Joyce: Can you start by talking about where you’re from?
Rocky: Sure. I was born in Brooklyn, but I actually spent the first couple years of my life in Hong Kong. I came back to New York when I was four and have been here ever since—well, before Yale. And even though I live in Brooklyn, I’ve spent a lot of my time in Manhattan because that’s where my high school is.
J: Do you remember your time in Hong Kong?
R: I do. I actually talk about those years a lot. I would probably call them the most formative years of my life because, after all, they were my first. Specifically, I think that they had a really huge impact on the relationships I’ve had. For example, I learned Cantonese during my time in Hong Kong and I still speak it today. Having this language has been really important to me because it’s the language that I use to speak to my dad who also lived in Hong Kong. My relationship with my dad is very different from my relationship with my mom (who isn’t from Hong Kong), and I think Cantonese definitely played a role in that difference.
Also, if you grew up where I grew up, a lot of people spoke Cantonese. So, I naturally made a lot of my friends through having that common language. And honestly, I feel like growing up, if you didn’t speak Cantonese, you would be ostracized by your peers because everyone from school or whatever, were all from Guangdong, right? They’re all from cities like Taishan.
J: And in high school too?
R: In high school also. Yeah, even in high school, a lot of my friends spoke Cantonese.
But beyond that, beyond the language aspect, I think Hong Kong—I go back very often. I actually go back once every few years—is just a really interesting place to be in. I don’t know if it’s because I spent my first couple of years there, but I just feel so at home in that city. Maybe it’s because everyone looks Asian. Haha, honestly, that’s probably why, but that’s a really interesting, like, situation to be in, right? Even living in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, where there are a lot of Asian Americans, isn’t comparable to living in Hong Kong because the Asian American experience is very different from the Asian experience. When I’m in Hong Kong, I don’t think about a lot of things that I think about when I’m in America, and that’s really relieving. That said, there’s obviously gonna be a lot of other problems that come with being Asian American in Asia.
J: Can you talk more about being Asian in America and American in Asia?
R: I think I had a very interesting journey with my Asian identity in America. I see my life thus far in a couple of different phases. In elementary school, I would say that I was super in touch with my cultural heritage. I would watch exclusively Chinese dramas and listen to exclusively Chinese music, with nothing markedly American in my life.
Then in middle school, I wanted to be more American. People had started making fun of my accent—I guess I had a slight Chinese accent because I spoke a lot more Chinese than English. I only spoke English in school—and I subconsciously forced myself to do a switch, a switch to become as American as possible. I started watching exclusively American TV shows and listening to exclusively American music. At this time, I also started speaking less to my parents.
And then high school came. Looking back, I think that want-to-be-American phase continued. Even though I went to a high school that was 80 percent Asian, there was a distinction to be made between the “whitewashed Asians” and the other Asians. I actually had a conversation with a high school friend a couple days ago. We were reflecting back on high school, and she was like, “Yeah, you have always talked like a white person.’” And I was like, “What? What do you mean?” And then I talked about this encounter with another friend who goes to UChicago, so also a liberal arts college outside of New York like Yale. We talked about how being Asian American is very interesting because people always tend to only know a certain type of Asian American experience and if you are not that, then you are not Asian enough.
For example, if you stay in the city, go to NYU, join an Asian sorority or fraternity—that’s one type of Asian. To those people, I think if you don’t do those things, then you’re won’t be seen as Asian, or at least fully Asian. I think that’s what my friend was trying to convey when she said, “You speak like a white person, you act like a white person.” She was saying that because I don’t use the slang they use, which sometimes is also problematic. Plus, I don’t do the things that they do. I don’t go to raves, I don’t juul, I don’t do whatever. You know the ABG [Asian Baby Girl] meme? It’s really interesting. Um so yeah, that’s kind of the Asian part in America.
An Asian American in Asia—I felt that more so in Beijing than in Hong Kong because in Hong Kong, I was very much sheltered since I spent most of my time with family. In Beijing, however, I really felt the full force of being Asian American and what it means to be someone who cannot really speak their native tongue. Once people heard me talk, they automatically knew that I was Asian American, and it was interesting because they kind of praise you because they see you as foreign, but at the same time, you’re not enough because you cannot speak the language and understand the tradition. For example, I worked for a Chinese company over the summer, and I remember having a conversation with one of the employees. It got kind of heated. My Chinese level was not good enough for that type of heated conversation, and it felt like she was just yelling at me, very much looking down on me because I couldn’t speak her language even though I looked like her. That was a really upsetting experience. Being Asian American in Asia, I think if you ask other people, they’ll probably say a similar thing where they’re like, “Yeah we’re not Asian enough to be Asian in Asia.”
J: You mentioned how in middle school if you didn’t speak Cantonese, you would be kind of ostracized for not being able to speak that dialect. I guess because Mandarin is the dominant language in China, is it as relevant anymore for you to be able to speak Cantonese?
R: I’ve always been really proud of the fact that I can speak Cantonese. I’m actually from Fuzhou. Both my dad and mom are from that city, but, as I said earlier, my dad moved to Hong Kong, so he also speaks Cantonese. I used to be really proud of the fact that I could speak Cantonese because there is this really weird hierarchy within the Chinese American population where if you spoke Cantonese, you would be on the top of it, whereas if you spoke Fuzhounese, you would be at the bottom. If you spoke Fuzhounese, you would be seen as like uncivilized, loud, noisy. I’m not sure where Mandarin falls along that spectrum. Now, I don’t ascribe to that hierarchy anymore but I still really value the fact that I speak Cantonese; it has allowed me to have special connections with some people. For example, my Chinese professor—he’s from Guangdong—and whenever we speak in Cantonese, it feels a lot different. I can tell that he’s a lot more open about the things he talks about. So, I think in terms of Mandarin being the dominant language of China, sure, cool, but if you’re asking whether we should get rid of dialects, 100 percent no.
J: I’m Cantonese, and my family is from Taishan, so it’s just funny for me in college when I tell people I’m taking Mandarin, and people are always just like, ‘You mean Chinese?’ But there’s so many dialects within Chinese, and a lot of people just don’t recognize that, so I was just wondering what your thoughts were.
R: Yeah, also it’s interesting because Cantonese has really become bigger. If you look at dropdown options for languages on different forms online, there will be Chinese (Mandarin) and Chinese (Cantonese).
J: Can you talk more about your high school experience and attending a high school that was 80 percent Asian? How was the transition from a school like that to Yale?
R: That’s a lot to unpack. I think, for a very long time I took my Asianness for granted, and I took my community for granted. I honestly never really thought much about it… I’m trying to think why. I think I was under the impression that I was as Asian as they come. The idea that there’s nothing more that I can do about it, you know? I’m like very in touch. All my friends are Asian… but, looking back, that’s given that 80 percent of my classmates were Asian, right?
I cannot really pinpoint what it was like being Asian in high school because I didn’t think much about it, but I could very easily pinpoint the transition I had from high school to college. I remember my first year, I was really intent on branching out and getting to know more people, people who weren’t necessarily from Asian American backgrounds. And I did just that, I met a lot of different people. But at the same time Yale is a place that is majority white and majority privileged people, and that made me want to be more in touch with my own community. So, my sophomore year I decided to join the AACC [Asian American Cultural Center] and CASA [Chinese American Student Association]. These two communities have been large turning points in my Asian American identity journey. I remember when I was interviewing for the AACC, I talked about how I didn’t realize how important being Asian was to me until I got to college, where there suddenly weren’t as many Asians as before, and how nice it was to be in a space where you could fully express your heritage and not feel judged by other people. You know, sometimes, like, speaking Chinese in front of people who don’t speak Chinese, you feel kind of weird about it. You don’t know if they’re judging—maybe they’re not, but maybe they are. And CASA also served a similar purpose for me. It is a community I can turn to and feel safe. I want to say that college has been the moment where I feel most proud of being Asian.
J: You mentioned in the beginning that when you first started college, you wanted to branch out and meet people that weren’t necessarily from the same ethnic group as you. What was your experience with that? Are your friends here at Yale still majority Asian?
R: When I say branching out, I don’t mean that I was avoiding people from my ethnic group. I want to say that it was more so that I didn’t actively reach out to the AACC, to CASA, to these Asian American affiliate groups. I was very much doing other things and meeting people from different communities, which was awesome. I still do that. I want to say that my friend group is very diverse. I wouldn’t say that it’s majority Asian, but I would say that they are majority people of color, with some white people sprinkled here and there.
J: How do you think the Asian community at Stuyvesant [Rocky’s high school, a competitive public school in New York] is different from the Asian community at Yale?
R: I think the one at Yale is more political. In high school, my friends and I weren’t political at all, and, to be completely honest, we also used pretty problematic rhetoric, not very politically correct language—like words that you would not hear on the Yale campus. I think that’s the result of living in a bubble where everyone had the same mentality that self-perpetuated. I actually talked about this with a lot of my friends, about how after we went to different colleges, we’ve met so many different communities and became able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see what was wrong in our old stances. That’s something that Yale does really well, I think, like being conscious about all the different communities out there, whereas at Stuy[vesant], that wasn’t the case because 80 percent was Asian American. You look around and everyone else looks like you, what else are you gonna do?
J: Yeah, it’s hard to realize you’re the minority when you’re the majority in a space.
Studies at Yale
J: So what are you studying at Yale, and how did you become interested in it?
R: I’m studying Sociology. So, my journey to Sociology was pretty nonlinear actually. I came into Yale as Linguistics, pre-med. I had wanted to be a psychiatrist for the longest time. But I dropped pre-med really quickly—I don’t know why, probably because of the classes I took my freshman fall. I took a lot of humanities and social science classes that I really enjoyed and was like, wow, I do not enjoy the sciences. I continued Linguistics for a little bit and then realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I went from Linguistics to, I want to say, Cognitive Science to History and then to Comparative Literature. Then my sophomore fall, I applied to Global Affairs—I thought that was what I wanted to do, I was really into international relations and policy and all that. Got rejected, and then I was like, What am I gonna do now? So, I went on the Yale majors page all the time—it was like my most opened tab if you checked my Chrome—and was like, Fuck, what am I gonna do? I would always open up a couple of things—Political Science, History, Sociology, Anthropology—so like similar things, or at least to me they were pretty similar since they were majors that I could kind of easily pick up. Then, I took a sociology class, really really enjoyed it, talked to a couple Sociology majors, had a wonderful experience overall. I think some majors can be very intimidating because sometimes you can sit in a seminar and feel like people are ripping at each other’s throats. Whereas in Sociology, I feel like the classes I was in were some of the only times I had made lasting friends through class. I still talk to the people I met in my sociology classes, which is really nice. Also, the Sociology department is so supportive. So, I really enjoy it. And everything is a social construct, so you could really learn about everything.
J: What do you think has been the most fulfilling class you’ve had at Yale so far?
R: I almost want to say it’s not a sociology class. I took a Spanish class—it was called “Creative Writing.” It was really intimidating for me because I was one of very few non-heritage speakers in the class. Everyone was really good at what they were doing, and I felt like I was not—I was really freaked out. I’ve learned Spanish for a really long time, almost ten years now, and I actually considered a Spanish major for a while too, but I ended up dropping it because of certain limitations. I remember that class was really pivotal for me in that I had a really supportive professor who really made sure that I felt comfortable in class being a non-heritage speaker. Being able to express yourself creatively through another language is really hard and with the help of my professor, I was able to surmount that obstacle and feel more secure in my language abilities. Spanish has always been a really important part of my life, and I think it’s only going to become more important. So, for me, that class really changed my relationship with this language and thus also the opportunities that I envision for myself in the future.
J: Do you speak any other languages in addition to Chinese and Spanish? Are you interested in learning another language?
R: I do want to learn other languages. For a really long time, I wanted to learn German because it’s a very linguistically interesting language. There’s just so many things to talk about—the particles, all that stuff, really, really cool. But recently, I’ve taken an interest in learning another East Asian language just because so many of my friends are Korean American and Japanese American. I think it’d be really interesting to be able to understand them in a different way. I also consume a lot of media from those countries. I listen to their music, watch their TV shows and movies. South Korea is producing some really good movies.
J: What do you recommend?
R: There’s this one called Silenced that’s pretty cool. There’s also one called Miracle in Cell Number 7. These will all make you cry. They’re all really good movies.
Also, China, Korea, and Japan have always had really complicated histories with one another, and I think it’d be really interesting to explore those histories. Obviously, you don’t have to learn the language to learn these histories, but I think it’d be really cool to navigate those places and see a deeper side of the culture, the history, and the people.
J: What do you like to do for fun?
R: What do I like to do for fun? That’s a really hard question. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube. I think my sense of fun has really evolved throughout college. As a first-year, I saw extracurriculars as my way of having fun. I wanted fun to be something that was really tangible and substantial, something that I found meaningful. So for me, that was Step [a percussive dance in which the participant's entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps] and doing dance, so I had rehearsals quite often. I met a lot of people through that, and some of my closest friends that year through it too.
Second year, my idea was still to do extracurriculars and meeting new people, but that took on a different form. I joined the AACC and CASA. That was really fulfilling to me because I met so many people that I hold so dear to my life. In particular, I met a lot of seniors, and that changed the way I looked at a lot of things. When you’re a senior, you’re in a different phase of life and are thinking about so many other different things. They had such wise perspectives and gave me such good advice. So, that was my idea of fun my second year.
But now as a junior I think—I don’t know if I’m just old and tired, but I just like spending time doing nothing, or like very leisurely things, and that’s my idea of fun. I like to have time for myself. I used to think that having fun had to be something to be done with some other person, but now I think fun is something you could definitely have on your own. For me, that may be reading a book or watching a YouTube video or even taking a nap—that’s pretty fun too. That’s really interesting. I think I’m getting old.
J: How do you think you’ve grown as a person from your first year to your junior year?
R: I’ve actually been doing a lot of reflecting lately, since I’m a junior. I’ve noticed changes in myself and so many of my friends. I think that I very much entered college very, like, idealistic. I was pretty excited to start college and to try all these new things. Now, I’ve become a little bit more practical and more future-oriented, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. I think that’s a transition that a lot of people make. Of course, some people continue to be very adventurous, very excited to do the things that they’re doing with no really set plan for the future, whereas people like me think more about the future. Recently, I don’t know why, maybe because of my summer in Beijing and more exposure to Asian culture where family is the core, but I’ve been thinking a lot more about my family. I’ve actually been spending a lot more time with my family this semester, this year, and thinking about what I want to provide for them. I’m first-gen, low-income, and for a really long time, like the entirety of my first year and second year, I was like I’m just gonna study what I want to study, I’m gonna do what I want to do. In my mind, I thought that if I like what I do, I’m gonna naturally succeed at it and then make money, no worries. But that mentality has very much changed since this semester because, with it, you’re gonna run into so many obstacles, right? I realized that the last thing I want to do is to fail my family by not being able to buy them a house or something like that. I know that’s super superficial, but that’s really important to my family. So that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen in myself—becoming more grounded and caring more about family. I still care a lot about having experiences that enrich me, whether that may be meeting new people through different social activities or studying abroad in different countries. But now I definitely see a larger balance between the two ends of the spectrum, whereas before I didn’t really care about doing things for money or doing things for security.
J: Can you talk more about your relationship with your family?
R: I mentioned before that I lived in Hong Kong until I was four, so I actually didn’t meet my parents until I came back to the U.S. I’m not really sure if that has made a dent in my relationships with them, but I bring that up because I wouldn’t say that we’re particularly close. My dad works in New Jersey, so he comes home once a week, and my mom works 8am to 9pm, so I only see her for a little bit at night. Because of that, we never really talked much.
And I think a large part of it was also because of the language barrier. I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in Chinese. There are so many things I cannot express in Chinese, and that’s made it really hard for me to talk to my parents. So, I decided to do the Light Fellowship last summer, to go to Beijing and improve my Chinese. I’ve definitely seen a major change this year. I remember talking to my mom about the SHSAT [Specialized High Schools Admissions Test], abolishing it and the case surrounding it in Chinese over a break. It was really hard. It was a lot—I was talking about anti-blackness within the Asian American community and all that. But it was one of the first real conversations I had with my mom because I wasn’t able to have those kinds of conversations before—she also didn’t care much. I think that’s something that’s strained our relationship, her lack of stake in a lot of things. But obviously she’s got a lot on her mind as well, and that’s something to be aware of.
J: Do you think your relationship with your family could be improved in ways that are not related language? Do you think it’s just the communication barrier?
R: I think another factor is the amount of time that we spend together. We don’t spend a lot of time together due to the nature of me going to college and my parents working. Honestly, I think the key is just being willing to communicate. We are not very open people to each other. We sit at the dinner table, and we don’t talk to each other. We play on our phones, probably because we don’t really know what to talk about. But yeah, I think, just being more willing to be open with each other and spending more time with each other; that will help a lot. That said, I do think that I have a pretty positive relationship with my parents, definitely not like we hate each other, you know?
J: Do you think you act differently with your family as opposed to with your friends?
R: Oh, 100 percent. I think my family has seen the worst of me. I would lash out to my parents in ways that I would not lash out in front of my friends, but I think that’s everyone. You feel so comfortable with these people that you’ve been with your entire life. They’ve seen every single aspect of me. I think that’s a basic distinction for everyone.
J: Was there a particular experience while studying abroad in Beijing that changed your perspective on family?
R: I think I just so happened to be in China at a point in my life where I was thinking about an internship and future plans. It felt like every single day in class, they would talk about Confucius, family values, respect your elders... which made me think, damn, I gotta take care of my family. I’m not saying that they indoctrinated me—there was free expression, free will—but yeah.
Also, I talked to a lot of Chinese people who did a lot of what they did as a means to sustain their family—I was inspired. I was like, Wow, you all are doing a lot. I then thought about myself. It’s interesting because Americans value individualism, and you always learn this in Chinese class. They say that all the time. They say that America champions individualism while China champions collectivism. I think it’s pretty accurate. That’s a distinction that I learned to make after being in China for three months, which is a pretty long time. Thinking about myself beyond myself and instead in relation to others—that kind of forces you to reevaluate the types of decisions you make, especially those that you think you need to make. I don’t want to say that you need to make these decisions, but at times, you definitely feel like you do.
J: You talk about how you visit Hong Kong a lot too. Do you think Hong Kong is super different from Beijing?
R: I think my time in Hong Kong is unique in that I’ve spent so much of my time there with my family. As a result, I haven’t gotten to see a lot of Hong Kong, so I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that difference. But I do think that they’re two very different cities, just based on their histories and based on their cultures.