It was a pleasure to spend some time with Han (Amber) Wang, currently a college junior, and to talk with her about her journey both to, and within, this country.

Amber, as she is known in this town, came to the States as a four-year-old in 2002 from Jilin Province in China. Over the last seven years, she has worked with the elderly and the disabled, been elected to the National Honor Society, taken all AP courses in her senior years and competed for three years in varsity rowing on the Charles. Looking back on her time in Winchester, she sees herself as having acted the part of the so-called ‘model minority’ immigrant. As she puts it, “I represented Winchester in track and field races, regattas, musical auditions, marching band, art shows and competitions and so forth only to still feel like an outsider at all stages.”

Perhaps this is less true for her now as she aims toward a future that will include law school and a life devoted to assisting all people of color.

Today, as a student at New York University, she has continued to strive, as a photographer, a freelance writer, a systems intern and more, working most weeks at three different jobs even as she keeps up with the requirements of a five-course-per-semester academic schedule.

We will move now to a Question-and-Answer format, but before we do, a last note: Han (Amber) wishes to say at the outset that her words, thoughts and actions do not reflect those of her parents or her younger brother and asks that they not be contacted in relation to them.

Tell us about your personal background and the circumstances that led your family (or you) to leave your birthplace and immigrate to America. How did you end up settling in Winchester?

“Because of the lack of economic opportunity in the rural region where we lived, my parents had wanted to come here for a while, but it costs money to apply for the visa, and that’s money you don’t get back if the government rejects you. Luckily, we were doing this at a time when emigrating was easier than it is now. My dad came first, and a year later my mom and I followed. (Ten years after I was born, my little brother came along, a U.S. citizen from birth.) At first, my parents and I lived with family north of Boston, in Westford, and then on the South Shore, in Quincy. Finally, in 2011, they were able to move us to Winchester, where they had heard the schools were excellent.

“In Quincy we lived at first in a small room right next to where I would go to elementary school. The room was shaped like a cube, rented out by the owner of the house to several different families, each occupying a room of their own. I shared a bed with my parents, and we shared the kitchen and bathroom with other families. After a couple of years, we moved into a bigger room of the house with an annex, where I would finally get a closed door. The owner of the house then suddenly had to evict us due to being found out of illegally constructing on his land. We then moved to an apartment with two small rooms, further from my elementary school, but closer to my ‘after school,’ a program many Chinese kids went to from the time regular school ended to around 6PM. We would live there for the remainder of my elementary schooling and the birth of my brother before coming to Winchester.”

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As a newer member of American society, were there any challenges that you or your family faced?

“There were many challenges for us. Learning to speak and understand English can be very difficult for natives of China. I didn’t have a problem because young children pick up languages quickly but it’s harder for adults. I understand that over a certain age, although adults can become very fluent in English, they will never lose their accents. My parents still ask me to speak on the phone to customer representatives or restaurants. A second challenge I know they faced arose from the fact that their degrees were not accepted here. They were trained as mechanical engineers but could not work in this field in the States. They had to take turns going to school at night.

“We also had to change our names and I’m still attempting to reconcile with that today. The name Ellen was given to me when I immigrated to the United States, a name picked out by my mother, probably something she heard somewhere in our first year with my aunt’s family. My aunt told us that picking an American name was what Chinese people did here. She is now Tracy, some kind of variation of her real, Chinese, name, which has the same first syllable sound and means a kind of large emerald gemstone. My uncle is now Robert, whereas his Chinese name means ‘an eastern treasure.’ When we moved here after elementary school, I changed my name to Amber. I wanted to change from a frumpy, kinda chubby kid with a middle-aged woman’s name to Amber, someone I’d see in a magazine or on television, flawless, sexy, cool and I was really excited about the change. I practiced my signature, alerted my new school, and labeled all my supplies with this new ‘Amber.’

“A particular event that I myself remember during my first years in Winchester was being invited to a ‘ladybug-themed tea party.’ I had no idea what it was or any inkling of what themed parties were. I had nothing relating to ladybugs in my clothes or accessories and ended up bringing a miniature glass sculpture of a ladybug, about the size of my pinky, that I had found in a classroom once. Customs are one of the hardest and most anxiety-inducing things to learn about a new country.”

Moving through the grades here in Winchester did you face any particular challenges?

“I would say that the entire experience was a challenge from the start. I was content with my life in Quincy and the friendships I’d made there. I often think about what would have happened if I stayed there, if my mother never took a higher paying job and if we never moved to this rich, white, conservative town. In Quincy, I went anywhere I wanted; my friends and I hiked and biked six or seven miles to Chinese supermarkets when we were bored, or escaped to the school playground on a sunny day. In Winchester, I needed a car to go anywhere remotely close to my home; no one walked and if you did, you would be stared at by people in cars. In Quincy, I walked all the way home, about two or three miles, and stopped at the corner store with Jackie Calero. We took our saved-up quarters and dimes and nickels to buy candy. Ring Pops were extra expensive at one dollar a piece and were saved for special occasions. In Winchester, my friends and I circled downtown after school, a common trait of middle school students. You had to have enough money to buy a Frappuccino.

“I tried so hard to fit in with kids at Winchester schools. In time I found myself losing sight of my identity and conforming to whiteness.

“I always go back to key moments in my trauma, events that play out over and over in my head every once in a while. One in particular surrounding my schooling was a 7th grade genetics project. We were to figure out the ‘genes’ of our theoretical baby by doing coin tosses on different features. I was paired up with a boy from my grade, often regarded as a class clown, and as soon as I sat down next to him to discuss, he said he didn’t want our baby to have small eyes. That night, I spent hours on YouTube looking up different makeup tutorials to make my eyes bigger and on the morning of that class activity, I did everything in my power to make my eyes more European. When we finally sat down to do our project, this boy suggested that we didn’t toss the coin at all and that he would choose the baby’s features by himself — blue eyes, blonde hair. I feel that while many kids go through bullying and school pressures, marginalized students have a layer of oppression along with them.

“Along with a pressure of being a high performing student at a high performing school, this ‘model minority’ myth targets many Chinese students, pressuring them to rise above and beyond because that is what is expected of them. I’ve known many kids that go through the school, crushed by pressures and expectations and the fact that mental health is rarely talked about in immigrant communities and grade school environments — I’ve lost a close friend who I often regarded as a sister because we chose to go at it alone instead of with each other.”

What do you think are challenges that current immigrants to Winchester face?

“Among a plethora of issues such as financial, social, political, etc., immigrants are often fetishized and expected to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and succeed with no help; but then find themselves paraded around when they do succeed as if everyone can do it. I also don’t think any immigrant below a certain tax bracket would be able to live in Winchester at the moment. Additionally, our schools are filled with children who are not welcoming to immigrants. I understand that certain students are fighting for changes to schools, but an overwhelming amount of the student population during the time I attended the Winchester Public Schools adhered to a cis-normative, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist model of society. For example, many students follow the conservative political beliefs of their parents, resulting in clashes on social media about issues regarding immigration laws, refugees, border walls, etc., that certainly do not make others feel welcome.

“It is also my opinion that people of different races and ethnicities are not well regarded well in this town unless they conform to the status of whites within Winchester. Black and brown bodies find themselves in environments where white kids feel it’s okay to say the ‘n’ word, where they have to appease white sentiments to gain connections and build false relationships with promises of future prospects only for them to fall through. There is obviously not a central Afro-Asian experience in towns like Winchester, but there is a common theme of being expected to conform yet never actually being accepted.

What, if anything, can residents of Winchester (non-immigrant or otherwise) do to reduce these challenges and/or make our town more welcoming?

“The Chinese Association (I’m not sure of its name) does a good job in forming communities of people of color and marginalized people and allowing them to say their peace within a white-centric town. More groups like these for other races and ethnicities would certainly help in educating others. and reducing discrimination. I would say educate your children without bias and expose them to real world issues that span beyond the gates of Winchester. Be open to giving up your place of power in order to uplift folks of different backgrounds.”

Do you think being a woman who emigrated has impacted how people view you?
“Being raised as a woman, I felt the constant pressure to grow up quicker and as a woman of color, pressure to tolerate things being done to you that wouldn’t fly for others. I have been both fetishized and rejected as a Chinese woman, being told that I was ‘pretty for an Asian girl’ or that they were ‘into Asian girls.’ You deal with men not taking you seriously and white men especially putting you down racially and sexually. I feel that because my family succeeded in some random chance of the universe, I am now the model of how every immigrant woman should be. As I see it, I am here to self-actualize and to support and assist any marginalized group of people.”

Since this is a month honoring women, who is one woman who has inspired you and why?

This might be a cliched answer, but I recently heard Angela Davis speak and I would say that among numerous non-men, she is one that inspires me quite a lot. There’s a way in which she uses her words and her position to go against systemic issues and make you feel validated for having strong opinions. I value her stances in the following issues: abolishing police, troops, the prison industrial complex, and ICE, opening borders, free healthcare and education, free Palestine, anti-capitalism, among many, many others that I would like to announce. Also, I am continuously inspired by all queer, trans, non-men, and immigrant, and of people of color every day.

Do you have any advice to share with other young women who immigrated to Winchester and may be reading this?

Don’t let some white boy tell you how to act, dress, or speak. Don’t let some guidance counselor tell you what ‘career path’ to take or what your life should be mapped out as. Tell your school administration you don’t want ‘Bloods vs. Crips’ Day anymore. Take photos of nude bodies for your art installation, walk down the promenade with your gender non-conforming partner, refuse to adhere to white-centric, patriarchal, heteronormative systems, form book groups with others in your university years . Chaired UCLA History Professor Robin Kelley writes that “granting the university so much authority over reading choices and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power comes at a cost to students of color who come to see the curriculum as an oppressor that delimits their interrogation of the world.” I agree. Merely celebrating tolerance and diversity in the university is not enough. Students, and women especially, should take advantage of what is given but then go further: tear down unjust power structures and replace them with just ones. In a place where there is no space for you, make your own or find another one.

I look at my life now. Try to picture it as yours. You leave for college. You grow out your natural hair from the light, ashy brown dye that always turned brassy. You tattoo your family name or zodiac animal onto your body. You find others like you who speak the same language in so many words. You start wearing winged eyeliner again because you like the way that it elongates your almond eyes…. I’m still working out a lot of the kinks, but in the end, I know my goal isn’t to choose or even negotiate these two identities, but to find something entirely different. There is no wrong option.

Do you have any last thoughts as we wind up here and you are coming ever closer to your final year of college?

By now I’ve lived more than 21 years on this planet and my present seems to still be as scattered as the past. I live in an overpriced Bushwick apartment meant for well-off college students who still can’t afford to live in the city itself. I buy my own groceries, have my own bills, and water my own plants which I dutifully, as an adult, bought for my room. How fortunate I must be to be able to sustain myself financially in a neighborhood in the middle of gentrification, go to an amazing university that was built from oppression and eat out at amazing, overpriced restaurants. It seems like to me that ‘making it’ in America meant that you went from the oppressed to the oppressors. Even though white people may not see you as much, you play the part and act how you’re supposed to act because the alternative would be to return to where you came from and play your previous role.

On an episode of Saturday Night Live, comedian Michael Che said that even though he loved the ‘hood’ he would never willingly move back into it. I find myself mirroring his thoughts and wondering what happened to those who didn’t make it out; I feel guilt and anger at leaving my extended family in China and my comfort and friends in Quincy. I feel resentment and sadness about my emotional trauma and mental illnesses and about being unable to care more for my brother. In a way, the past never stops following you around in the present, or the future; instead, it manifests itself as your memories, leaving it up to you to choose how you deal with it. However, I have no doubt that moving to America, being brought up as the ‘other,’ and attempting to survive every day was the best choice my parents could have made, both for them and the futures of me and my brother.