Prior to 2020, during one of my spring semesters at USC as an undergraduate student, I studied abroad in Paris and it was a fully immersive experience. All of my classes were in French, the family I lived with was French, and wouldn’t you know it, quite a lot of people I passed on the streets were keen on speaking French. Those handful of months were wonderful. My teachers were all angels, the city was gorgeous, and although I had a relationship dynamic with my host family akin to Harry Potter’s relationship with the Dursleys, I’d say that overall I enjoyed my experience.
First of all, the city is gorgeous. Ridiculously so. I remember my first night there—awake since 5 am, taking a post-dinner trip to the Louvre, walking from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, and stopping mid-journey for wine and cheese. The mix of sleep deprivation, jet-lag, numbness from the cold, and walking nearly all day culminated into the sensation that I was drifting through a dream. I couldn’t have actually been there; it was all too much. I thought there was no way this tiny, ovular, romantic city was going to be my home for the next fifteen weeks.
But it was my home. Every weekday, I took the metro to class. Although admitting my adoration for the Paris Metro garnered weird looks from actual Parisians (mainly because of the general odor permeating the trains/platforms, as well as the occasional muzak cover of Ne Me Quitte Pas), I held strong that I loved the public transportation system. It was so efficient, arriving every 3 minutes, maybe 6 in the worst-case scenario (I understand that Los Angeles is a much larger, more car-based city, but I couldn’t help but notice how much more efficient the Paris Metro was than the LA one).
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.
Starting something new can be quite daunting – whether it is starting a new job after quitting your first, settling in with a new roommate after moving out from your old college dorm, or declaring a new major after leaving your former field of interest. While those who are motivated by new challenges would be thrilled to charge into the great unknown, most people would feel apprehensive about stepping outside of their comfort zone and walking down a new path in their life. Let’s face it – fear is a primal human emotion that everyone has felt at least once in their lives, and facing uncertainty will arouse a degree of fear in anyone who is about to start something new. However, if you were faced with a situation where you had to decide whether to stick with the familiar ways of life that no longer interest you or to take a leap of faith towards a path untraveled, what would you do?
The year 2016 was a crucial yet tumultuous year in my academic career. Back then, I was a Ph.D. student in the field of Organic Chemistry. It was not that I was performing poorly academically, but more that I was losing interest in the field that I was working in. Having studied chemistry for 4 years throughout my undergraduate years and excelling academically in that field, I was convinced that chemical research was the right career path for me and remained in that field through graduate school. However, after my first year into the program I started to feel something was amiss. Even though my experiments and projects were going smoothly, the fervor I had when I first undertook my research project for faculty labs was no longer there, and nothing in this field seemed to stimulate me as much as it used to. In short, I was losing interest in the academic field I had centered my life around.
The loss of interest must have been quite obvious to others: My Primary Investigator (the person guiding me in my research project) and I had a long talk about this, and he suggested that maybe organic chemistry was not the right field for me. He proposed two options – if I truly thought chemistry was what I wanted to study, I could stay in his lab, but I would have to put more enthusiasm into my work; otherwise, I could switch disciplines to some other field in chemistry or find another academic field that interests me more. If I were to go with the latter option, I would either join a different research group of my interest in the chemistry department or leave the chemistry department altogether and join another department. That meant I would have to start over with a different project or delve into another unexplored academic field.
Throughout the 10 months after that discussion with my professor, my life went through a sharp turn of sorts. I would get into intermittent arguments with my family over my decision, fervent discussions with my friends in New York about possible options, and numerous advising sessions with various career/academic advising officers on campus to seek advice about what to do. For nearly 6 years of my life after high school graduation I had been studying only chemistry and related scientific disciplines and had no experience in any other field. Oftentimes I got conflicting suggestions from everyone: I had one person tell me that starting over completely in an undergraduate institution for a second bachelor’s degree could work out; another source told me that I should jump straight into the job market with a master’s degree in chemistry; a third suggestion was to seek a job in a different field other than chemistry after completing some useful certificate programs. Ultimately, the decision was up to me – I had to make a choice from all the options available to me based on my interests, priorities, and any constraining factors.
In the end, I decided to stick with advice from a close friend of mine and a family friend who worked as a software engineer in a Banking firm based in Manhattan: Learn how to program and look for a job as a programmer. When my friend first suggested this idea I found it to be quite preposterous: I didn’t know where to begin, had no idea how a computer program worked, and just looking at the work stations of engineering students scared the wits out of me. How on Earth would I learn how to code at all? Fortunately this good friend of mine was patient enough to direct me to the right points where I would learn the very basics of coding. He first directed me to Codeacademy, an online website dedicated to teaching various programming languages to people who wished to begin programming. It wasn’t a major step, like attending a boot camp for programmers and jumping straight into the job market, but it was a start. After taking several online courses, I found them quite engrossing and decided to continue learning and laying down the groundwork for understanding how to write a program.