By Katalin Gyurián Toth
How many of us have dealt with an existential crisis? So many of us are split between two or more versions of ourselves. Jess Fong is an average Asian-American girl from central Jersey who is finding that maybe she doesn’t have to choose between her two cultural identities: American and Asian.
Jess’s Bicultural Upbringing
Although Jess was born in the U.S., she lived with her grandparents in Wuhan, China, until she came back to the United States at the age of four. From that point on, she attended public schools in central New Jersey. She was fortunate to receive bilingual Mandarin-English education in her elementary school in East Brunswick.
Around middle school, she felt the traditional Asian educational pressures: study hard and be top of your class. And she was.
Jess attended Johns Hopkins University where she studied International Studies and Economics. She also studied briefly in Beijing. She currently works as a consultant in Princeton. By giving talks on the topic of education, cultural gaps, and parent-child relationships, Jess has remained active in the Asian community.
Jess says, “Being Asian-American in this country is an incredibly confusing experience because you’re kind of caught in the middle of so many different social dynamics … caught between more mainstream American versus your own traditional Chinese roots, and then layered on top of that are so many socio-political values that lead one way or the other, and you’re not sure which way you want to go.”
On May 20 at the TEDxAsburyPark IDENTITY, her talk entitled Hyphenated-American will explore how she has felt caught between two value systems and how she must come to terms with the fact that her story is confusing, difficult, and perhaps controversial.
When Jess was just in the second grade, with the political backdrop of the Hainan Island incident between China and the United States, something happened in her childhood that she only recently re-examined. She said one of her school friends “sat me down on the playground and said, ‘Can I tell you something? My mom says we can’t be friends anymore because you’re Chinese.’”
That’s all Jess could remember. She was left confused, but her mom and grandma smoothed it over for her and reinforced to her that, “You are still an American, and you are Chinese, but you still have a place in this country.” And even though Jess forgot the details of the playground incident for a while, it certainly left an impression on her, perhaps in part because she never identified as distinctly only Asian.
Fast-forward to Jess as an adult. With the climate that is brought by political elections, her allegiance is questioned. “It just feels like we are always caught in this balance, where you are very allegiant to the U.S., but at the same time you worry about what’s going to happen over there.”
She recounts the words of her mom, who like her grandma works in Chinese education. Her mom said, “Especially for first-generation immigrants, every time there is a presidential election, we don’t just worry about [the issues] domestically, but [also think] ‘how is this guy going to deal with China? How will this play out geopolitically?”
“I don’t think this gets talked about a lot,” Jess says. “This is really confusing and conflicting, but sometimes it’s OK to feel that way. When we get confused about identity, we fall extremely one way or fall extremely the other way, and that just avoids the problem.”
Jess hopes that by talking about the hard-hitting issues head-on, people can move forward and get a better understanding of their own identity. The complicated stories are the ones that often need to be shared and remembered because “if they are forgotten, we risk losing pieces of the full American story.”
Hear Jess’s story and other speakers at the TEDxAsburyPark. Get your tickets today.