ABCs and the English Major

By Lillian Lu on August 15, 2012

At college, when asked what I’m studying, I answer happily, “English and Psychology.” But back home in New Jersey, I say, “Psychology and English.” The first word emerges strong. The conjunction tapers off. The last word barely squeaks out.

But my hometown was where my love for stories blossomed. Yet it was also here, by a fellow Asian, that I was called a “bad Asian” for enjoying literature. It was here that I heard a classmate laugh at another for not knowing how to play the violin. So it was here that I sensed what author Jane Hyun calls the “bamboo ceiling” looming over my head.My hometown holds inverted demographic stats: Asian Americans are the majority. For every 100 people you see here, you will find 46.22 who may look a little like me. So intuition has it that, at home, I wouldn’t feel shy proclaiming my academic pursuits in front of the people with whom I’ve shared my formative years. I shouldn’t fear judgment from those with whom I share a cultural background. And I shouldn’t be ashamed of being an English major.

The bamboo ceiling usually refers to factors that hinder Asian Americans’ career advancement, specifically in the corporate world. They include several external impediments: unconscious bias, language barriers cultural nuances and clashes, and, of course, stereotyping. There is also the psychological element, the one that seems to be most relevant to being an American-born Chinese (ABC) English major: the self.

Last semester, meeting with a professor and Min Jin Lee, author of the best-selling novel Free Food for Millionaires, we discussed what the genre of Asian American literature encompassed and meant.

A fellow ABC English major asked, “Is it okay if I like to write fairytales?”

It sounded as though she was asking for permission, and I half expected someone to laugh–not because the question was childish, but because it had been scratching at all of our throats, wishing for air. It was a question totally called for. Books rooted in the theme of cultural identity were what came to mind when anyone broached Asian American literature. Were we expected to fulfill these assumptions?

Ms. Lee answered after a pause, “I write about what I know. I write about what is human.”

Hearing this was liberation. Before, when I’d sit down to write, I’d wonder if what I was doing was acceptable, uncontroversial, unoffensive–and, on a different level, as impressive as, say, doing scientific research. And now I realized that by thinking this way, by thinking myself a color on a palette instead of a person, I was gathering the bamboo from all those infamous naysayers, and building a ceiling for myself.

I think it was crucial of me to see that one’s identity as an Asian American and one’s identity as a writer are neither mutually exclusive, nor at all times related.

From Ms. Lee’s gritty book on a girl’s life after college to Malinda Lo’s Ash, a retelling of Cinderella wherein the ingenue falls in love with another girl, the works of writers of Asian descent are not merely about being Asian, but really about being human. Perhaps literature is only ever about being a member of humanity.

The world does, indeed, have a heavy hand in molding the individual. But it would be an injustice to underestimate the influence one has over oneself. So, for now, what I can do is realize that I’m not just an Asian, or a word-nerd, or a girl who, funnily enough, can’t play violin. What I can do is understand that I’m human, above all things.

By Lillian Lu

Uloop Writer
A self-proclaimed word nerd. A university-proclaimed English and Psychology double-major with a (self-proclaimed) penchant for chai lattes, thesauri, and people.

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