Hailing from the 626
By Eric Lee
Nestled between the sun-kissed San Gabriel mountain range to the north and the Traverse ranges to the South lies my California home, the vast San Gabriel Valley where a diverse population of Asian Americans thrives as a minority-majority enclave within America.
This inland valley, more often referred to as “the 626” for its telephone prefix, is home to the largest Asian American population in the United States. Nearly 525,000 Asian-Americans live in the 626 zone alone — more than the number of Asian Americans in 42 other states combined.
In the 626, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian Americans carry their cultures and tradition unapologetically. Lively streets are filled with the smells of various Asian foods, from Vietnamese Pho (vermicelli noodles in a bone broth), Korean BBQ, to my personal favorite: Boba, chewy brown sugar balls, usually found in milk teas and fruity drinks.
This “Asian bubble” kept me fully immersed in my Taiwanese culture all my life, yet admittedly kept me from understanding the wider demographics that exist beyond my region and, outside of California.
That bubble burst the instant I left home for UC Santa Barbara.
I found myself at one of the most racially diverse campuses in the United States, a far cry from my hometown. Without a boba café on every corner and friends and family, I felt lost. I felt like I had been disconnected from my racial identity and was unsure if I should downplay my heritage and culture to fit in better, or cling to it tighter than ever before.
Finding the right balance between maintaining my identity and embracing cultural diversity was often difficult—but it doesn’t have to be that way—especially at UCSB.
Although my Mandarin speaking abilities got worse the longer I stayed away from home, I found other ways to reconnect with my heritage. Elementary Modern Chinese allowed me to sharpen my Mandarin without family. Soon, a course in Pre-modern Japan and China from the East Asian Cultural Studies department became one of my favorites. Language and culture studies provided me with a new appreciation of my own culture as I learned about the origins of Buddhism and Taoism that shaped Asian values and traditions.
In addition to courses, student groups like the Taiwanese American Student Association provided me a way to participate and celebrate my traditions. The association’s DIY Dumpling Night or its Annual Night Market, reminiscent of the bustling streets of Taiwan filled with food vendors and stores in Taiwan, offered a way to make UCSB a home away from home.
Language and cultural courses and on-campus groups are here for a reason: they provide a valuable social milieu for students of all backgrounds to integrate into the melting-pot that is UCSB. Higher-education institutions like ours embody American ideals: people from various backgrounds coexisting while freely practicing their traditions. As I became more involved with The Taiwanese student association and took Asian-related courses, I finally found a comfortable balance, retaining my strong sense of cultural identity while fully participating as an active member of a diverse campus.
Eric Lee is a third-year UC Santa Barbara student majoring in Communication.