If you’re reading this, would you understand me?: A look back on four years at Grinnell as an Asian American


Evan Hein

Lucia Cheng `23 reflected on her college experience as an Asian American student.

Lucia Cheng, News Editor

Monterey Park is my hometown but not my home. On Lunar New Year, Monterey Park — the first ever Asian American suburb — was the site of a mass shooting. Monterey Park is also the city where, according to my parents, I will die.

Grinnell was a place where I was supposed to learn resilience, where I could learn to feel safe. A place where I could live up to my potential and be ready to go out into the world, making a difference. But the shooting has shown me what a temporary place this college is. I have the future hanging over my head when I think about how the past haunts me. 

Whenever I got sick, my mom would tell me, with spittle flying out of her mouth, “Don’t complain to me about your pain. If it hurts that bad, just die.” Or, “You’ll understand how much I’ve done for you when I’m dead.” So in the wake of the shootings, I don’t dream of bullets tearing through my body. I don’t really dream anymore — I don’t really sleep. I’m scared of being unconscious because what my mom said about my complaining might come true, that because of me voicing my pain, I need to die.

I thought I had escaped my trauma at Grinnell. But as it turns out, my racial trauma and mental illnesses have combined to become something bigger than me. I am the byproduct of a system that chewed me up and spit me back out. My desire to become a changemaker was exploited by Grinnell, and I am left wondering what I have to offer besides the unshakeable conviction I have that I am a failure. What gives me the right to talk about change if I can’t even change myself?

“It’s not just an issue for Asian-American students. It’s an issue for everyone,” said Sharon Quinsaat,   Filipina and assistant professor of sociology who teaches SOC 255: Sociology of Asian America.

It’s not just an issue for Asian-American students. It’s an issue for everyone.

— Sharon Quinsaat Assistant Professor of Sociology

At this college, we constantly talk about our duties and responsibilities to society. As a person who claims marginalized identities, I feel the pressure to be outspoken because otherwise, who will step up and say something? Call it my savior complex, call it moral obligation, but I am at the point where I don’t know if anything I have to offer will be able to change this place for the better. After four years at this institution, of living through COVID and watching the people around me fight for even a scrap of dignity and recognition, for real connections and to be seen as real people, I am grieving this college and our society, but most of all, my place in this world. I am watching, helpless, as student organizations snuff out one-by-one, as individuals feel increasingly isolated, as activism dies on this campus. Or maybe I’m just a jaded fourth year.

Occasionally, people ask what they can do to support me. I never know what to say. I don’t have any particular call to action, but maybe it will be enough for me to tell you about the question I ask myself daily — what am I doing all of this for?

People say I care too much, but how could I not if this space I occupy has the potential to make an impact on someone? If you’re reading this, would you understand me? I am so tired of feeling lonely all the time.

In hopes of finding solace, I reached out to people from the Asian American Association and got into contact with Alyson Won `25, who feels tension between the generational gaps in her family. Her father’s side has lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown for three decades. Her mother, in comparison, is generation zero, having moved to San Francisco from Taiwan. She told me,

“The idea of coming together in community is both beautiful and exhausting.”

Grinnell asks us to care about everything, everywhere, all at once. It’s exhausting. And too often, the answers these discussions come to are, “Wait it out,” or “There’s nothing you can do about it” or “You just have to graduate.” How can we come together in community if the end of each discussion is simply that we have no answers?

The problem with putting my head down and waiting for graduation is that it doesn’t quell the fear of what comes next. In high school, my goal was to escape. I thought college would be my happy ending where everything would be okay as long as I was with people who shared the same values as me. I wanted to do so much here, to leave this place better than I found it. If I just push towards graduation, what happens to the part of me that wants things to change? The future looks like a black hole. If I’m left without a goal, how do I keep surviving? In the wake of the shootings, how can I willingly walk into that black hole where it feels like everything falls apart, with the odds stacked against me?

“I’m always hopeful. If you’re an activist, you have to be hopeful,” said Quinsaat.

After the shootings, I don’t know how I’m supposed to have hope anymore. I can’t tell if I am who I am because of my background. I had always imagined myself as someone who tries to stand up for the right things, but now, I wonder when all of my work will pay off, when it will all be worth it for some temporary form of happiness. 

I feel like I am living out the epilogue of my life. So what now? What comes after the happy ending of getting into college? Why is it so hard to connect to other people? To come together, is trauma-dumping the only thing we can look forward to?

“Maybe the only thing that can unify all the Asians is a shared trauma from white people. It sucks that the unifying thing is in opposition to something else,” Won said.

Maybe the only thing that can unify all the Asians is a shared trauma from white people. It sucks that the unifying thing is in opposition to something else.

— Alyson Won `25

L.A. “was a place that was violated. It felt like a reflection of my future”

“Knowing that a place [L.A.] that I feel very comfortable in and wanted to call my home, that was a place that was violated. It felt like a reflection of my future,” Won said. “It was everyone who had ever called that home, the feeling of comfort, safety and community that got completely uprooted.” 

I can’t make you care, because to care is a heavy burden, to live with unanswered questions is to constantly be sick with uncertainty — and how could I ask you to answer these questions for me? How could I ask you to make a home for me? This college tells us that it will be the place for us to celebrate our differences, that it will become our new home away from home. But what if I never had a home in the first place? What if I have become too different?

“I was the thing that was wrong because I was the one that was different,” Won said.

I’ve absorbed so much rhetoric about the “model minority” while growing up that it has become ingrained in my being. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, where Asian Americans are the majority. Even there, I was different. I had lofty ambitions, not to get into the Ivy League but to be able to make a difference in the world, to be able to utilize my unique position to speak up. However, the constant strain of pushing myself to be better and better has taken its toll on my body, and I can barely hold onto my will to live through the day-to-day. And I have to ask myself why I am like this in the face of white mediocrity.

I try so hard, and yet some white people are content when they accidentally miss class, when they hand in the bare minimum of an argument as a paper, when they use ChatGPT for a class discussion. They brush it off, knowing that they don’t have to be seen as a representative of anything. That it’s not encoded in their blood to make things better. 

And I can’t fault you for that. For most of us, it’s tiring enough just to get through classes, to get the degree, then get the fuck out of here. Except, I will remember each and every time people have failed me.

For instance, getting kicked off of campus in my first year because of COVID. Someone writing “FUCK WUHAN SAVE USA” on an Asian American’s white board, adding xenophobia to mortality. The stories of people coughing and spitting in faces. The complete silence after the Atlanta shootings. The fetishization of Asian bodies. Asian Americans harassed in town. To have to expect this kind of thing to happen, to not be surprised by violence.

And how we have failed the generations that will come after us — the dissolution of Posse. How the demands of Concerned Black Students, and the 50-year-old Black Manifesto, have still not been met. How sexual assault still flies under the radar. Professors saying the n-word. Transphobia threatening gay rights. Students struggling with tuition costs.

Regarding the difference between her and her younger brother’s experiences, Won said, “You want to help out the next generation so that they don’t have to suffer. But then, in the process of doing that, they don’t realize that that’s something that was done for them.”

But what have we done for each other here at Grinnell?

“It’s not just an issue for Asian-American students. It’s an issue for everyone,” Quinsaat said.

I am grieving the past, the present and the future. I am scared to know how much of myself is made up of systemic issues.

It is lonely to watch things change. But how much of Grinnell has changed?

“I’m not just going to sit and wait for someone else to fix my problems for me,” Won said. “If you can’t fix your problems yourself, or at least figure out a place that you can go to for it, then what?”

I don’t know what kind of support I need, but maybe it is enough for you to know why I am the way I am and what I think about every single day. I am trying to figure out whether or not these past four years have been worth it, if the effort spent on me is worth it. The more I learn, the more I carry the burden of knowledge along with me. How can I ask you to do the same? I have no choice but to move on. To keep grappling with these questions. 

Will you understand me? Or will we keep going our separate ways?

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Alyson Won’s name. The S&B regrets this error. Updated March 13, 2023, 3:13 p.m.