At the beginning of my study abroad experience, if you told me I would cook macaroni and cheese four times in two weeks, I would have thought you were joking. But then it happened, in Ireland of all places. I, a Chinese-American girl, was requested to cook this dish for my German housemates and their friends. One of my German housemates was on exchange in the United States for a year in high school and she has been craving macaroni and cheese ever since. When I asked her why she wanted me to make it when it’s such an easy dish, she said that it’s not the same as having an American make it. It’s a dish that isn’t even something that I had growing up, but I started making it because I wanted to eat it and I knew that my parents would never make for me. It’s as foreign to me as it is for my German peers.
Other moments of “Chinese-Americanisms” continued to show up throughout my study abroad experience. For example, when I reached into the utensils drawer that first week, unconsciously searching for some chopsticks after cracking two eggs into a bowl, I was surprised not to find chopsticks. This is to be expected considering I’m in a foreign country and I didn’t bring any chopsticks with me, but it was just something that was so natural to me. In every home I’ve ever lived in, we’ve had chopsticks. Even though I don’t always eat with them, it has a purpose in the kitchen.
I remember the first time I found an Asian supermarket in Limerick, I felt a mixture of excitement and relief to know that I wasn’t the only one in the city who needed Asian ingredients. I hadn’t seen so many of these common household items, like chopsticks and woks, in so long. I found home wandering the dusty aisles of dried spices and frozen dumplings and Asian snacks. The leaning pyramid of rice bags pushed up against the window of the store, Mandarin swirling around within the store, and the worn metal dollies leaning against the metal store racks all composed of the chaotic mess of a typical Asian supermarket. I was even happy to listen to the banter of the two women at the checkout counter. When Mid-Autumn Moon Festival rolled around, as indicated by Facebook posts of how many calories a mooncake is equivalent too, I found myself rushing out the door to the same Asian supermarket in search of a mooncake to share with my housemates. When I brought it back, they asked about what it was and what it symbolized. As I tried to piece together the bits of the folktale that I had previously only half-listened to, I realized that I was clinging to the parts of myself that have remained true for so long and yet now are questioned as Americanism.
Growing up as an immigrant, I’ve always had to straddle the line between American and Chinese culture. To Americans, I seem too Chinese and to Chinese, I seem too American. I grew up in a third-culture of sorts, but one that many of my Asian-American peers identify with as well. Coming to Ireland, I knew that I would be straddling this line again, but an additional layer is that to many I will also be representing America, even though I don’t look the most “American.” In the United States, I have the luxury of being able to blend in because there are so many immigrants, but in Ireland, I clearly don’t look like I belong here.
Before coming to Ireland, I wanted to learn more about other cultures to better develop intercultural competency, but what I didn’t realize was in the process of late night talks about cultural differences, I’ve been discovering more of who I am and how my upbringing has shaped my view of society. Studying abroad in a country that is in the midst of an immigration surge and being with other international students, it’s also been exciting for me to hear immigrant stories of people from other parts of the world. My experience as an immigrant allows me to connect with other immigrants and it has been amazing to hear the similarities in our stories. Even though we may come from different cultures, countries, speak different languages, we all share this immigrant blood, drive, and grit. At the same time, I’m learning to navigate cultural differences, outlooks, and language barriers. These skills that I will develop while studying abroad will benefit me as I become an educator and work with people and students of all different backgrounds. I need to understand my positionality and perspective in order to see how my biases may be playing a role in my teaching and how that affects my students.
Jennifer Liao is an Elementary Education and Applied Psychology & Human Development double major at Boston College and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Limerick in fall 2018. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.