I've wondered what I would write in this column. What would I have told myself three years ago, in the summer of 2014? It feels like so long ago now that I was a starry-eyed prefrosh trying to figure out which classes I’d take, where I’d live, or what clubs I’d join.
Have no fear, you’ll get plenty of advice on that from the rest of this welcome issue. So, instead, what I thought that I might talk a bit about is identity, something less tangible than other parts of the Princeton experience.
You’ve probably heard that you’ll “find yourself in college,” or something like that ad nauseam. It might feel as if the pressure to figure out exactly what you want is overwhelming, that there might be some preordained path that you must follow for your four years at Princeton, all leading up to the next objective, be it grad school, a good job, or otherwise. But the truth is, it’s impossible to find yourself in the way that you’ve been told college will help you do — and that’s a good thing.
So, to share a bit about myself:
I came to college thinking that I knew how my identity worked. I think a lot about representation and power. Growing up, some of the only Asians I ever saw outside of my own family were kung fu masters on TV or Sagwa (but she was a cat). My family was probably the only Chinese-American family, let alone Asian family of any ethnicity, on the block, and perhaps even within a five-mile radius of our home. I’m incredibly grateful that I had great role models in my family, but we were still the token Asians. I took that as a given. We were different, but we were also the sole representatives, the ones who everyone else thought were Chinese or Asian.
Race and identity were always something I was conscious of because of that difference, but never in a substantive way. It was always about “someone else,” an academic idea in the abstract, rather than about myself. I never even thought about what it meant to be Asian American until I started Princeton. I showed up to some of the first meetings of ethnicity-specific Asian affinity groups and felt like I could never fit in, that my pronunciation would never be perfect enough, that I would never be Chinese enough for them.
I still remember first taking Chinese in high school. I could barely write my own name, let alone pronounce it with the correct tones. This name had been given to me by my family as part of a Wu family tradition dating back hundreds of years. I felt ashamed, that I’d let down the family. I was a Chinese American; I was supposed to know Chinese.
I struggled my way through second-year Chinese at Princeton. It was my hardest class here, and my GPA suffered for it. I went to Princeton in Beijing. On the first day, a Chinese teacher noticed something peculiar about my pronunciation and asked if I was Korean. Surely, they thought, I couldn’t be Chinese.
Then I found the Asian American Students Association (AASA). It was the first place where I ever felt comfortable talking about my own racial identity, and it’s fundamentally shaped the way I view the world, as well as the things I’ve decided to do here on and off campus. I came to the realization that other people were just as conflicted as I about their identities, and that a happy and fulfilling life on campus did not require the subjugation of the self into a simple identification box.
I’ve been told that I seem like I have things together, that I have life figured out. The truth couldn’t be further from that. I’m still trying to figure myself out, or for that matter, what comes after the Orange Bubble that we call our home. And, now, I’m okay with that.
That’s really the beauty of coming to a college campus, especially at a place like Princeton. The Orange Bubble is a place to incubate ideas, movements, and identities, away from some of the pressures of the real world. We’ve gathered some of the brightest minds in the world here, and there’s so much to learn from each other.
I urge all of you — seek out new spaces where you’ll feel comfortable and where you can explore your identity in ways that might not have been comfortable before. Try lots of new activities that challenge the way you think about the world and force you to step outside of your comfort zone. I spent my first few months my freshman year in a tango class. I was an atrocious dancer (and still am), but hey, I made some great friends.
Here’s a hearty welcome to the great Class of 2021!
Nicholas Wu, a Woodrow Wilson School major from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. is the Associate Opinion Editor of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.