I still remember the awe I felt at my first Commencement my ninth grade year. I remember watching the Class of 2018, donned in their classic gold-buttoned blazers and white lace dresses, march down Albany Road to the beat of the bagpipes resonating in the summer air. My forearms lit up with goosebumps as I took in the grandeur of it all. My ears rang as Kiana Rawji ’18, the then-Op-Ed editor (and my personal role model), spoke on stage: “Deerfield has made us who we are, who we want to be, and who we can be.” For a second, I imagined the moment I, too, would walk down that path for the last time as a Deerfield student.
Now, just days away from my very own Commencement, I have begun to reflect on Kiana’s parting words with her time at the Valley. I don’t doubt that Deerfield has fundamentally changed me as an individual. I used to be the reserved kid who would shy away from every proctor night, the awkward tenth seat at every sit-down table who could never seem to fit himself into the night’s discussion. But after four years of awkward encounters and getting used to all the different forms of chicken breast served at sit-downs, I have become comfortable in my own skin.
Despite this, Kiana’s words still ring in my head: “Deerfield has made us who we want to be.” I can’t help but wonder if I fully identify with such a statement. I had taken all the classes I had aspired to take, all the extracurriculars I told myself were the “right choice.” I have spent the past four years trying to make the best out of my Deerfield experience, but didn’t take a moment to stop and wonder who I wanted to be as an individual.
I have always considered my identity pre- and post- Deerfield to be two distinct existences.
When I first opened my acceptance letter, jumping in joy as I heard my parents celebrating through the phone, I told myself that I was making the right choice, that Deerfield was going to be my path to success. But, in order to find this success, I knew I had to first make myself fit in. As I began to prepare for my freshman fall, I began to adopt an “American” identity. I adopted a new, quintessentially American name, practiced putting on the suit my parents bought after seeing pictures of prep school students online, and practiced speaking in my best American voice with my friends. Deep down, I told myself that this was all an act, a shell I was building to allow me to blend in better to life at Deerfield—and, back then, I continued to hold my Korean identity close.
But even with all my efforts, it was clear that I would still stick out as the “outsider” as soon as I stepped foot on campus. I distinctly remember my first sit-down of my Deerfield career, where my parents and I scurried around the dining hall anxiously in search of our assigned table. My tanned skin started to itch as we approached our seats to only to be met with a table full of white faces. Watching my parents beside me, who stayed quiet out of fear that their non-native English skills would somehow embarrass our family, made me contemplate whether Deerfield really was the place for a student like me. Each bite of mac and cheese came with the choking fear that I would never truly fit in the American grain.
This burden seemingly followed me around campus. From our first hall meeting to the first advisory activity, I was met with a cultural mindset that constantly pushed me to the sidelines. For the first time, I was self-conscious of the way I held my fork slightly differently to the people beside me and the traces of an accent every time I spoke. I could seemingly never shake off this hyperawareness that Deerfield was made for students that didn’t look like me.
Naturally, I turned to the only way I knew to fit in: by abandoning everything that made me stick out. I carefully listened to my white friends’ verbal tendencies whenever they spoke, to integrate their slang and pronunciations into my own vocabulary. I began to refer to myself as Asian-American, rather than explain the complicated fact that I had never lived in the U.S. prior to coming to Deerfield. I wore my gold-buttoned blazers and waved my American flags in pride, a tangible representation of my successful assimilation into the U.S.
My self-afflicted “whitewashing” came at a cost. My parents told me their concerns that my Korean was starting to sound gradually more Americanized—in response, I began to distance myself from the language altogether. I winced whenever someone referred to me by my Korean name, as if it were something that embarrassed me. My friends nicknamed me “banana”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Deep down, I knew all this was true. At some point, the shell that I had thought was simply a shield from being pinned as an outsider fused with my own identity, leaving no room for me to engage with mythe Korean side of me.
I am ashamed of myself for taking the easy way out. I gave into the sentiments and attitudes that have led to swastikas being drawn on campus sidewalks and innocent women being shot in spas for being too “suggestive.” In trying to escape being ostracized, I became a product of the culture that allows racism to thrive.
As I watch movements like #blacklivesmatter and #stopasianhate take center stage in discussions on life in America, I imagine these victims as people like me: people of different identities all trying to attain the American Dream. But while I chose to comply with the whiteness I was surrounded by, these individuals suffered for rejecting it. In my own efforts to assimilate, I perpetuated the belief that compliance was the way to succeed.I don’t believe that, in every moment of my life at Deerfield, I made a choice based on who I wanted to be—but I do think that we can all grow from our regrets. Even after four years, Kiana’s message can still be applied to our community. Deerfield will change you, make you into the person you will be when you walk down Albany Road for your own commencement. But it is your choice to make yourself who you want to be.