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A Stranger Inside Himself

"Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?"

Thus begins Lin Zhao's journey of self-discovery, his attempt to define his identity as a Chinese-American torn between his Asian heritage and the American culture he lives with daily. It's a famous line from the story of Snow White, but Zhao '07 says it's an apropos way to describe many second-generation Asian-Americans' attempts to form a sense of themselves through the response of a mirror -- the mirror of their peers and of society in general.

Zhao was so conflicted about his cultural identity that he decided to research his feelings by interviewing other Asian-American youths, hoping to find a commonality among their experiences. His research proposal won him a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, a program that offers Willamette students up to $3,000 to undertake a scholarly, creative or professional summer research project.

Zhao, who graduated in December and now works in Minneapolis for the Target Corporation, titled his project "A Stranger Inside Myself" -- a phrase he felt perfectly described his identity confusion. "It's a sense of not really being sure who you are, who you're supposed to be and where you belong," he says. "Should you be the obedient son who follows the values of your parents, the same values they strongly adhered to at home before they came to the U.S.? Or should you be the person your friends want you to become, who gossips and hangs out with them?"

Zhao, an economics major and history and Chinese studies minor, interviewed 17 second-generation Asian-American college students on the East Coast, some he knew from his home in New Jersey and others he found through his friends or online. He calls himself "one-and-a-half generation" because he was born in China and moved to New Jersey when he was 12. Zhao lived in a predominantly white neighborhood where he learned English quickly, and he didn't know many others who shared his culture.

He sought out similar students to interview for his project. He knew that their process of identity discovery would be different from youths who grew up in cities with larger Asian-American populations. "Growing up in New Jersey, it was more about fitting in and trying to be like everyone else, trying to not stand out in a crowd," Zhao says.

"When college comes around, it becomes this independence period where you're no longer under the watch of your parents. I wanted to find out the effect that had on second-generation Asian-Americans, whether they became more American or they become more in tune with their native culture."

Zhao quickly found a commonality among many of his interviewees -- most of them felt a similar conflict between retaining their culture and becoming more American. But the ways they reacted to this conflict were varied.

Some perceived that their American friends were close to their parents and could tell them anything. They longed for a similar relationship with their parents instead of feeling pressured to live up to a high standard in school and life. They felt this pressure was their parents' reaction to their life in Asia. "I look at my parents' experience in China and it's a hundred times worse than what I live like today," Zhao says. "I think about all the sacrifices they had to make to get us where we are today. I know they'll love me regardless of what I do, but at the same time I feel like I need to make it worthwhile for them to make all the sacrifices they made for me."

One girl Zhao interviewed wanted to study English in college, but her parents wanted her to be a doctor. The girl said she loved her parents so much that she put their happiness ahead of her own. So she studied medicine to make them proud.

Others talked of struggles with different cultural expectations, such as not being allowed to date or even watch kissing scenes on television, while their friends talked about sex or were dating. Some had to go straight home to study after school rather than hanging out with friends. Many interviewees talked about living a double life -- acting like one person at school and another at home.

Zhao found some youths reacted to the cultural differences by rebelling, especially once they reached college -- something Zhao dubbed the "rubber-band effect." One boy he interviewed said he felt his parents unfairly pressured him to succeed, so he did his own thing -- went to house parties with alcohol in high school, had a steady girlfriend, aspired to enter the workforce immediately after graduation rather than going to college.

Other forms of rebellion included denying their Asian heritage. A boy Zhao interviewed changed his name to one that sounded more American, stopped participating in religious ceremonies and told his friends he wasn't Indian -- he was just tan. "As I listened to him tell me this story, there was a voice inside my head saying, 'No, don't do this. Just be proud of who you are,'" Zhao says. "It dawned on me that maybe it was time for me to start listening to myself. This research project helped me go a long way on a journey of accepting who I am. In the end, that acceptance is priceless to me."

Zhao's initial motivation was to learn more about himself by hearing others' experiences. But in the process of asking them to tell their stories, Zhao says the experience was also therapeutic for the interviewees. "A lot of them came back to me later and said it was rewarding for them because I asked them questions they hadn't thought about. Those kind of inner reflections tend to get lost. They gained a better understanding of themselves and their own identity. And that's something I would definitely encourage others to do."