“We have all these people who have come before us, and we carry that into who we are.” Our Year of the Tiger series continues.

The Year of the Tiger launched with this Lunar New Year is a time of pride and reflection for Princeton’s vibrant Asian and Asian American community. Throughout the year, we elevate the voices of faculty, staff, students, alumni and scholars in a series of thoughtful interviews exploring questions of identity, pride, hope, lived experience of anti-Asian racism and meaningful action allies can take. .

While in undergrad, Lu performed with Triple 8, the East Asian American student dance ensemble at Princeton.

We continue the series with Serena Lu, from the Class of 2020, who now works as a paralegal in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office at the Bureau of Major Economic Crimes through a Princeton AlumniCorps 55 Project Scholarship.

Lu is also an actor and dancer. She recently returned to competitive rhythmic gymnastics – she trained with the hope of competing in the Olympics in Princeton, but had retired in her sophomore year. She attended the Class of 2020 in-person promotion on May 18 with her parents.

How do you identify yourself?

I am Chinese American. My parents are from China, my mother from the north in an area called Harbin, my father from the south, I don’t know where, what he will be upset to learn. They both went to Peking University and moved here about 30 years ago. My sister and I were born here and raised in Blaine, Minnesota.

When I think of identity, my cultural identity is not the first thing that comes to mind. I felt I had to create other identities that allowed people to develop an image of me outside of what I looked like: classical pianist, competitive rhythmic gymnast, athlete. These things established legitimacy. I experienced a huge loss of identity and deep grief when I retired from rhythmic gymnastics in 2018.

I refused to speak Chinese growing up, even though my parents spoke Chinese at home. I had been embarrassed that my parents had an accent because the kids at school were mean. I remember in third grade we were doing a verbal spelling exercise and I was spelling this word. My dad pronounces the letter H as “etch” instead of “aitch”. I pronounced it “etch” and everyone started laughing. Our desks had tops that lifted up so you could put your things on them – I refused to go out for recess. I just put my head in my office.

My parents would pack my lunch for school and it was dumplings or something and the kids would be like, “Ew, what’s that?” I wanted more than anything to have a school lunch in the cafeteria, even though I loved what my parents cooked. I was going to school and I thought I should be as un-Asian as possible.

Serena Lu '20 with her father and with her mother

Lu returned to campus for the in-person launch of the Class of 2020 with her father, Sean Lu (left), and mother, Dongfang Zhao.

Part of my parents’ identity to us was discipline – a lot of hard work, humility, and focus. These are essential skills that I always rely on. My parents are very quiet people and don’t talk about their sacrifices, but I know. I think they wanted my sister and I to grow up understanding what it’s like to work hard and dedicate yourself to something.

We moved to New York in 2010 so my sister and I could get gymnastics training. Soon after, we both made the national team. I really identified as a United States national team athlete. I was extremely proud of it, not only because it’s such a hard thing to do, but also because I never wanted anything more than to compete knowing that I was representing America. I never once thought, “I’m a Chinese American from the United States,” I was just like, “I’m American. I represent this country.”

What makes you proud to be an Asian American?

Serena Lu '20 competes as a rhythmic gymnast

Lu, pictured here at the 2015 US National Gymnastics Championships, recently returned to competitive rhythmic gymnastics – she trained for the Olympics in Princeton but retired as a sophomore

Sometimes it’s really hard to be proud because, honestly, I’m ashamed that I tried so hard to get away from that identity. I’m trying to work on being comfortable identifying myself that way.

Before I can be proud, I think there has to be a discussion between me and my parents, my sister and my friends. Everyone is so quiet about the fear we feel right now as Asian Americans. With my parents, we don’t talk about a lot of things because that’s not really the thing we do. We need to heal as part of the larger community, come to terms with whatever is going on and just be able to talk about it.

We’re more comfortable showing how much we care than talking about what’s going on. For example, I know that my parents are afraid for me in this climate of anti-Asian violence. My dad won’t let me take the subway at night. He drives me to the gym every day, six days a week, which is so out of his way. He lives in Staten Island and I work in Manhattan and my gym is in Brooklyn. I worry about my parents the same way because it’s so scary to know that anything can happen, it’s so random. We need to start talking about our fear.

What can allies and others do to counter Asian-American racism?

I’m at that age where I spend most of my time with my friends. I think it’s as simple — and it’s not as simple — as listening. I would say, just listen to the fears and concerns your Asian American friends may have about certain topics. Understand that it is difficult for them to express these things and really try to hear them when they do. Many of my Asian American friends don’t feel like they have people to talk to about these issues or don’t feel like they are heard when they do.

Recently I had a conversation with some of my friends about the fear of taking the subway and walking around at night in Manhattan. It’s really terrifying. The first step is to listen and verify your friends who are scared. Many of us didn’t grow up in environments where you can be comfortable just saying you’re scared. I always feel like I’m taking someone’s time if I do this, or someone’s going to think I’m doing all this for myself. Just be there as a listener and try to understand. Before anything can be done, we must all come to this understanding.

Wanting to express concern for your Asian American friends, the people you care about, goes a long way. It’s not indiscreet. It shows that you care about yourself and want to know how you feel. Also, keep an open mind about the things you learn.

And get this: Not all Asians are the same. We all go through different things. Even with my Chinese-American friends, many of our families are different. Go beyond, “I like to eat this food. So then, I understand what it is.” Get over the fact that you can enjoy certain parts of the culture – music, movies, shows. Getting beyond that surface-level distinction is really important. I’m glad that Asian American art and media is front and center, but that’s where the real understanding begins.

Another thing that I think is really helpful is reading books and listening to podcasts from Asian people about their experience. I think these are great resources. I keep discovering new AAPI artists to support.

Some books I would recommend are “All You Can Ever Know” by Nicole Chung, “An Inconvenient Minority” by Kenny Xu, “Days of Distraction” by Alexandra Chang, “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong, “Sigh, Gone” by Phuc Tran and “The Loneliest Americans” by Jay Caspian Kang.

Asian Enough,” “Dear Asian Americans,” and “Self Evident: Asian American Stories” are three powerful podcasts.

Are there any examples of what you are involved in to counter Asian American racism that empowers you?

For me, the most important thing is my involvement in the arts, being in performance spaces where people historically didn’t want you to be.

I was recently in a student film by someone at NYU film school. This is a story about the meaning of family. It’s a personal yet universal story, told through the lens of two Asian American characters. The story is what’s in the foreground – not the fact that the characters are Asian American, although there are elements in the film that highlight the fact that they grew up in that culture. These are the stories that I hope to see become more commonplace.

I’m also a member of the Movement’s new headquarters, which is striving to create a company of dancers that looks like what New York looks like. I think it’s an important feeling.

Back in competitive rhythmic gymnastics has been a journey to find ways of expression related to my Asian American identity. Before I retired, I never really thought about what I could say with my routines. Now I work with Anthony Chen ’20, a friend I made in Triple 8, the East Asian American dance ensemble at Princeton. He helped me design my Asian art-oriented tape routine and helped me create the soundtrack, a medley of music from the 2002 martial arts film “Hero.”

My routine is in three parts in homage to “Hero”, a tale of three famous assassins and how the protagonist overcomes them. Each part highlights a different style of movement, which I learned while researching Chinese dance and martial arts. It’s nice to have that intentionality and show people for the first time that this is who I am. Maybe I wasn’t so proud of it before, but now I am.

My drama teacher always instills in his students that we are like vessels to our past. He says it’s very important for us to know where we come from and to understand that we have all these people who came before us and we carry that in who we are.

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Read previous conversations with Yibin Kang, Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology;Stephen Kim, Associate Director of the Princeton University Art Museum; andYi-Ching Ong, director of Princeton’s Service Focus program.

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