Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents Redefining What It Means to Be Asian American While Abroad

September 13, 2022
By Angela Ding, Nursing '23

University of Queensland, Australia

Angela is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Fall 2022 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their images on the @pennabroad Instagram feed.

I experienced my first culture shock when I arrived at Penn as a freshman in August 2019. Growing up going to schools that were primarily Asian, I was surprised by how different everything was in college, things that I used to never have to think twice about. The foods I grew up sharing with friends now had to be explained. The immigrant parent/ABC (American-born Chinese) kid dynamic my friends and I talked about was no longer relatable. It’s a seemingly obvious change, that once I stepped out of my Asian Cupertino bubble, things would be different.  And yet, it was still a huge adjustment for me… but one I’d absolutely do all over again to be where I am, with the friends I have, today.

I experienced a similar culture shock upon arriving in Brisbane and am now constantly reflecting on and redefining what it means for me to be Asian *American*. I joined an exchange student society (QUEST), getting the opportunity to meet students from all over the world: Norway, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, etc.Angela with QUEST exchange students. The first major event planned by QUEST was a trip to Byron Bay, a charming coastal town, known for whale sightings and surfing! Seeing the bright orange sunset over the beach waves gave me my first “Oh my god I’m in Australia” moment. And yet, earlier that same day, while we were wading in the ocean, it struck me that in a group of over 150 international students, I was the only one of Asian descent. It was no longer an isolating feeling though as it had first felt three years ago, now understanding that there is more that defines identity than simply race. Those friendships are cultivated not just through shared experiences and cultures but rather through an open mind and earnest effort to learn. 

Around the same week of the Byron Bay trip, I joined a recreational basketball team at UQ, where my fellow teammates happened to mostly be from Hong Kong and Malaysia and spoke Mandarin. It was comforting being in a community with people who looked like me again and I felt as though I could understand their experiences attending a university as a minority. But it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth week when I realized that all my teammates from overseas had been giving me their English names to call them by. This whole time, I had been calling them their English names while my other teammates had no idea who I was referring to because they only knew each other by their Chinese names. It was a weird feeling because that was the first time I felt distinctly Asian *American*. It was a much-needed reminder that cultural identities are complex--no one has exactly the same experience. That assumptions do more harm than good because we clearly all have very different lifestyles. I looked like them and spoke Chinese…but am also American. I tried to clarify with my teammates afterward on what they preferred to be called, and one teammate answered, “He doesn’t care. He just wants to win.” Another needed reminder that yes, we are all Asian, but really we all came together because we love basketball. Nothing else mattered.

My first month here in Brisbane, meeting people from all around the globe has made me think a lot about my Asian American identity. It’s been challenging, to say the least, ignoring microaggressions here and there and just the sinking feeling of being “othered” and alone. But it has also made me appreciate the childhood I had, even though the comfortability of it makes these adjustments abroad much harder. But for 18 years of my life, surrounded by people who also had immigrant Asian parents and who looked like me, I wasn’t simply “the Asian girl”. I was a girl who loved to compete, who loved to deliver cookies to friends, who cried in too many episodes of Jane the Virgin… More than just my race and heritage, I was all these other traits too that define who I am. As I keep learning and experiencing things here in Brisbane, I am confident that I’ll feel that way soon. Life is all about adjustments--to new people, places, experiences--and in doing so, becoming the best version of yourself. One that is curious and accepting of people of all different kinds of values and beliefs. I’m thankful for a childhood that made me confident in who I am, and I’m thankful for this experience abroad to share a glimpse of that with people I would have never met otherwise. 

Angela with friends in Australia
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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

Claire is taking a selfie in front of flowers in Singapore
Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents
by Claire Utomi, Wharton '23