International diversity as a mindset instead of a number

By FLORENCE WU

SARAH FAGAN

“There’s always this whirlwind of things that come to my mind when people ask ‘where are you from?’,” said Elsa Korpi ’22. Korpi lived in Finland until she was six, moved to Berlin for four years of school and then moved to Brussels and Helsinki before attending United World College Hong Kong and eventually coming to Middlebury. 

“It’s hard to decide on a place to say where I’m from,” said Jackson Evans ’22, who was born in the US and lived in Melbourne, Australia for the last seven years of his life. 

I also find the question “Where are you from?” a difficult one. I was born in Shanghai, China, moved to Hong Kong for high school and then New Zealand after I graduated. Now, I go to school in the States. Any answer that only references a single country feels like a lie. Not only that, but it is a lie constantly in danger of exposure by my ignorance of the good restaurants in Shanghai, my broken Cantonese or, if I say I’m from New Zealand, my lack of a kiwi accent. As a result, I have learned to spill my entire life story in a five-second-long, well-rehearsed answer to avoid questions such as “Who’s your favorite All-Blacks?” or an enthusiastic, fluent reply in Cantonese that leaves me with nothing but an awkward laugh. 

I have always felt like an imposter, stuck between these nationalities and the stereotypes they carry. At Middlebury, I found many other “country-hoppers”. It’s comforting, but it also reveals a growing trend of global migration in the international community that needs recognition and support. “Breaking down those pre-formed ideas of you needing to be from one place is important,” Evans said to me. Especially at Middlebury, where many international students have prior study abroad backgrounds, national stereotypes are becoming increasingly inaccurate and misleading. Rejecting that requires effort from both the international and domestic students.

As a first step, it’s important for international migrants to be okay with developing a sense of identity without a sense of nationality. “I have roots in Chinese culture and a Chinese passport, but I don’t perceive myself as being loyal to the Party, ” said Katelyn Mei ’22, who was born in China and went to a public high school in Brooklyn, NY. “I am just a human being with mixed cultural backgrounds. I don’t think I belong to any specific nation.” 

For a long time, I struggled with this lack of belonging. I have given a single response to the question: “Where are you from?” and tried to play along with the stereotypes of that specific nationality. I have also tried to force a sense of belonging by watching rugby or faking an accent until I realized after many failed attempts, that roots can’t grow out of anywhere and identity can exist without belonging to any particular region. “We are the weird foreigners in our own country,” said Korpi. At some point, I stopped “home searching” and started valuing these pieces of places that I carry with me. In the face of globalization, we may be increasingly obliged to shed the comfort of having roots in any one place. Still, this is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s only when you stop trying to fit into one box that you can truly embrace the fullness of international migrant identity.

For me, refusing to play along with stereotypes myself was a first step that allowed me to ask others to reject the stereotypes or simplifications they imposed on me. I realized I must learn to appreciate my own identity first before I can really show others how to understand or respect it.   

Personally, I’m not offended by people’s initial assumptions based on my nationality — it’s hard to avoid stereotypes when they are often the grounds with which we use to assess others. However, it gets frustrating when your repeated attempts to correct such biases are ignored. “People wanted to box me into something that I know is untrue,” said Korpi. 

Being ethnically Chinese, I very often feel the weight of tags like “brainwashed”, “nationalist” and “locked behind the firewall”, even after frequently emphasizing that, by being at Middlebury, we have the same access to the news sources like The New York Times. “There are certain political meanings to the Chinese identity that no one can avoid. I don’t think to be Chinese means that I am a Communist or I endorse everything my government does,” said Kexin Tang ‘22.5, a Chinese student who grew up in Chengdu, China and went to high school in UWC New Mexico. “I feel like most of the time people don’t listen. They come with preconceptions of what China is like and they only seek to confirm them.” Very often, I feel that my opinions are valued more when I identify myself as kiwi as opposed to Chinese– that’s a problem. We should learn to separate individual values with their nation’s political reputation. The fact that we are at Middlebury College is proof of our intellectual capacities and our ideas should be valued based on their content, not our nationality. 

It’s not an easy transition to make but it’s an important and necessary one in order to accommodate the changing nature of internationality on campus. Middlebury has always campaigned for diversity and global education. It’s time for us to realize that diversity should be more than a statistic on the school’s admission’s website, but a mindset and an environment that is open to challenging stereotypes and giving students equal opportunities of expression regardless of nationality.

Editor’s note: Elsa Korpi, quoted in this piece, is an Arts & Academics editor for The Campus.

Florence Wu is a member of the class of 2022.

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