Editor’s note: This blog, written by: Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, is the third of a four-part blog series. This piece features the narrative of a Chinese American youth finding balance between her parents expecting her to attend college immediately upon graduation and her teachers encouraging her to first master independent living and blindness skills.
Yu Choy Sum is a leafy green, Chinese vegetable that my family and I regularly eat for dinner. It is a familiar and comforting food item, yet I had not previously paid much attention to how it ended up cooked on the family dinner table, as my mother typically handled all of the grocery shopping and food preparation in my home while I was growing up.
Throughout my childhood, education was a cornerstone in our family; during dinner, my parents, without fail, would ask my brother and I about school and our grades. Although they had never gone to college, they strongly believed in the importance of academics for future success.
I compare my transition to my relationship with Yu Choy Sum, the staple component of dinner, to the value of education and to some degree the end goal of graduating from college. That goal is very familiar to me, however, like eating Yu Choy Sum, I had little understanding of the specifics around how I would get there. How would I afford college? Who could I speak with and what should I consider when choosing a school?
Values and Goals
Phase one of my transition journey began with clearly identifying and committing to my values and goals.
In the year 2000, my family and I emigrated from Hong Kong in search of better opportunities, as there was limited access to education for blind or low vision individuals. Respecting elders and being part of the family unit are important concepts within the Chinese community. Therefore, appreciating my parents’ sacrifice coupled with their emphasis on going to college planted the seed for education early on.
As I entered my senior year of high school, our dinner conversations would often revolve around affording college and about which schools to apply. The family pressure to succeed academically, although originating from positive intentions, conflicted with messages from school professionals, making me question my values early on. I would often be discouraged from transitioning directly to college after high school; statements such as “You will not graduate; look at the statistics” would be frequently brought up in conversation as the professionals believed first acquiring independent living and blindness skills is a crucial component of transition.
I did not fully comprehend at the time, but this misalignment of values in transition planning was in conflict with the narrow definition of success that is espoused by the model minority myth, which is the stereotype that an Asian American is expected to excel in school performance, attend a prestigious university, be passive, and attain career success in science or math fields.
Both of my identities, (1) a Chinese American daughter and (2) a blind high school student in the United States, were engaged in battle where I struggled to find balance among these differing expectations. Ultimately, this tension made the first part of my transition more difficult, where my decision to value and attend college directly after high school meant that I had less support initially from professionals, which disrupted our trust.
The second phase was learning to do my research and consult with my community and mentors. Just like I had to learn strategies on how to pick the most fresh and tender produce for my meals, I had to narrow down my list of colleges by doing in-depth research.
I spoke with other blind and low vision folks and called all the disability services offices at universities of interest to evaluate pros and cons; I learned that transportation systems around the college was also a characteristic to consider because I would not only study, but also have to live, work, travel, and socialize around the campus.
With that said, being blind, I felt like it was not enough to solely investigate through conversations. I yearned to visit the campuses to get a true understanding of the campus environment. I thought about visiting my top two choices, UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley, to help me decide through informed choice.
When I shared this over a memorable dinner with my parents, my mother said “Why don’t you go to UCLA, it is close to home. We can help with laundry and bring you soup if you get sick, besides, Berkeley is so far; how can we drive over to visit?” I responded, gesturing to the plate of Yu Choy Sum on the table, “I believe the process of selecting between my top choices is similar to learning how to pick fresh ingredients that nourish your health. I would like to explore Berkeley, visit the campus, and determine based on informed research and experience whether it is suitable for me. Someday in the near future, I may have my own family and have to go to the grocery store and select fresh Yu Choy Sum myself, just like what you did for us. I can’t simply expect it to be cooked and on the table for me; I would like to learn the skills to contribute back to the family unit. Unlike bad produce, if I committed to a school that was not suitable for me, that will be several years of time that will affect my future.” My comparison really stuck with my parents and, despite their fears of having to drive six plus hours to Northern California, my family took a road trip to the Bay Area, which ultimately resulted in my decision to go to Berkeley.
To this day, I credit the family staple, Yu Choy Sum, as the bridge that supported the communication between my family and I to help us all realize the process of selecting a suitable college and to identify the different tools necessary to get there.
As I continue to grow and transition in my current life, I have entered phase three, expanding my goals and adding new food staples to my dinner table.
My experience at UC Berkeley set a solid foundation for me to venture out of my comfort zone and to continue my career development. New dinner staples (such as pork chops and Brussels sprouts) have been added to my meal; this represents the new lived experiences I have added to my transition journey, which I bring home and share with my family on a regular basis.
After graduation from Berkeley, some of my most memorable experiences have been interning in Washington DC and traveling to Florida and Minneapolis to present at national conferences. I permanently reside in the Bay Area and most recently worked as a Transition Program Manager at Lighthouse in San Francisco. I am now a Coordinator to the newly launched Disability Cultural Community Center at UC Berkeley seeking to empower the next generation of young adults and their families with navigating their transition journeys at their respective dinner tables.