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What are you?

Written By: Cindy Lee on February 13, 2009 3 Comments

When I lived in Cleveland, I was often asked, “What are you?”  Other variants of the question were, of course, “What’s your nationality?” and, “Where are you from?”  The subtext of the queries was, “You look different.  You’re yellow; not white or black.  What kind of yellow are you?”

These questions were difficult for me to answer–should I be technically correct but pragmatically uninformative?  “I’m a human being.  I’m American.  I’m from Cleveland.”  (Later, in middle school, I thought I was quite witty in saying I was from the birth canal.)  Should I give them what they were looking for and bespeak the heritage that was so fundamentally a part of me?  “I’m Taiwanese.”  Would they even know where Taiwan was?

I must admit that I’m a bit rusty in answering this kind of question, having moved to the Bay Area, and you know, the world having advanced a bit since then.  Oddly enough, my recent trip to France reminded me a lot of the Midwest of my childhood–“D’où êtes-vous?”  “Les états-unis.”  “Originalement?”  Apparently, I’m more “diverse” in Paris than I am in Berkeley.  Even in Berkeley, in this comfortable cocoon of diversity (debatable, but for a different time), I get pretty preposterous queries about diversity.

I have to show you this ridiculous survey I’m answering.  The career center at school sent out an email asking us to participate, but I don’t think they’re the ones who wrote it; it is probably some sort of company that does recruitment.  So, here’s a question I was asked (screenshot):


Why yes, I do have an age.  Is it a diverse age?  HOW CAN ANY AGE BE DIVERSE!?  If a workplace has a wide range of workers, then there exists a diverse age range in that workplace.  So, these are the ones that I find problematic (in that everyone has one; it’s just a matter of whether your personal ___ is different from everyone else’s ___):

  • age
  • education
  • ethnicity
  • gender
  • life experience
  • nationality
  • personality (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA)
  • sexual orientation (GLBT?  Who calls it GLBT?  I’ve always seen it LGBT; I guess that’s just an example of the diversity of my experience in this matter.  Moreover, since when is heterosexual–but hopefully not overly heteronormative–not a sexual orientation?)
  • socioeconomic background
  • work function
  • work style

I have a love/hate relationship with, “What makes you MORE DIVERSE THAN EVERYONE ELSE?” type questions.  Because, really?  More diverse?  Diversity comes from a collective.  I am only diverse if I have a variety of things within myself *that’s what she said*.  It reminds me of the “diversity workshop” portion of RA training when I worked for CTD.  We spent a couple hours listening to someone teach us about diversity.  What did we learn?  That the presenter was from Brazil, but she was Italian. In addition, “Hispanic is offensive, because not everyone speaks Spanish.  Latino or Latina is preferred.”  Really productive, wouldn’t you say?  The whole experience was offensive!  I ought to have stood up and had a diversity competition with her.  “You’re of Italian descent?  Well, I’m of Taiwanese descent.  You’re from Brazil?  Well, I’m from Cleveland.  You live in Chicago?  Well, I live in the Bay Area.”  Does it make me more diverse that I grew up in an area where most people didn’t share my skin color?  Does it make me more diverse that I now live in an area where there are a lot of people with different skin colors?  Maybe; maybe not.  It’s more how those (and other) experiences have shaped me.  I’ve led diversity workshops, and let me tell you, they can be a lot more effective than the drivel to which Northwestern employees are apparently subjected.  (Sorry for the convoluted prepositions.)

Speaking of Northwestern, let me show you my “diversity statement” for their application.


I am gratified to be asked about diversity because exposure to and interaction with a wide variety of people and ideas have so strongly shaped the person that I am today. There are, of course, the checkboxes I fill in on demographics forms. My parents are immigrants, and I grew up in a Midwestern town that did not abound in Asian faces. We later moved to a San Francisco Bay Area suburb whose ethnic and religious composition differed greatly from my hometown. It’s a little fun to defy expectations; Californians marvel at “the Taiwanese girl from Ohio,” and my Midwestern friends are often shocked by the number of Mormons now in my social circle. Neither my ethnicity nor their religion will be the first characteristics listed for our respective regions, but the reality of modern America is that this isn’t completely preposterous.

Tonight, I joined my friend’s family for a Hanukkah dinner. I haven’t been able to share in this tradition since leaving Cleveland, so it was delightful (and delicious) to partake of the latkes. Less ephemeral than the latkes, however, were our cultural revelations. We discussed how, when a friend is from a different background, it can be hard to parse whether our habits are due to personality quirks or cultural influences. I realized that my personal culture is shaped by all the people I’ve met, not just based on my parents’ nation of origin or my predilection for Black Forest Cake. My cognition is enhanced by my experiences, which will in turn contribute to the diversity at Northwestern.

My undergraduate experience has been at a public university, and we pride ourselves on tolerance and bringing together a wide range of backgrounds, but we still lag in representing California’s statewide population. I’ve met people who have not had as straightforward a path in science as I have had. I’ve been able to develop a passion for research because people encouraged me and my high school had the resources for advanced lab activities. Others were shoveled through under-funded programs or shied away from research because of media portrayals. People have every right to mistrust biotechnology, but it should not be due to inaccessibility or bizarre depictions of Frankenfood.

I bring a linguist’s perspective to solving problems; I bring a culturally-aware background to a diverse working environment; I bring passion for scientific research and equity in education. These are all qualities that I’ll encounter at Northwestern, so it is vital that I be able to learn and grow from the diversity that the campus has fostered.


So, here are my questions for you.  Which checkboxes from above would you mark?  (You can pick the problematic ones if you want; but explain!)  Which criteria do you think are important for a diverse workplace, academic setting, or life?

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3 Responses to “What are you?”

  1. Youki on: 13 February 2009 at 3:08 am

    hi Cindy! hope it’s ok, I went in and linked the original image source in your post, because it’s kinda small to read.

    heh that’s a hilarious survey. I have no idea what I’d select cause I don’t know what job it’s for. I guess ethnicity (I’m Japanese) and religion (Buddhist). I’m married but I don’t know if that makes me diverse. I’d love to select “life experience” and just leave it blank.

    reminds me of this great Dilbert:



  2. daveski on: 25 February 2009 at 8:21 am

    This great. I wonder, can I use this post for a class I’m a GSI for? Prof. Kramsch’s Language & Power class, and we’re coming right up on discussions about how we get classified and learn to classify ourselves…

  3. Cindy on: 25 February 2009 at 8:38 am

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