The assumption that there is a universal and singular experience as a womxn erases the nuances and variety that exists. This column seeks to address the many intersections that may overlap in an individual’s life. All this is done in an effort to celebrate the reality of womxnhood in the various ways it may be expressed.
The memory of the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline of her home brings comfort to junior Alex Yao. The heaviness of homesickness is a familiar feeling that many of us can relate to, but when Yao begins to feel weighed down, she focuses instead on the work she achieved to come to Lawrence and the remarkable transformation she has gone through.
The difference between Yao’s hometown in China and Appleton can only be imagined by those who have not witnessed it themselves. This imagination, however, can lead to misconceptions. With one foot in each culture, Yao refuses to let those misconceptions run rampant. She is now in a country where strangers will brazenly walk up to her and crack jokes about how glad she must be to be outside of China or dismiss her because of her accent and finds herself to be more outspoken than she ever imagined she could be.
Yao says that her ability to defend herself has developed since coming to Lawrence. “My family taught me by putting me down,” she admitted. “They thought that could push me to do better, but it did not. So, I grew up really self-conscious and sensitive.” When she recalls her childhood, it is with the image of her head dutifully down and focused solely on her academics. Therefore, when Yao first arrived at Lawrence, the idea of being different was so startling that she thought there was no other option but to depend on such tactics and try to blend in as much as possible. “I was trying really hard to fit in, because otherwise I felt like I would be lonely,” she said. “I was kind of ashamed of myself. I was trying so hard to get rid of my accent. I felt being different was the worst thing.” She continued to bow her head and silence the urge to speak, fearing that it would make her presence known.
But, the quiet freshman that arrived to campus three years ago would be in awe of the person that she has become. The simple act of putting oneself first before the needs of others took time to unlearn, but it is one Yao practices daily. Now, she has no qualms about speaking up in class, letting her voice be heard and leading the discussion.
Yao credits much of her transformation to her participation on the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC), where she witnessed an acceptance of diversity and had her voice encouraged. The council members all came from diverse backgrounds and yet were not cowed by that. Yao considered that notion to be radical at the time, and she currently tries to relay it to other Chinese international students. She also feels she owes much to the friends she has met on campus. Because the distance between her and her family is so vast, she considers them her own found family and depends on them in the same way. Acutely aware of who she is and who she wants to be, she tries to find inspiration among her friends and protect them in the way she feels they have protected her.
“Because I come from a different background,” Yao said, “I have a different perspective that people need to hear. I try to pass what I have learned to my other Chinese friends, especially about when they also struggle with their identities.” She continued, “Being a person of color in America is difficult, and for some time I felt weak and doubted my decision to come here. But not anymore.”
The lessons Yao has learned in the past three years are ones that have fundamentally changed her. She describes herself currently as “adaptive,” but not for the sake of assimilating as she previously desired. Instead, Yao looks at her journey so far and takes inspiration from her independence. Any adaption or change that develops next will not be for anybody but herself.