Asians at Hamilton
Michelle Zheng

Michelle Zheng

Decades ago, my parents arrived in America, having emigrated from China, to pursue a better life for their families–both sides of my family lived in very poor areas of China. After years of working in the United States, my parents decided to have me. Months after I was born, I was sent to China to live with my dad’s cousin as my parents couldn’t afford to stop working to raise me; instead, they sent money to my aunt to cover my cost of living.

When, at the age of five, I came back to America, I rarely saw my parents. Since my parents worked everyday, the only real time I was able to spend with them was on Thanksgiving. When I was younger, I distinctly remember a period in time where I hated going home because I was always alone. However, I lacked the ability to express my feelings to my parents because of my lack of fluency in English and Mandarin. When my parents asked me what I did in school, I couldn’t explain. The uneasiness and uncertainty proliferated throughout the years, making conversion between us difficult.

The communication difficulties led to independence from an early age. In the fourth grade, I was identified as gifted and enrolled in the school’s correlating program. In the program, we always had a project in which we were required to build something. When we presented our projects, it was both explicitly and visually clear that my peers had significant help from adults. Back then I was always a bit ashamed of my projects as they weren’t always comparable to my peers, but in retrospect, I am immensely proud of the effort I put in to create the product on my own.

I attribute much of my perseverance and hard-work to my parents. My dad, despite being an exceptional student in his youth, was unable to attend school because his family did not have enough money. As the oldest, he had to take care of his siblings and work to earn money for the family by climbing the mountains to chop wood to sell and to feed the animals they raised. The hard life he experienced in China ultimately led him to move to America. It was a similar situation with mom despite being the youngest of four. Although also being academically gifted, she quit school at a young age to work in order to support her older brother on his journey to becoming a doctor. My uncle was viewed as the pride and future of their family by some. This touch of sexism has been a part of my life from the minute I was born. As an only child and female, my mom received pressure to have another child or adopt for the sake of having a son; however, my mom fought against that and argued that anything someone’s son can do, my daughter can do also.

In kindergarten, I was the only Asian and my vocabulary consisted of a single word: “hi.” My lack of English resulted in constant confusion in class. In fact, I did not even realize or know I was in girl scouts up until first grade until someone who was apparently in the same troop as me told me. The only evidence I remember that led me to believe her was that I distinctly remember randomly receiving a cookie and a grape scented marker that I could use to draw on said cookie. Although instances like my girl scouts example or me missing my bus stop brings back more humorous memories, my time in elementary school also brings back some negative ones. Although bullying stopped once I learned more english, racist jokes and slurs were not a rarity at school and when I walked down a street with my friends. From people shielding their dogs from me to being called “ching chong” or pulling the corner of their eyes up and down, these various instances resulted in my personality being affected as I became more reserved, quiet, and anxious. Furthermore, my parents’ difficulty with the English language also meant that I was forced to become responsible at a young age. Once I could speak and write English proficiently (sometime between the second and fourth grade), I filled out most school forms and even translated some of my parents’ papers while they just signed them. Although my opportunities were limited, I still had significantly more opportunities than my parents who didn’t have the option to finish high school and continue their education.
“Your generation should be better than ours.” My parents believed in this philosophy and did what they could for me. I never completely understood their struggles and sacrifices when I was younger. I felt disconnected from my parents and there were times where I was bitter and ungrateful. It was difficult to remember that my parents gave up everything for me. But I now know that my current success is built on a legacy of hard work, a legacy I plan on continuing.
In high school, although I only understood a bit of my parent’s wishes, when coupled with my own internal desire to succeed, I had decided that I was sick of being scared of public speaking so I decided to do something. That something was to join my school’s Speech & Debate team against the will of every fiber in my body. Although I ended up excelling at debate after pushing through many long hours and weekends, my success was questioned and invalided at times. For example, when one of my old teachers was told of my success, it was such a shock to them that I had the capability to write well thought out cases, being able to debate, and just the fact I had potential. The narrative that Asians are not meant for leadership and are subservient hurt, even if it was not a conscious application. This narrative was also apparent when I did a form of partner debate and our success was viewed as a result of my partner by some despite my role in researching and in the actual verbal debate.


Although I did come from a predominantly white school, coming to Hamilton was still a bit of a struggle.

Coming to Hamilton, I did not expect to be homesick. This was because I had often traveled for debate competitions or visited family for long periods of time. However, one of the main contributing factors of homesickness, is food. Despite being a freshman with an unlimited meal plan I soon found myself only going to the dining halls for slushies, something to drink, or if I had made plans with friends to eat together. There were a couple times where asian and/or Chinese food was offered, but my excitement always quickly faded when I got my food as reality did not meet my expectations. Although I was silly to have expectations of authentic Chinese food, I greatly missed what I had taken for granted at home.

Moreover, as a current rising sophomore, my first year at Hamilton was already not the typical Hamilton experience due to COVID-19. At first, my social circle was extremely limited as it was hard to socialize outside of your orientation group who also happened to be your dorm mates. Even as my social circle expanded, I noticed there was a disconnect and discomfort at times between me and other students at times due to my racial identity. Luckily, I had a good support system and people to vent to which made my overall Hamilton experience much better.