Shifting Identities in NYUAD Diaspora Communities

Over the semester, an empty conference room in the Arts Center has served as the locale for a weekly informal gathering among friends, shambled ...

Feb 28, 2015

Over the semester, an empty conference room in the Arts Center has served as the locale for a weekly informal gathering among friends, shambled together over Facebook Messenger chat and word-of-mouth. Its purpose, one could argue, teeters between academic and personal; among fiddling with uncooperative projectors and the frustrated stutters of website buffering, the group has been screening episodes of the ABC Family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
Fresh Off the Boat tells the story of a Taiwanese family that moves to Orlando, Florida; it is the first US prime-time television show in two generations to feature an Asian American family as protagonists.
The show has caused much discussion among media and critics, who pour over the representations and claims of each 21-minute-long episode online. Reviewers, especially Asian American ones, alternate between praise and complaint — sometimes within the same article.
Though the NYU Abu Dhabi students who come to watch Fresh Off The Boat aren’t all Asian American, for many, similarities can be gleaned from the Huang family’s televised navigation of immigrant life in the USA.
“It’s personal, and [a reflection of] your life,” said Mandy Tan, a Chinese American senior.
Whether it’s the pleasing tug of recognition in a shot of familiar-looking cutlery, or the larger discussions about the US minority experience, the show has eased open a window into immigrant narratives in the West — something many students have experienced themselves.
“You’re curious now, if [some] things weren’t the same for you, were they the same for someone else?” added Tan. “And that kind of conversation gets the ball rolling.”
For students who come from mixed or diaspora backgrounds, instances like these raise questions about identity, which often reveals itself to be more slippery than thought among the circulations and confusions of the university's global network.
“In New York I thought I was very Chinese, and coming here I realized how American I am,” said Tan. “In my high school I was part of the Chinese Cultural Club, I was treasurer for it … It was something that [made me feel] connected to Chinese culture, and it was automatically something I would do.”
Now at NYUAD, Tan said she rarely attends events hosted by the university’s Chinese Cultural Club Student Interest Group. She added that speaking to Chinese nationals can sometimes feel strained.
“It’s just a feeling,” she said. “Obviously everyone is so nice, and if I wanted to speak Chinese I could, and we can laugh about things we do have in common … But when I enter a conversation, I feel like I enter it with a mindset of … needing to prove myself, even if the conversations are completely not about being Chinese.”
When he arrived to NYUAD from the USA, senior Brandon Wahba began learning Arabic for the first time. Though his father’s side of the family, being of Egyptian descent, were fluent, Wahba had not spoken the language until he was twenty years old.
“It took me a while to realize,” he said. “But I think that was ultimately why I started learning Arabic, because I wanted to get a better sense of my own personal feelings and identity … [Arabic] helped me create a cohesive understanding of what I would say is a less-than-simple identity.”
Strung across different national or cultural lines, students may find it difficult to sketch a cohesive identity — especially when subject to the perception of others.
“I think most people would just see me as an American,” Tan said. “Which was kind of hard for me to understand in the beginning, since [being Chinese] is such a big part of me, and it’s something I’m so proud of.”
Wahba talked about feeling a similar chameleonic shift, in which his identity has often been colored by time, surrounding and place.
“Sometimes in the US I would feel marginalized as an Arab American,” he said, describing one telltale instance in which he’d been watching the World Cup with friends. “I was rooting for the US … And my friends were like, shouldn’t you be rooting for Egypt?”
“And I was like, well a) they’re not in the World Cup,” he laughed. “And b) I’m American — I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The story tends to flip, however, when abroad; Wahba feels that many Arabs or Egyptians in the UAE see him as being purely American, whether because of personality or accent, he wasn’t sure. The impression would occasionally be interjected with, and confused by, instances of strangers mistaking him for being fully Arab by looks alone.
“I’m more insecure about my Arab identity," he said. "So anytime someone views me in that way, even if it’s just because they look at me and think I look Egyptian, that is meaningful to me. When people say certain aspects of my personality are Egyptian, that to me is a huge compliment.”
For senior Jeffrey Mei, a Taiwanese New Zealander, the experience at NYUAD hasn't always been so positive. Interactions with Chinese nationals were sometimes frustrating — ventures at Mandarin, though not always rejected, were occasionally met with stubborn English instead.
“It’s a lot better now, but back when I was a freshman, I joined the Chinese Cultural Club and they never invited me to anything,” he said. “Initially you think maybe they forgot to invite me, but after a while it’s like, I don’t want to stress [over] it every time they don’t include me in something.”
“Now it’s a lot better,” he added.
Mixed identities often bristle with their own contradictions and tensions, apparent in the quirks of daily life — whether it be how one addresses a professor or celebrates a holiday. As students begin grappling with self-perception and the perception of others, new definitions may arise.
“I’m not Chinese, I’m not American, I’m Chinese American, and that’s an identity itself that holds a lot," said Tan. "And I think that’s what connects us with people who are similar."
Although Tan believes she is already part of an informal community of other Asians who had been foreign-based, or even schooled in Western-style education systems, Tan said she would be hesitant to formalize the grouping into a SIG-esque structure.
“I'm always concerned [by the idea of] formalizing communities, especially if they already organically exist,” she said.
At the same time, the unique nature of being Chinese American brings with it responsibility, and a sense of belonging to a larger purpose.
“Now that I’m in NYUAD, I see us as part of a much bigger community, and I feel like we have a responsibility to the larger [Asian American] community, but also to China,” she said, before adding: “Now that we have insight through our family into how their [experience of] China was, and we have insight to the US, we have this kind of this sweet spot where we can say this is how we see things from both sides.”
Zoe Hu is editor-in-chief. Email her at 
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