January 4, 2019

Thorny questions of identity

Grace Ecklund Gustavson ’22

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Sometimes when I tell people that I’m Korean, I feel like a liar. And other days, when I go to the  Asian Center for Empowerment (fondly known as the ACE) on campus, the word has never felt more right. Growing up in Vermont, I’ve never known many other Asian people. And I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who are, like me, a quarter Asian.

Grace Ecklund Gustavson ’22 (at left) with her familyGrace Ecklund Gustavson ’22 (at left) with her family

Making sense of percents

While being mixed (or “hapa,” as we say in my family) isn’t a new concept, there have never been as many hapa people in the world as there are today. Though I use the term “many” loosely — statistically speaking, quarter-Asian people like my siblings and me aren’t even represented by one full percentage point on the U.S. census.

The earliest record of hapa people in the U.S. is the 2000 census, in which 0.6 percent of the population identified as of mixed-Asian descent. People who identified as half white and half Asian, like my mom, made up roughly 0.3 percent of the U.S. population.

Cultural center student assistants, fall Orientation 2018Cultural center student assistants, fall Orientation 2018

The ACE

During my first semester at Mount Holyoke, every day it feels like I’m relearning to stop justifying my identity to everyone around me. Being able to spend time at the Asian Center for Empowerment has also made me realize I’m not alone at all. The ACE is one of five cultural centers on campus. These are places of support and sanctuary for specific affinity groups, and each center is staffed by a student.

On my first visit to the ACE, it was new and therapeutic to be able to sit down and really have a conversation with Cultural Center Assistant Linda Zhang ’21. Although I confess, even when I walked into the ACE House for the second time, I was immediately reassuring Zhang (who didn’t need reassuring) and myself (who definitely needed reassuring) that I wasn’t a “weird white chick who wanted to be Asian.”

Cultural center student staff, from left: Gabby Hernandez ’19, Kalea Martín ’19, Linda Zhang ’20, Kuzie Madungwe ’21 and Katie Dick ’20
Cultural center student staff, from left: Gabby Hernandez ’19, Kalea Martín ’19, Linda Zhang ’20, Kuzie Madungwe ’21 and Katie Dick ’20

A place for sharing experiences

A window into our conversations: Zhang and I have both been made to prove our identities — for her as a Chinese-American woman and for me as a Korean-Swedish-American woman — to others. By strangers, peers, friends and more.

We both laughed when we admitted to continuing to butcher the pronunciation of Chinese and Korean words. We come from two completely different worlds, but as the recent descendants of immigrants, we each understand on a very personal level the privileges we have been awarded through the hard work of our parents and their parents before them.

Like many Asian-Americans, we both have experienced immense discomfort in our searches to understand our identities against a broader backdrop of assimilation. I’ve grown up on the stories of the terrible violence faced by my mom and her sister and their mother just because of the way they looked. I remember staring myself down in the mirror, trying to find some physical indicator that I was my mother’s daughter, that I was who I said I am. Perhaps discomfort is too small a word to encapsulate these experiences, but a thorn in one’s side is more persistent than a sword.

Upper lake, fall 2018
Upper lake, fall 2018

Thorns and all

I’ve learned that I must stand strong in the face of these discomforts. For the sake of my integrity and that of my family, I cannot let my doubts shake the foundations of who I am. Yet I’ve also learned the hard way there are limits to the experiences I can speak to.

At Mount Holyoke, I’m far away from the comfortable microcosm of my family and our shared identity, and for the first time, I’m learning about myself by myself. I’ve been able to do just that, through the ACE and the student organization Deeper Than Skin, a weekly support group for Asian students offered through the Counseling Service. Though I am supported on campus by my new friends and the services the College offers, it doesn’t change the fact that I still have to do this alone. No one can discover my identity for me.

Today, I can find the voice to say my siblings and I are no less Korean than anyone else. Even though my mom made our bibimbap (a Korean rice dish) without gojuchang (a spicy Korean chili). Even though we constantly butcher the Korean word for “grandmother,” and nearly any other word in Korean. And even though my grandmother hasn’t lived in Korea for nearly half a century. We are nevertheless no less Korean. It’s a bold and uncomfortable thing to say, even now. But I need to say it. And I’m grateful to have a place on campus where I can.


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Grace Ecklund Gustavson ’22 has lived in many parts of Vermont over the years and is proud to now call Montpelier her home. She plans on majoring in international relations. Hopefully, she’ll be fluent in Spanish and have lived in a Spanish-speaking country for at least a semester by the time she graduates! One of her favorite quotes is by Gabriela Mistral, translated by Doris Dana: “They shall not die. No, no one dies except he who has never lived.”
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