I was happy to be a model minority. My whole childhood I lived that life to a T.
I played flute in the symphony. I was in the honors program since fourth grade. My favorite subject was biology, and I wrote amazing English essays. I was a voracious reader. I was in the Student Body organization and board member to five different clubs. I was on the badminton team and, in my spare time, I did the yearly school musicals in the fall and the community theatre musicals in the summers.
There was always a plan: Move to the States. Excel in school. Get the best grades and best test scores. Go to the best university you can go to. Study in the STEM fields. Graduate college. Get a job at a nice company, with a nice salary, and live a comfortable life.
I was perfectly happy to march my little, perfect Asian self to whichever University of California system school would have me so I could fulfill the destiny I’d worked my entire life to fulfill. But, then there came a moment – a blindsiding, confusing, soul crushing moment – when I began applying to colleges. The applications asked if I was a citizen or permanent resident. And I was neither of those things.
Although I came to the United States when I was four years old, the specific circumstances and immigration laws at the time had granted me a very particular visa. It allowed my family and I to legally stay in the U.S. without being deported and it allowed us to legally work in the U.S. while our green cards were being processed. But it did not grant me the right to apply for any college or university as a resident of the United States. It meant that I had to apply as an “International Applicant”, even though I’d lived in the States for fourteen years. It also meant that no financial aid was available to me. Zero. Any school that accepted me would force me to pay the full tuition and any out of state tuition fees.
I had no idea. I talked to every person I could and no one could get me past that third question on the application. So, just like that, the life and future I thought was in my grasp - just a snap and a click away - had dissolved right before my eyes. All on a technicality.
I did end up going to (an expensive) undergrad and majored in biology like I always wanted. Because that was still the plan. Go to college. Whatever it takes. Whatever it costs. But there was this nagging feeling that never left me after that college application process. I followed the plan. I did everything that was expected of me, and I still got left in the dust.
There was this bitter taste. There was this unrelenting voice that said I wasn’t meant for that easy path to greatness. I would always have to struggle. And that’s a tough pill to swallow when you believed that everything you’ve done in your whole life was to set you up for success. But, the government said that I didn’t really belong. I was in a temporary space, an in-between where I was not ‘illegal,’ but not ‘legal’ enough. And even though I was the model citizen that society, my teachers, and my parents wanted me to be – none of it mattered. There was no compassion in the system. No perspective.
But, there was one place I had solace: theatre. I found a family in the theatre department. The work I did there helped me to express the deep well of anger, bitterness and resentment I never knew was lurking under the surface. As I allowed myself to explore this well, breaking from the expectation to be pretty or demure or precise, I really began to uncover who I am. Not the “me” that was defined by the extra curricular activities or my test scores or which college I went to. I discovered that art allows you to create your own path instead of just following one.
This radical way of thinking led me to leave my biology program and enroll in a performing arts conservatory. Shortly upon graduating, my family and I were finally granted our green cards after twenty-two years of living in the United States.
The path that’s led me here has been topsy-turvy and full of surprises. But I am here. I am living my best, most robust artistic and soul fulfilling life. This organization matters because I want young Asian artists to know that there are many ways to get to that feeling of success and belonging. But more importantly, I want Asian artists to know that true success is finding your most authentic version of yourself.
Everything else is just extra credit.
Written by Donna Ibale, Managing Director of Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective.
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