Most people have little knowledge of sleep away camp aside from classic movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Meatballs”. The image that comes to mind when most people think about sleep away camp is of canoeing on a lake, tie-dying t-shirts, or making s’mores and telling stories around a campfire. The truth is, all of these things certainly exist at sleep away camp, but there is so much more that is involved in this American summertime tradition.
As a child growing up in the state of New York, my summers always took place at sleep away camp, where I’d spend my days in nature among friends. If you’ve never heard of sleep away camp, it’s a summer-long activity-driven community for children and teens. I have had my fair share of bracelet making and song singing, although my favorite part of camp is undoubtedly interacting with all of the people I’ve met over the years. Because there are about 100 girls at my camp, and 200 boys at the neighboring “brother” camp, it is safe to say I recognize every face I see. I can walk down the stunning lakefront path to the dining hall and see friends ranging in age from 8 to 21. There is a certain bond that forms between people who live together in an isolated, yet self-sufficient mini-world that is sleep away camp, and this made this a very memorable part of my childhood.
One of the strongest and most tight-knit communities I belong to is my sleep away camp. Tucked away in the serene Adirondack mountains, camp is home to a small group of kind, creative, and unique people. The sense of comfort is so strong in this small, lakeside oasis that every person feels like a member of a family. We admire each other’s passions, supporting one another in everything from sports to plays to painted masterpieces; I have never felt more at home in a place besides my own house. Growing up as a camper, I learned fun lessons from my counselors: how to french-braid hair, craft string bracelets, and effectively mouth words to songs that I was too young to memorize. They taught me the games, songs, and customs that bind our camp community together, making sure to promote camp spirit. Now that I am a counselor, I feel that it is my duty to highlight these traditions and pass down the skills I learned to my campers to demonstrate how special this place truly is.
My identity has always been something that I could never quite pin down. When I was younger, I believed that I knew myself inside and out, and thought I could predict what my future self would be like. As I’ve gotten older and just a little bit wiser, I can say for certain that my past self was wrong. I am constantly changing and even if I continue to use the same terms to describe myself, those terms hold an entirely different meaning to me now than they did five years ago. One of those terms is “Asian American”.
While I have always known that I was Asian and identified as such, I didn’t feel the need to specify that I was also American. After all, I knew I was born in the United States and since most of my elementary classmates were as well, it was just something we all accepted. It wasn’t until I moved the summer before 7th grade when the need to specify that I was American came about. I went from a predominantly Asian school to a predominantly Hispanic/Latino school and suddenly, me being American was no longer a given. It took several months of being questioned about whether I was born here and what my ethnicity was before things finally settled down and everyone moved on with their lives. However, their questioning left me more unsure of my own identity than I would have liked to admit. Just identifying as Asian no longer felt adequate enough, but with my limited vocabulary and knowledge, I pushed my small identity crisis aside and continued on with my carefree middle school days.
It wasn’t until high school that I discovered the term Asian American. By then, my little identity crisis had been almost forgotten. I don’t remember how I came across the term, but once I did, it was like a light bulb had lit up inside my head. That was the term that I had been unconsciously searching for since middle school, and finding it was like finding the missing piece to my identity puzzle. While I continue to identify as Asian American, the meaning of that term has changed since then. Being Asian American used to mean that while my ancestry was Asian, I was born here and so that made me American. There was a clear line between those two categories, but I just happened to be in both. Now, I realize that there is no line. Being Asian American is a melting pot of many different experiences and it is not something that can be easily separated into nice, neat categories. Even though it can be a confusing mess at times, it is one that I have never been more proud to be a part of, and every day I am learning more about my culture and how my identity shapes who I am.
Sarah is an undergraduate student from the San Gabriel Valley studying GeoDesign. In her free time, she enjoys reading, exploring L.A., trying new foods, and of course, meeting new people. She can speak conversational Cantonese, and is currently learning Mandarin. Even though her Chinese is limited, that doesn’t stop her from striking up a conversation with other international students.
This summer I was a leader for the American Language Institute’s brand-new book club. I helped to lead discussions for this pilot program with international students, and the book we chose to read was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like many other college-age individuals, both in America and around the world, Harry Potter was an integral part of my childhood. From the moment I picked up the first of those mysteriously thick volumes, I was entranced. The world of Harry Potter, in the eyes of a child, is often vivacious, all-consuming, and enigmatic-a land of opportunity for the child who sees part of themself in one of the multitude of characters or feels misunderstood.
I think that sometimes those of us who grew up with the Harry Potter series put it on a pedestal, carrying it in a place so deep in our hearts that it is hard to look past it’s many virtues to see some of it’s obvious flaws. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was chosen by the book club for an international audience because of its accessibility to a wide range of audience members, but that accessibility to many different age groups and backgrounds also suggests varying levels of complexity. Returning to the Harry Potter seriesin a discussion-based setting with older eyes revealed some interesting new layers to this book.
Initially, I noticed that triumph in the face of adversitywas a recurring theme throughout the book. What becomes particularly important is the people who are successful in overcoming the obstacles set forth throughout the novel, and how they are categorized. Almost as soon as Harry steps foot onto the train taking him to Hogwarts, he learns of a rigid system which categorizes students into different Houses based on personal qualities or attributes. Despite the fact that Harry knows nothing about the wizarding world, he takes to heart everything that his new friend Ron says to him on the train about the virtues of Gryffindor and the downfalls of Slytherin. This blind assumption is never challenged (at least not for the duration of the first book in the series) but is instead supported by other students and professors. Everyone seems to be looking forward to the day when Slytherin is met with failure, whether that be in personal conflicts, the House Cup, or Quidditch tournaments. In a moment that has been pointed out for it’s ridiculousness multiple times from fans of the series, Headmaster Dumbledore, at the end of year feast, absurdly recalculates the House points once Harry, Ron, and Hermione recover the Sorcerer’s Stone to make it so that Slytherin conveniently loses the House Cup by a measly ten points.
To any child reading this, this may seem like the epitome of justness, wherein the stereotypical group of bullies are met with disapproval and failure at the hands of an all-powerful adult figure. But in actuality, this favoritism continues throughout the series, illustrating a tendency for the wizarding world to look down on a group of people with supposed traits that they perceive as threatening. While it is possible that J.K. Rowling was trying to create a world in which your success is based on personal virtue and strong morals, it is difficult to see how this idea can coexist alongside a system where children are categorized at the earliest point in their education and then judged and questioned for the rest of their lives based on that categorization.
Another aspect worth mentioning about the Harry Potter series is the interpretation of England which J.K. Rowling infuses into the magical world she has created. As an American preteen avidly reading the Harry Potter series, I did not have a particularly detailed idea of what the cultural landscape of the United Kingdom looked like. Returning to the series at nineteen years old with a greater understanding of UK culture, I see some vast differences between my new knowledge and the culture depicted in the Harry Potter world.
When we are first greeted by the presence of Hogwarts as observers of the nervous first years being transported in boats across the lake, we see a medieval-style castle, complete with towers, ghosts, suits of armor, and dungeons where the young wizards and witches take their potions class. The food they eat is old-fashioned: shepherd’s pie, treacle tart, and more. There seem to be few students of color in this world, but when they are mentioned, the reader is immediately tipped off by Rowling’s stereotyped names and descriptions-Dean Thomas being described as a black boy the first time he is mentioned, the only known Asian girl in the series being named Cho Chang, and the twins in Harry’s class of Indian heritage being almost indistinguishably characterized as Padma and Parvati Patil. In light of recent controversies of J.K. Rowling releasing transphobic statements via social media (which were met with outrage by Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, among others), it is hard not to wonder whether those characters were included as a meager attempt to reflect the modern-day diversity of the UK or just a form of thinly shielded tokenism. As a young reader, especially one who is not originally from the UK, it is easy to overlook or misunderstand the Britain which Rowling portrays for us, but looking at the series with fresh eyes it becomes clear that this is a place that idealizes a medieval version of Europe that is disconnected from the thought and culture of the modern world and is predominately white.