Joining an Asian student group showed me I didn’t have to choose between my Chinese and American identities

I used to be skeptical of affinity groups. Now, I’m the president of my high school’s Asian Student Association.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

The writer of this essay is a 2023-24 Student Voices Fellow at Chalkbeat. Click to learn more about our high school fellowship program.

When I was five months old, my family moved from New Jersey to Shanghai, China, leading my childhood to be defined by a hybrid of two distinct identities: Chinese and American. My Chinese identity was built on heated mahjong games with relatives and intense haggling with shopkeepers in fish markets. My American identity was defined by playing soccer with friends at my international school and listening to Jimi Hendrix.

An Asian male wears a black suit, a white shirt, and, a blue tie. His hands are crossed across his chest.
Alexander Calafiura 2023-24 Student Voices Fellow Alexander Calafiura (Courtesy of Alexander Calafiura)

Around the time I was 7, I started to wonder: Am I Chinese? Or am I American? I couldn’t come up with a good answer because I was constantly switching between the two. At school and home, I spoke English and immersed myself in Western media like Minecraft and Marvel movies. With my Chinese extended family and most of my friends, I spoke Mandarin and talked about what was on my local TV channel. It was always one or the other.

When I was 10, my family decided to move back to the U.S. and live in New York. It was a massive personal and social shift for me. From the way people dressed to the way they acted in public, almost everything was different.

My unfamiliarity with American culture forced me to play “catch up” with my peers. On the first day of middle school, I remember hearing some students jam along to a song from their phones. After school, I looked up the lyrics and discovered that the song was “Bad and Boujee” by Migos. Bad and what? Before that day, I had never even heard the word “boujee” before. It was clear to me that I would have to dedicate my out-of-school time to consuming American pop culture through movies, songs and TV shows, if I wanted to fit in.

During middle school, as I leaned more and more into the American side of my identity, I became less involved with my Chinese side. My Mandarin, which I now used only infrequently, grew noticeably worse. Major Chinese holidays that I used to love, like the Mid-Autumn Festival, stopped feeling as important to me as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

In the first few weeks of high school, one of my Asian teachers asked me to join the Asian Student Association. She thought it would be good for me, an Asian student, to be more in touch with the Asian community at school.

Her invitation was the first time I had encountered the idea of an affinity group. At first, I rejected the idea: I imagined feeling like I was in an echo chamber. What benefits could there be from isolating myself from one group to dwell in another?

Despite my skepticism, I showed up for the Asian Student Association’s first meeting of the year. I wanted to find peers who spoke fluent Mandarin and maybe even some who had also lived internationally. I wanted to make some new friends.

Right away in that first meeting, I discovered how many teens could relate to my experiences. I even met someone who had also lived in China. Immediately, we clicked, speaking in Mandarin about our life experiences. For the first time in high school, I felt culturally included.

We spent our time playing Asian-themed charades, competing over random Asian trivia on Kahoot, and talking about our summers. It felt like a super welcoming, meaningful, and low-pressure experience.

Before I knew it, a couple of meetings and a few months later, I took my first active role in the group. I stood in front of a whiteboard, marker in hand, attempting to teach Mandarin to a room full of my classmates. “Try to copy me,” I told the other students, and with slow, emphatic strokes, I drew the characters ni hao (hello) on the board.

When I looked over at my peers’ papers, most had a significantly deformed version of what I had drawn, but a few had copied my strokes pretty well. Regardless of their level of success, though, I saw everyone’s face light up when they learned how to write in a new language.

In recent years, many schools and workplaces have started affinity groups to give students or employees with shared identities (race, heritage, sexuality) a place to get together, have discussions about wants and needs, and feel supported.

Affinity groups provide invaluable spaces for young people to exchange cultures, share unique life experiences, and be themselves.

During the height of the COVID pandemic, a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that hate crimes committed against Asian Americans rose dramatically. As a result, affinity groups like the Asian Student Association have become important spaces for Asian Americans to discuss and confront discrimination in our community.

Still, opponents of affinity groups, including the organization Parents Defending Education, claim that affinity groups for students of color are a form of modern segregation inside school systems. They believe that special treatment of students, solely based on skin color, is harmful and even unconstitutional.

But my personal experience has shown me that these concerns, similar to some of my initial preconceptions, are not the reality. From the jump, the Asian Student Association’s goal was to unite students, not separate them. In the case of my school, non-Asian allies are always invited to join our meetings. As long as they are open-minded, respectful, and interested in learning more about Asian customs, politics, and people, they will continue to be welcome. The goal of the Asian Student Association is to celebrate culture, not confine it.

Junior year, I was chosen by my peers to be the next president of the association. With my new mantle, I’ve strived to make the Asian Student Association an inclusive, diverse space for everybody, regardless of how they identify. Recently, our meetings have included Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Black, white, and Native American students. I aim to provide all students a chance to share their unique cultural perspectives in an Asian-centered space.

We spent November learning about and celebrating Diwali, a major Indian holiday, from one of our Indian teachers. At the end of the month, an Indian student’s parent brought in a variety of Indian food for us to try. The event was a hit and felt particularly meaningful to students because it demonstrated that Asia is not a monolith. (Too often, people only think of China, Korea, and Japan when they think of Asia.) Exploring South Asia felt like a great way to shatter this narrative.

This year, I want the Asian Student Association to make a more significant impact on the school community. I hope to give Asian students more opportunities to get what they want out of the school — lessons on Asian history, recognition of Asian holidays, and tackling Asian discrimination in the community — by facilitating important conversations between students and school administrators. I also want to vastly improve our annual Asian luncheon where we share foods from Japan, India, China, Korea, and other countries with the entire student body.

In the past four years, I’ve learned how affinity groups provide invaluable spaces for young people to exchange cultures, share unique life experiences, and be themselves. They are inherently inclusive because they provide a forum for people of many different backgrounds to find common ground. Since my first meeting, I have felt seen and heard by my peers in a way that I never have before.

The Asian Student Association has shown me that I do not have to choose between being Chinese or being American. Instead, I can embrace being a Chinese American.

Alexander Calafiura is a senior at East Side Community High School in New York City. In his spare time, he enjoys folding origami, reading classic literature, and discussing politics. At school, he is a co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The East Sider.