Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reunion (resumed)

The reunion was for a scholarship group of which I was a part at college. We spoke at the luncheon and have been asked to write down what we said. This is mine below. I feel inadequate in this group. Many were Vietnamese "Boat People," refugees who fled after the war in unspeakable conditions. Others grew up in Harlem, NY or Compton in Los Angeles. They went to schools you hear about on shows like NYPD Blue, Law and Order or Boomtown and think, "Thank God, I didn't have to live through that." Guns, shootings, worse. And yet through determination and some intervention by people who recognized their innate talent they attended Amherst and thrived.

I chose Amherst for some very good reasons, and one rather silly one. My high school didn’t promote better schools or encourage application, despite the fact that many students did test well and could have attended their choice of schools. In fact, when I told my counselor that I wanted to attend Amherst, he told me he thought I could get the same education at UMKC! I did have a few teachers who encouraged me to apply, and I asked the vice-principal of the school to complete my application paperwork.

In the massive pile of college prospectuses (prospecti(?)—surely I should know this as an Amherst grad!) the Amherst book leapt out at me because I had portrayed Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst for high school speech and debate contests and so Amherst had a certain romance to me. But, I did do the research, if only to prove to my relatives that I was making a good decision. I loved its small size, its limited class size, its lack of core curriculum, its high ranking. I wanted the best and I did find it.

I’m sure some of you at the luncheon wondered how I had been chosen as a Wolff Scholar. My parents suffered a bankruptcy and separated (though never divorced) and I spent my junior high and part of my high school years living in other people’s basements with my mother. But all the same, I was not originally a Wolff Scholar. I had a different scholarship but lost it when I took time off. When I returned I was a Wolff Scholar, and I will always be grateful for that second chance.

But, I have always feared that I was the wrong choice. Despite my poverty, I was still in many ways a middle class white girl. I did not live the kinds of childhoods that many Wolff Scholars experienced. My father had two master’s degrees, and my mother some college. It was always a given that I would attend some college. Ironically, because of my poverty I was able to attend a better college than many of my middle class friends. But I have never felt like I belonged—as a Wolff Scholar, as an Amherst student, or as an Asian, and that has shaped many of my choices or lack of them.

At the luncheon I expressed some of these fears for the first time. I also felt/feel that I have not made the best use of my Wolff Scholarship. I pursued acting and set/costume design through my 20’s, a tiring and often disheartening life that leaves little time for other things. While I have had good reviews both as an actress and as a set/costume designer, I always feared that I “should” be doing so much better, doing serious work, or at the very least, committing more strongly to theater. Instead I tried to straddle both worlds, to have sensible day jobs that allowed me to pursue theater, but the sensible jobs often took away from theater, so I was never fully invested in either world.

I wrote this to Mr. Wolff last fall saying that I feared I had wasted his generous gift and he wrote back that everyone has their own path and their own time. Those words meant everything to me and I refer back to them often. What I did not understand when I was attending Amherst was that the school was eager to help me in anything I wanted to do. Because I didn’t understand, and I was afraid, I didn’t take advantage of everything that Amherst had to offer. As I believe Joel described at the luncheon, I had spent all of my energy getting into Amherst, and I knew how to get through it reasonably well, but I did not know how to get out of it well.

What I am learning in my 30’s is to accept that there are no “shoulds.” That comparing oneself to others either favorably or unfavorably is pointless. We are who we are, made up of all the events—good and bad—that have brought us to this moment.

I have joined a group—Vietnamese Adoptee Network (VAN)—and while I don’t always agree with everything the other members say, I feel closer to this group than to almost any other. We all share a strange sensation of being raised too white to be Asian, and yet for many (not so much for me) clearly not being white enough, needing to find some identity as Asians.

I am currently a marketing manager for a financial broker/dealer firm. I like what I do—being artistically creative and would like to move into a field that really lets me be creative all the time. I have contentment most of the time and work everyday to accept myself and where I am.

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