Liya Liang speaks with Nina Kleinberg about her experiences attending a preparatory boarding school and leaving all she knew behind. The two discuss the effects that it had on her life reflecting on the aspects of race, class, and socioeconomic status had on her experience during her four years.
My high school self-looking back on it, I was just, I think a big fish in a small pond. I like never stepped out of my comfort zone. I never really pushed boundaries. I wasn’t a person to take risks. I think that my college experience is different than my high school experience in the sense that I’m learning to learn and learning for myself and about myself discovery. So, a big part of my identity I’m from Lowell Mass, and that’s the second most populated Cambodian refugee community. Being Cambodian was always an important part of my identity, but since I was immersed in a lot of Cambodian culture, I didn’t see why it was special or why it was different. My parents until I was in middle school never really talked about what they have went through, what they have gone through, same thing with my grandmother until I asked. So, that kickstarted me looking into my identity more, but back then I didn’t really think about my Cambodian identity that much. I knew it was a strong part of me because I was living in it, but I didn’t really get to deconstruct my place in the greater scheme of the world because I was in the middle of the ethnic community of it. I knew it was different, I’ve never really been around that many rich people, and I’ve never experienced that before, it was just a culture shock in the sense that I felt like I didn’t connect with people that much, since we were so different, but I ended up making friends. Initially, I was “oh these people are so different, they dress different, they look different, they talk different” and I was in a different environment, I felt really insecure, and I didn’t have that much confidence in myself, it was really the first time I pushed myself. Within weeks I just got more comfortable talking in how I spoke whether it was different and whether it was ineloquent, and I think that really helped a lot. I just thought that the student body would be more diverse. There were Asian people, but they didn’t really deem me Asian since I am Asian American. That was really hard for me because I am not a white person, I’m not a black person, I’m Asian, but I am Asian American. And I often found myself counting the amount of people of color in the room just to make myself feel a little more comfortable, I was also sometimes really hyperaware that I was the only person of color in the room. That was like the first time that I experienced that. It really made me insecure I think the first couple years. But then I realized that not that it was all in my head, that I needed to grow comfortable in my place, and that my place in the grand scope of things wouldn’t change. If I just couldn’t figure out a way to navigate these spaces, that I would struggle. And if I really really struggled that would be at the expense of why I was here, my academic and just to do well. I just knew that I had to do great, because of my identity and because I was purely there I guess, because of my identity. I was really really stressed, I wanted to be perfect. My junior year and my senior year, I was really focused on I have to do well because I am here because I need to excel, I need to represent my community as home, represent my own Cambodian community. I think my identity of Asian American grew stronger because of it, and I was in a different environment, but I think I was very sheltered being home.