William Yee is from Los Angeles, California and participated in the 2018 Taiwan summer program. He is currently a student at the University of Chicago.
I’m not Chinese. I’m American.
Despite being the son of a Taiwanese immigrant, I constantly told myself this, adhering to the advice of my parents: Don’t be the stereotypical, antisocial Chinese kid. Pop culture was an incessant reminder that we amount to little more than underappreciated, behind-the-scenes geniuses. Or, in Hollywood, nerdy sidekicks to the dashing, charismatic protagonist.
If I hoped to one day shatter the bamboo ceiling, I needed to become American. At 11, I was whisked away to a prestigious junior boarding school on the East Coast. At first, I felt akin to a fish out of water, surrounded by wealthy peers with influential parents who navigated the most exclusive financial and government circles. However, I quickly learned to fit in. I minimized and understated my Chinese heritage, viewing it as a barrier to future career success. Instead, I played squash, honed my table etiquette, and mastered eloquent oratory. Yet, something was missing.
I felt compelled to share this story today, I am not alone in this experience. Data collected by the U.S. Census shows that a mere 40% of the 3.8 million Chinese Americans residing in the United States can speak Mandarin fluently—and the literacy rate is far lower. Increasingly, Chinese Americans are losing touch with their roots. This widespread phenomenon reaches many children of immigrants, not merely those of Chinese descent, which is troubling.
This past summer in Taiwan answered my lifelong grapple with my identity. NSLI-Y presented me with an opportunity, not only to study the language and culture that I loved, but also to return to my homeland. I immediately fell in love with the clean public transit, the jostling crowds at night markets, the whizzing motorcycles racing to work… even the warm, humid air. I met my extended family for the first time. I found comfort in Taiwanese conversation, which frowned upon braggadocio and emphasized intent listening, a slight departure from the United States. I gorged myself on steamed dumplings, locally known as xiaolongbao, and downed sweet, icy bubble tea. The sensation is indescribable with words. Somehow, in Taiwan, I felt I had arrived home.
I share this in the hopes that all high school students apply to study abroad with NSLI-Y. It will both challenge and reshape your worldview. It will give you greater appreciation for the United States of America and its diverse melting pot of cultures. Immersing myself in a foreign culture transformed my life, and I know it will transform yours.
Today, I’m Chinese. I’m American. And I’m proud of it.