A Chinese Girl’s Guide to Thriving in America

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Maci Sepp Source: Ethan Maurer

Written by Maci Sepp. Media by Ethan Maurer.


Maci climbing Cliffs of Arbel, Israel
Source: Maci Sepp

I will be the first to tell you that I lead a near-perfect life. Besides always having more than enough of the basic human necessities, I have spent the last twenty-one years surrounded by friends and family who love me deeply and care for my well-being way beyond what I deserve. This endearment has been the foundation for my desire and my motivation to thrive. During the last four years alone, I have maintained a high GPA, double majored and minored in three different departments, balanced multiple campus jobs, and remained an involved member of the community, always giving things 101%. It’s an impressive list and, believe me, I’m very proud of it. But for most of my life, I never even dreamed I would come close to this point.

As a child, I was diagnosed as delayed and placed in a special education program. I went to physical therapy and speech therapy every day until I caught up with the kids my age on the lower end of the learning spectrum. When I entered elementary school, my teachers tried to place me in an English Learning program despite never knowing anything other than English my entire life. At five years old, this was the first time my race affected my learning environment.

It certainly was not the last. They wrongly assumed I was stupid because I didn’t know the language, not because my brain was taking a little longer to develop. They assumed this because I’m Chinese.

Maci and her 2016 Walkabout group.
Source: Maci Sepp

I was adopted as an infant from a rural area in China. Ever since early childhood, my family often dedicated time to celebrate Chinese tradition and culture. Yet for some reason, living in a white suburban town made me want to blend in or disappear. I had to fit a certain mold in order to even be acknowledged. I could only be so Chinese before it became unacceptable and I would be ostracized. As my peers endured the typical struggles of figuring out their identity and feeling isolated, I felt it more so as I tried to figure out who I could actually be.

By middle school, I was learning alongside the gifted students. The kids in my classes were predominantly white, but there were still several students of color. I spent my days and nights studying arduously and always going above and beyond. I had made it this far, and I needed to prove to everyone that I had earned my rightful place. As time went by, my honors classes remained the same size, but the gap between white to color started to grow.

Once high school rolled around, I was in all the honors and AP courses that I could possibly take. They consisted of almost all white teachers and students. Apparently, this was everyone’s cue to start telling me how “Asian” I was. Of course, I was in AP Calculus; Asians are good at math. My efforts to blend in had somehow failed. But it was fine. At least my Asian background was out in the open, which was totally different from when I was a kid. Since they framed it as a joke, their racist comments were less wrong. They were said out of admiration, not oppression. In reality, this was only enabling oppressive behavior from others and minimizing my experience as an adopted Chinese American.

Greenville Student Government Association 2017-2018
Source: Maci Sepp

Though the Asian jokes have long since subsided, the need to prove I belong still remains the same. Coming to Greenville, I became a part of the honors program, which still consists of almost exclusively white people despite the increasing percentage of minority students enrolled. Assimilation has been key to my success. For a while, I didn’t notice my race, and I began to forget my past. The colorblind nature of our institution made sure of that. I thought things had changed so much since my childhood. Instead, people now think they can hide behind the veil of being well-intended Christians.

As a Chinese American raised in white culture, I don’t have the same experience as all minorities. Instead, I get to play the role of the model minority. I don’t have to worry about being accused of a crime or getting shot by police. I am rewarded a place at the table because of how much I’ve thrived as a white student. I am not allowed to fail. I am not allowed to say no. At least, not if I want to keep being treated as “normal.” Not if I want to keep being treated as a white person. Not only that, but I should be grateful that Greenville, America, and the world have all given me a chance to “make it.”

I feel like I’ve been giving it 101% my entire life, and let me tell you, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to prove you’re worthy of your success as a person of color. It’s exhausting to always have to blend in. It’s exhausting to be someone you’re not.

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