Enjoying school can be hard when you feel like you don't belong. There are many factors that impact how much an individual enjoys school, but one that looms large is the demographics of the school.
Part I: Not Quite the Right Fit

This article was supposed to be easy for me to write. For years, I’ve lamented my high school experience at Mark Keppel High School because of the loneliness and lack of community that I dealt with, and after finally getting a platform to voice my frustration, I was speechless. For the first time, I could no longer find the words to articulate how difficult high school was for me, and in a way, that reflected my privilege as an Asian American attending a predominantly Asian high school.

I had friends. I was a varsity athlete, co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and Vice President of the senior class. Based on that description, I certainly “fit in,” and it’d be wrong of me to not appreciate how blessed I was in high school. But throughout those four years, there wasn’t a moment in which I didn’t wish that I had attended a different high school.

Picture Credit: Timothy Chuman

Growing up heavily involved in the Nikkei community, I was spoiled feeling at home within my circles and being surrounded by people who had similar interests, values, and cultural traditions as me. And for so many young Japanese Americans, that sense of community can set unrealistic standards for the relationships and community that we seek at school. It’s good to be surrounded by diversity and people who are different from us, and in many ways, my life was enriched by being around people from different cultures in high school.

But all I wanted at school was to feel at home like I did when I was with my basketball team or at church - to actually fit in. I never reached that point, and for me and many other students, the demographics of our campus can pose an impediment that can negatively impact our school experience.

Part II: Campus Environment Perspectives

I mentioned earlier that I was fortunate enough to attend a predominantly Asian school because many, like Alison Kochiyama, do not have the same privilege. In the 1970s, Kochiyama’s family moved from Gardena to Covina to be closer to relatives and to experience life outside of Gardena. She was met with animosity, as neighbors and peers alike were harsh and unwelcoming.

“I attended grades six, seven, and eight in Covina. Asian Americans were a minority, so my family always felt very aware of our ‘Asianness,'” Kochiyama said. “This was where I experienced blatant racism for the first time, and it was a life-changing period for my parents and my older brother too.”

From being asked where she learned to speak English so well, to being called a “chink” and asked if she wanted to buy a bag of rice, to even a police officer who lived across the street constantly glaring at her family, peppering them with racial epithets, and telling them to “go back to Japan,” Kochiyama saw it all in her three years in Covina. She’d finally had enough, however, after an experience in her Minorities in America class when the students had to give a presentation tracing back their family history in the U.S. After explaining to the class that she was born in Chicago and that her family had lived in America for four generations, she had a conversation with a classmate that marked the end of the line.

“She asked, ‘Were you born in Japan?’ Replying no, [she] then asked, ‘So how are you Japanese? Oh, I know! After you were born, then your parents went back to Japan and came back here!’”

“I found out through the same exercise that she was of second generation with her parents immigrating here from France, but somehow I was left feeling more like a foreigner,” Kochiyama recounted. “It was comments like these that I often couldn't react to, because I was just dumbfounded and in disbelief from the outlandish remarks people were making.”

The experiences that Kochiyama had to endure are sickening, and while the outright racism that she faced may not be as prominent today, the reality is that for people of color, nothing can change the fact that we are seen as outsiders just because of the way that we look. There are plenty of factors that dictate an individual’s experience at school, and though microaggressions may not be an issue for all Asian Americans, they can potentially impact students in negative ways.

Thus, students like Emi Takemoto, a second-year at the University of California, Irvine, share an appreciation for attending a university where she isn’t in the minority. With the third largest enrollment of Asian students in the country, UCI is known for being a predominantly Asian school, and Takemoto has seen the positive effects of the demographics on her overall experience.

“The one thing that I really noticed is that I was immediately comfortable with the community that UCI has because it is predominantly Asian,” Takemoto admitted. “Just the main fact of being comfortable, to put it simply, was one less thing that I had to worry about with having to explore my interests and put myself out there.”

An environment like that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good time for students, but without having to worry about facing ridicule, they have more leeway to be free, have fun, and even focus on ethnic identity development at school, a task that can be more challenging at predominantly white schools. From being able to take Japanese in high school, to being involved in Tomo No Kai, UCI’s Japanese American cultural club, having the opportunity to tap into her Asian American identity has been incredibly beneficial, but it all starts with the people she is surrounded by.

Picture Credit: Emi Takemoto

“Being able to be comfortable allowed me to explore my interests or different things on campus without being intimidated or feeling like I didn’t belong because the people around me look like me and represent who I am,” said Takemoto.

The UCI environment enables Takemoto to feel welcomed, to feel at home, which unfortunately is something that Kochiyama never felt in Covina. After three years of feeling like they never belonged, her family moved back to Gardena. However, that sense of not belonging isn’t confined to Asian Americans at predominantly white schools; it can even occur at predominantly Asian schools, just like it did for me.

Part III: Home is Subjective

Home is subjective. As previously mentioned, for me that looks like the Japanese American community. The food, my involvements, but most importantly, the people and the camaraderie create an incomparable environment that I can’t live without.

During high school, home could have become something else for me. Whether it was finding my circle in baseball, journalism, ASB, or even just taking solace in the friendships that I had, most people would be satisfied with community in other places. Personally, there simply wasn’t an adequate substitute that made me feel like I belonged, so I trudged through high school wishing I could have gone somewhere else.

Now, my dilemma was different from Kochiyama’s because at my high school, Mark Keppel, 71.6% of the student body is of Asian descent. Most of my “close” friends were in fact Asian, but with only one of them being Japanese, the drop-off from the JA community that I experienced was severe, leaving me lonely and discontent.

It wasn’t that my friends were bad people or that they weren’t cool enough for me; there was just a disconnect that I felt with them that clouded my relationships all throughout high school. With different cultural values, mannerisms, traditions, and ultimately, my preference to be with people who understood me, I simply didn’t mesh with those around me.

“Even at Alhambra, where the main two minority groups are Chinese and Vietnamese, it’s hard when you don’t really see other JAs and be able to connect to them,” said Takemoto of her high school experience.

Take, for example, North Torrance High School. Because it is located in an area heavily populated by Japanese Americans, the JA experience and community becomes embedded in its school culture.

“One of the things that was really cool, I wasn’t even that involved in Japanese club, but just hanging out with my friends after school, it was basically like being in Japanese club because we were going to get ramen or sushi and our parents are making us shabu shabu, that was normal,” Nick Kaneshiro, North Torrance alumni, reminisced. “It was super special, and as much as it’s nice to have friends from different cultures, it feels different, it feels like family being with other Japanese Americans. I’m definitely super thankful that I had that community.”

Picture Credit: Nick Kaneshiro

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all blueprint for a good experience in high school, but with the community that North has, supplemented by opportunities for people to explore their Asian American identity, I can’t help but think that I would’ve enjoyed myself a lot more at a school like that. With large, active cultural clubs, a spirited multicultural week, and even a Japanese exchange program with Kashiwa, their sister city in Japan, students have many opportunities to delve into ethnic identity development at school.

“It was super helpful, one, knowing a little more about my culture, but also just being able to be proud. It was cool because a lot of people don’t have that experience, so I’m really thankful for North,” said Kaneshiro.

The truth is, I did benefit from being around people from different ethnic backgrounds in high school. I may not have found my place in that environment, but not being around Japanese Americans allowed me to explore other cultures and make intercultural connections. This may not have been the case if I attended a school like North because as nice as it would’ve been to be surrounded by people like me, the temptation to stay within my bubble could’ve been detrimental to my ability to interact with others from different ethnicities.

Our country is a melting pot of cultures, and we don’t want to advocate for exclusive student bodies at schools. We need to be united and encourage inclusivity because our differences are what make us so special. However, there is simply comfort in being around people who understand and can relate to you.

Part IV: Demographics Matter

Culture isn’t the only avenue for students to find their “home,” but we all want to have that sense of belonging at school, and for me and perhaps others, that can be found in being surrounded by people with the same cultural background as you.

“Having cultural similarities and receiving positive affirmations of such, like it's okay to eat omusubi and takuan for your school lunch, plays a large role in forming one's cultural identity and ethnic pride,” Kochiyama said. “That in turn can be shared with other cultures to hopefully truly build communities with an ethnically diverse balance and where all races and cultures are respected and celebrated.”

I will never know how my high school experience would’ve changed if I had attended a school like North Torrance, but the point is that the demographics of an individual’s school can seriously impact their experience, for better or worse. At the end of the day, I didn't quite find my “home” at school, but I did benefit from my extracurriculars in the Japanese American community. I couldn’t always control my circumstances at school, but I felt better knowing I always had a home waiting for me when it was over.

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