high school, I was kind of an asshole. I was kind of arrogant. To me, arrogance and insecurity were just opposite things. But a lot of people are very arrogant…
A: … Because they’re deeply insecure.
M: Yeah. That’s not something I realized until I met so many arrogant and insecure people at Yale, and when through these processes. I’m kind of one of them. I’m trying not to be arrogant anymore. I think I’m not really arrogant anymore. I also think some people are allowed to feel more confident or more arrogant. I learned something this summer from my boss. Men tend to apply to jobs that they’re not qualified for.
A: Isn’t there that whole statistic where women will only apply for a job if they have all of the qualifications but men will apply if they have 6/10 of the qualifications?
M: Yeah. In talking to people who have been feeling the same way, I have realized that I do that. I’m like, fuck that, I’m not an imposter. I’m just gonna do my very best, and I’m gonna do a very good job. I’m waiting to fall on something important and profound, but I don’t know if there’s an end here. So that’s all.
I think that mentorship is really important. And mentorship doesn’t always have to be from people that are older than you. I’ve been really grateful for people here who are Asian American and who are from Arkansas who are just random other people. I mean, I know more than those two kinds of people.
A: Yeah, ’cause then you would travel to Europe and there’d be no one there, just empty chairs. You go to Turkey, empty.
M: I mean, Turkey might be a part of Asia. I—
A: I think Asia is a really complicated continent.
A: Russia is technically a part of Asia. But Asia, as it’s been defined in the West, isn’t really about the continent. It’s a race thing. People don’t think Russian people are Asian even though very technically, they are. I just think it’s funny, because so much of what defines Asian-ness ties into this sexualized image of Asia. A lot of that is very basically about physical features and certain traits. For me, it’s very interesting being South Asian, growing up on standardized tests, I felt I was Asian. Although there is a very beautiful history of trade and migration across Asia, there are very tangible differences between these places. It’s just very strange to me that a place like Sri Lanka would be technically classified as a part of Asia, when a place that doesn’t cohere to a fetishized version of Asia, like Russia is not under the umbrella of “Asian-ness.” Russia is really considered a White place. You know, you can’t be White and Asian. The big idea is that they’re separate, which I think is really interesting. Also, the way that that figures in geopolitics and the way we treat Asia is really interesting.
M: I had someone here who stayed with me from Kazakhstan and that was something I was thinking about: Eurasia.
A: Yeah I read this article in Time Out about the “Asian side” of Istanbul. I just thought it was so funny. This is absurd. You can’t take a river and say, you all are Asian, you all are White or European. That’s so absurd. It also such a static understanding of culture. That’s just not what the history of the world is.
M: Yeah, fuck borders.
A: Big snaps. I can’t snap but…
M: Has that been a big adjustment for you? Coming to college and not being able to snap?
A: Actually, I’ve not been able to snap my whole life, and people used to make fun of me in high school a bit. I had a boyfriend who tried to teach me had to whistle, but I could only whistle in reverse. Just not my forte.
M: That’s how I learned. Yeah, whistling has no function in my life. But I can whistle in reverse. [whistles in reverse]