Cover Story: Shaping Identity

In elementary school, I was told to say the pledge of allegiance every morning. So with my hand over my heart, I recited the verses as I gazed up at the American flag.
While I could memorize those verses and play the national anthem on the piano, I still shied away from saying that I was an American.
To me, I was a Chinese kid living in America, and despite knowing no other place as home, I still felt different. When I went home I spoke another language. My parents didn’t grill steaks or eat salad. And when I looked in the mirror, I looked 100 percent Asian.
In fact, I didn’t know what I was considered. While I had never been isolated because of a language barrier or cultural faux pas, my friends still described everything from my values to my pens as “so Asian.” Yet when I went to China to visit, I was called the “American kid.” And so at age 12, I had my very own identity crisis.
I realize now that I never had to choose between being American or being Chinese. I was raised by Chinese parents, put through an American school system, and surrounded by kids who were much less homogenous than I had perceived.
The values that defined me came from my life experiences, not what nationality was stamped on my passport. I was just Katherine Ren, and like the “Chinglish” I spoke to my parents, my identity was a mix of both worlds.
Defining an individual’s identity can be a difficult task. Even more difficult is identifying the factors that played into its sculpting. There are 194 countries in the world, countless cultures, and infinite identities. Each person’s story is different, each person’s identity colors outside of the lines of their passport cover.
In this article, we aimed to record the stories of some CHS students with various cultural backgrounds to find out how such cultures have influenced their lives. While their stories cannot account for the millions of others out there, each story provides a glimpse into an individual’s journey to finding their identity.

Hanna Park
Senior Hanna Park moved to the US from Gwang-Ju, South Korea in 2005. Her family decided to move shortly after Park had finished the fifth grade.
Having spent her entire life in South Korea, Park remembers frustrations the language barrier brought.
“When I came here, I didn’t know a single phrase in English,” Park said. “I had studied English for a year, but they were really basic phrases and I couldn’t apply any of it. I clearly remember my first day of school where I did not speak a single word because I was terrified. I remember being bullied by immature little boys, even those that were a grade below me. It came as a shock because in Korea, the kids in the grades below you were expected to bow and use formal conjugations to phrase what they were saying when talking to an upperclassman. But here, the kids were making fun of me.”
Park explains that even when she began making friends, there was still a constant feeling of isolation.
“Everyday, the teacher would pull me out of class and make me listen to English cassette tapes,” Park said. “I hated it because it made me feel really different. I felt isolated from the whole classroom because even though I was making friends, they were learning different things.”
Park describes how her experiences as a kid later influenced her perspective on being Korean.
“I definitely had a period of time where I thought I was white,” Park said. “I would be so embarrassed to be seen with a group of Koreans in public because I didn’t want to seem different. I think that sentiment came from the pain of feeling isolated, because you just want to forget and feel assimilated. That was also during the awkward middle school years, where you’re trying to figure yourself out.”
Looking back at those years, Park realizes that although she had spent most of her childhood in Korea, much of her personality and values have been shaped by what she dubbed “western logic.”
“In my opinion, at about age 12 is when you begin really formulating your own thoughts and by then I was in America,” Park said. “So I guess western logic and culture did more to shape my identity than did eastern. I’m big on the notion of individualism as opposed to the emphasis on community and familial ties that are stressed in Korean culture. I would say that my parents’ Korean backgrounds did little to shape my identity, and instead their Christian values did more so to shape it.”
While Park’s Christian values were greatly influenced by her parents, Park admits that there are still occasionally conflicts between her and her parents due to cultural differences.
“They’re strictly very traditional Koreans as well as Christians,” Park said. “So growing up, I was raised by their Korean standards. There were some western values present, but the way they raised me was mainly by traditional Korean values. In our house, my dad gets the final say. So we have a lot of cultural clashes where I want to reason with him when he gives me or my brother a rule. However, in Korean culture, that’s considered talking back and is automatically understood as disrespectful. And that’s still a very prevalent problem, where I just voice my opinion and they get really mad.”
In addition, Park describes the difference in ideal career paths as seen by her parents and herself.
“I was thinking about choosing music as my career path. But they didn’t want me to take too many risks. And you see that in America too, but I feel that the parents are much more supportive of their children. I think American parents really place value [on] the experience and giving their children the opportunity to decide and deal with possible consequences. I think Korean culture stresses practicality as opposed to creativity.”
However, despite her parents’ strong Korean backgrounds, Park stated that her family isn’t particularly connected with the Korean community.
“Compared to a lot of other Korean families in St. Louis, we’re kind of secluded,” Park said. “I don’t think my family feels the need to mingle with Koreans because there are some things in Korean culture that we don’t really like. The emphasis placed on family-like settings creates a community where everyone is in other people’s business. There’s a lot of gossiping and expectations, and that’s not really us. You automatically expect your friend to do so much for you because of the supposed bond between the two of you, so there’s always too much drama.”
Despite not feeling a particular connection to others simply because of their common nationality, Park expressed the close bonds she has with other members of her church.
“There are a lot of 1.5 generations in my church, where you had part of your childhood in Korea before immigrating to another country,” Park said. “I definitely relate more with the second generation and 1.5 generations at my church. We just understand each other very well because we’ve had a lot of common experiences. That kind of community is really close to me.”
As a member of the 1.5 generation, Park described how her experiences due to her mix of cultures influenced her in shaping her identity.
“I came here when I was in fifth grade, and so I’m not a part of the Korean popular culture anymore,” Park said. “When you’re Asian American, you always get this feeling that you’re too American for people who are ‘traditionally Asian,’ yet too Asian for other people. A lot of my friends are Asian. They’re not all specifically Korean, but I feel that we all connect to each other in a different way. We can share common experiences and common frustrations. I just don’t know how to explain something so abstract. I’m kind of stuck in the middle of two extremes, I guess. And so that’s a different culture. You’re always going to find people who are stuck in the middle.”

Momoko Oyama
Junior Momoko Oyama was born in Fukuoko, Japan and moved to the US in 2000 when she was three years old. Oyama described that although she can barely remember what life was like in Japan, her nearly annual trips to Japan give her a pretty good idea.
“Growing up, my parents made sure me and my sister didn’t forget Japanese,” Oyama said. “I go back every summer, and it was only a couple of years ago I stopped going to the local school when I went back. My parents used to send me and my sister to the local school for about three weeks so that we could get an idea of what the Japanese school system was like.”
Oyama describes how her parents’ Japanese background greatly influenced how she was raised.
“My parents raised me 99 percent Japanese style,” Oyama said. “In the house we always spoke Japanese. When my sister and I were younger, my parents tried to prevent us from losing our Japanese by saying we couldn’t speak English in the house. Growing up, it was generally understood that academics [were] the biggest priority. I think that mostly comes from the fact that Japanese culture puts such a great emphasis on education. “
While Oyama stated that her values prioritize academics as well, there are still sometimes conflicts between her and her parents.
“My mom never went though any education system in the US, and so sometimes her standards are way different from mine,” Oyama said. “I understand where she’s coming from, but she sometimes forgets that even though I’m Japanese, I wasn’t raised in Japan.”
While Japanese culture and values have greatly impacted Oyama’s life, she admits that she was faced with some difficulty in formulating her identity.
“I went back to Japan in seventh grade and went to school there,” Oyama said. “I was told that I had an American accent in my Japanese, and I was horrified. Even though people don’t say I have a Japanese accent when I speak English here, I’m obviously Asian. I look different here, and was considered different in Japan, so where did I belong? I feel like I can identify myself as Japanese, but sometimes I go through this period of identity crisis, debating whether I am Japanese or American. Because technically I’m Japanese, but I feel like I’m American almost.”
Nevertheless, Oyama strongly believes in the value of maintaining her Japanese background and values.
“I guess I’ve been able to take the good parts of Japanese culture and American culture and find a happy medium,” Oyama said. “As of right now, I feel that it’s really important to keep my Japanese culture. A couple of years ago, I rebelled against my parents [because they pushed] me to keep my Japanese culture. And I was like, when I’m older, I’m going to speak completely in English and my kids are going to be 100 percent American, and we’re going to live here and I’m not going to make them go to Japanese school. It didn’t seem fair that because I went to Japanese school, I almost had double the homework. But now I realize how important it was.”
Oyama expressed that in the future, she will likely raise her kids the same way her parents raised her, just so that they can be reminded of their own cultural heritage.
“When you look in the mirror, you can see that you’re Asian,” Oyama said. “And even if you are Japanese but you can’t speak it or prove it, then you’ve basically lost who you are.”

Ravali Poreddy
For senior Ravali Poreddy, her parents’ Indian culture still plays a significant role in her life.
“I think I’m connected, as connected as I can be for someone who lives and has grown up her entire life in America, but I think I’m still pretty knowledgeable about my culture and my traditions,” Poreddy said. “I think that’s pretty important, because I think that’s an important part of what makes me who I am, what makes me Indian-American.”
Poreddy was born in the United States; however, her parents were the first in their family to leave the small, rural village in South India where they grew up. Poreddy reflected on what a huge culture shock the move was for her parents.
“There you live around your family more I guess … there everyone in the town is related to them on my mom’s side,” she said. “So she went from a place where everyone knew her and everyone was related to her and [was] very family-like to a place where it was very cold and no one talked to each other. Even when I’m in India what I notice is people who live in apartments keep their doors open and drop by to say hi and walk around outside, and it’s a lot more [open]. Here you don’t really talk to your neighbors and you keep your doors shut, so she’s told me it’s a completely different atmosphere here.”
Despite the different atmosphere, Poreddy and her family try to stay in touch with their culture mainly through Poreddy’s classical Indian dance, called Kuchipudi, as well as through the Telugu Association. Telugu is the language that is spoken in the region of India where her parents are from—she explained how the large Indian population in St. Louis is broken up into several language communities. These communities are easier to build because of the linguistic and cultural similarities that many Indians who speak Telugu share.
Poreddy’s weekly dance practice helps keep her in touch with other Indian-American teens and helps keep her culture fresh in her mind. Indian dance is also popular at colleges and especially large universities—dance teams from large schools often go on to compete at national Indian dance competitions. Poreddy even remembers how she recently voted for her friends’ team in Maryland that had 20,000 votes in the pool.
Poreddy’s dance company performs sometimes at the Telugu Association meetings, which occur about every two months around the time of an Indian holiday. About 300 people come to the meetings, and there is dinner and entertainment, which can range from dance performances to singing and skits put on by parents and kids in the community.
Poreddy even visited the Telugu Association of North America for a five-day convention four years ago in Chicago. Around 2,000-3,000 people came, and celebrities from India helped entertain as well.
“In America and St. Louis there’s always the big Indian communities trying to keep culture alive as much as they can for all the generations to come,” Poreddy said.
She hopes to stay affiliated with a Telugu Association in the future.
“I’d hope to because it’s a way to stay connected,” she said. “All of the friends my parents keep in touch with the most are Indian and Telugu because it’s easiest because they share the same culture and language. It’s probably not going to be as strictly defined for me. I have a group of Indian friends who I associate with and we hang out all the time, but I’m not going to strictly limit myself to that obviously, so I hope I’d still do that to stay connected in some way.”
Poreddy’s significant involvement in the Indian-American community is simply not quite the same as being plain Indian, however, and she can see this difference when she visits family in India.
“I think a lot of people might look at me here and say ‘she’s really Indian’ because of some of the things I do because I’m pretty active in the Indian community, at least in St. Louis. However, whenever I go back to India my cousins say ‘oh you’re so American, it’s so obvious, like everything you do is really American,’” she said. “So it’s really strange because I think you don’t exactly fit in in every place, though you do at the same time.”
Even in the Indian-American community, however, being “too Indian” is not exactly seen in a positive light.
“I guess here there’s a stigma against being too Indian – they call it being a ‘fob,’” Poreddy said. “I know a lot of East Asians say it too, someone who’s ‘fresh off the boat’, [and] the stereotype is that they’re nerdy and really awkward. So being fobby is really bad and you try not to be as much as possible, but at the same time you want to maintain your culture.”
Despite some difficulties that Poreddy has encountered in her journey of balancing two cultures, she finds that it has given her a different world perspective.
“I don’t want to reinforce the American ignorance stereotype, but I’ve been to India a bunch of times and I’ve seen how people lived there and the culture, and there are a lot of differences that maybe a kid who has lived here their entire life and [has] only read about it in textbooks or news articles doesn’t necessarily understand … and they might think of them as being really weird or odd, whereas I’m someone who’s grown up with two different cultures,” she said. “People have told me things, [like] that certain Indian festivals or certain Indian gods or the way we celebrate things are weird. I guess I can appreciate cultures in a different way just because I know what it’s like to grow up with two of them. I just view it in a slightly different way.”
Overall, Poreddy looks forward to staying connected with the Indian community in college next year.
“I know depending on where I go and how big of a college I go to, if they have some sort of Indian student organization I definitely would want to join that,” she said.
Wherever she ends up next year, you will probably find Poreddy throwing colored powder in a huge Indian festival called “holi,” dancing in an Indian dance group and participating in a Telugu Association.

Jack Wei
Twelve. That’s the number of schools that senior Jack Wei has attended.
“Whenever someone asks ‘what’s something unique about you?’ that’s what I say,” Wei said with a smile.
Wei has lived in a variety of places. He was born in China and lived there until he was seven-years-old. At that age, he and his family moved to Canada for about two months before returning to China. A year later, the family journeyed to Canada again and stayed there for four years, until they moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2007. After staying in Baton Rouge for two years, they moved to Clayton at the beginning of Wei’s high school career.
“I would say that moving a lot has made me a more outgoing person, it’s made me see more places around the world and different dichotomies of places,” he said.
The “different dichotomies” of places is something that clearly has defined Wei’s life journey. Rather than a singular culture affecting several specific areas of his life, Wei said that it has been the mix of cultures in which he grew up that has shaped his way of thinking in general.
“Seeing all the different parts of the world has made me more accepting of people, so if someone’s like ‘wow that guy is really weird’ or something, I think, ‘well, I’ve seen weirder,’” he said. “Especially because I’ve lived in the hottest places of the United States and the coldest places of North America and Canada, and I’ve seen diehard conservatives in Baton Rouge and diehard liberals in Clayton, [seeing] both ends is really nice … Usually whenever I have discussions with my friends they usually take one side of the argument and they try to enforce that side, but I usually look at both sides and am like, well, I don’t like to stick with one thing, so I don’t want to identify with only one group of people or one culture because I kind of like to be identified with all the cultures.”
Wei sees his upbringing as a result of a combination of different cultures.
“People with different cultures influence me because as I go through each place in my life journey, people introduce me to new cultures so I get to learn about [them], like Beijing, Toronto, Baton Rouge and Clayton,” he said. “I kind of take all of the cultures that I am within and combine them together, so they have influenced me in that sense.”
Looking to the future, he knows that he wants to keep moving from place to place. He also believes strongly in people staying in touch with their cultural heritage and with the places that have influenced them.
“It’s really good to stay connected with your culture and it’s important to stay connected because it’s part of who you are,” Wei said. “You can never really lose your sense of self and lose what has made you become who you are, like what you grew up in, so I feel like if someone disconnects themselves from previous places or previous influences on them, unless it’s a bad influence, it’s taking away a piece of who you are. In my future I’m definitely going to revisit places that I’ve been, people that have influenced me, travel back to Beijing, Toronto, Baton Rouge, because I want to reconnect with my past.”

Noah Youkilis
Some students, like junior Noah Youkilis, get in touch with their cultural backgrounds by spending their summers in other countries. Youkilis spends a good portion of each summer in Croatia where his grandmother and his mother’s side of the family lives, and there he has been able to see a “completely different side of living.”
Youkilis’ mother is from Croatia, and she met his father, who is from Cincinnati, in Siena when they were in college. They both moved back to the US, but Youkilis has definitely felt not only the influence of his mother’s culture in his life, but even some conflict between his parents’ cultures. On one point especially, his parents disagree.
“One European thing that they do, and this is a funny thing in my family, is that … they are very free and liberal with their kids, and one of their philosophies is let your kids learn how to live when they’re still under your control,” Youkilis said. “And so, for example my mom was perfectly okay with me having what I want for myself, going out, she never checks my grades, I’m completely responsible for myself right now. I still check in at home and I still tell them what I’m doing, but she’s ok with me being on my own. But my dad, it’s funny because my dad’s not so okay with that, but he still lets it happen but he’s more hesitant about it, so it shows the balance.”
Besides a freer upbringing, Youkilis feels that his summers in Croatia have been very educational.
“Well, definitely my values about what happiness is [are influenced by my Croatian background]. I don’t need things to be happy – I’m very fortunate to live in Clayton and go to Clayton and I’m very grateful for that, but I also know that money is not happiness because I see people here who are very unhappy and they have lots of money. Meanwhile, my grandma is very happy and she has no money whatsoever, but she knows what she wants in life so she’s happy.”
Youkilis believes that by seeing this completely different way of living he has had a great opportunity.
“I learned about how there’s not just one way of living to be happy, and it’s a very American ideal that what we have here is awesome, and it is really great, but you can be happy without riches, without all this stuff, so I can see how other people live and it’s definitely influenced me,” he said.
Youkilis also believes that when given the opportunity, other students should try and get out and experience more during the summers like he has.
“Seeing other backgrounds is very valuable to your upbringing, and growing up in one place, not that I’m saying moving around is good, but growing up and not travelling to other parts of the world is definitely kind of harmful,” he said. “Even going to see Croatia but staying in touristy hotels you won’t get an actual experience, whereas for me the most valuable education I’ve had is going around and seeing the culture in other places, and it’s definitely changed me.”

Dena Dianati
Sophomore Dena Dianati sees less of her culture in the way that Poreddy does, but has always been influenced by her cultural background.
Dianati was born in France right after her parents emigrated from Iran. After living there until she was seven, Dianati and her family moved to Clayton.
Although Dianati sees many aspects that are important in Iranian culture as being similar to aspects in American culture — such as the importance of family and hard work ethic — in many ways, they are even more heavily emphasized in Iran.
“Academically we’re a lot freer [in America], like if you mess up here it’s not the end of the world, you can start again, you can try something else, while there [in Iran] you take a test after high school and that basically decides your entire future, so it’s a lot tougher, there’s a lot more pressure there, the risks are higher … There’s more of a shock of how little freedom they have, you’re more under a microscope. There’s no sense of privacy outside of your home,” Dianati said.
Besides a freer education, Dianati realizes that she has a lot more opportunities as a young woman in America as well.
“Opportunities here are a lot greater,” Dianati said. “Women don’t have many rights at all [in Iran], if they see a woman walking down the street by herself they assume automatically that something is wrong, while here no one really cares what you’re doing.”
Dianati also said that her mother’s upbringing during the revolution in Iran helped shape her mother’s, and consequently her own, identity.
“My mom was three when the revolution started and the king was put out of power and so she was raised without the freedoms that my dad had,” Dianati said. “She from a young age had more constrictions, like she had to wear the traditional hijab and be more conservative. She couldn’t have her arms show or her legs show, and she couldn’t wear makeup or have nail polish and things like that. I think because she adapted with that kind of lifestyle it didn’t affect her as greatly, but for my dad he had to go from having a lot more freedoms like getting to play with his best friend who was a girl [to not getting] to play with her anymore with the new laws, so that affected him.”
Dianati also sees how her parents’ culture has helped her see through stereotypes, and view others in a more holistic way.
“I think it helps me let others see the differences that there are and all the stereotypes about Muslims and all Arabic countries, how they’re all extremists and terrible,” Dianati said. “It’s not like that at Clayton, but it helps me help people understand how it really is, just like any other cultural view or any other community or society, it’s not really that different.”
Overall, Dianati sees that it’s important one stays in touch with one’s culture.
“I think my culture affects me in the way that I don’t realize it affects me, like the views that I have and my aspects and how I see some things,” Dianati said. “I think it’s important that I stay in touch with it because it connects me to my family and my heritage. It keeps me in touch with the rest of my family and my culture. I think it’s important in any culture or any religion or any view someone has to have some sort of basis or standard to look up to and follow.”

Adam Rangwala
“Americanized” is probably the first word that junior Adam Rangwala would use to describe his upbringing. American-born with parents from Pakistan and India, Rangwala definitely believes that his parents’ cultural roots have been very influential in shaping his core values.
“I guess one of the interesting things with my parents is, something that I don’t find in a lot of other of my friend’s parents, is that my parents have been in America for quite a while, for more than 20 years, so they themselves have become Americanized,” Rangwala said. “Like I can tell when my mom is talking on the phone with an Indian person or an American person because she can change her accent to an American accent, and you can just tell by the way she speaks who she’s talking to. I guess my upbringing was a lot more Americanized than a lot of people who have parents who immigrate from different places around the world, but there’s definitely a lot of traditions and parts of their culture they also shared in my upbringing and taught me.”
Rangwala references respect for adults and a heavy emphasis on achievement in school and extracurricular activities as some of the subtle values his parents imparted upon him.
“In India and Pakistan education is a lot more competitive, there’s a lot of work that goes into studying, so when my parents moved to America they still had that competitiveness in academics,” Rangwala said. “It’s definitely an expectation that I am successful in school, that I’m not getting a lot of B’s, and just competitiveness in academics and sports and other activities I do is how my parents’ culture has affected me.”
By noticing how his own habits are shaped by his culture, Rangwala has been more cognizant of what drives others’ behavior as well.
“I think it’s helped me understand people and understand their culture and their upbringing before commenting on their actions and their behaviors,” Rangwala said.
Rangwala also says that he wants to get more connected with his culture.
“I’m not fully in touch with my language, so I guess that’s limited my knowledge of my culture because whenever we go to gatherings my parents speak in Hindi, Urdu or Gujraati and I don’t really understand it, so I don’t really understand most of the conversations, so that kind of limits [my understanding]—it’s a snowball effect because I can’t understand a lot of what they’re saying, so I guess I get less in touch, so I don’t learn as much,” Rangwala said. “Also I went to India over winter break for a wedding, and I guess during the wedding, it was a three day wedding with different kind of ceremonies, so I guess I’m always learning about it because all of the ceremonies there I had no idea why they were being done, or what was going to happen and how I should behave during the ceremonies, so there’s still a lot of learning about my culture that I want to do.”
Rangwala’s desire to connect with his culture is fairly recent.
“I think [my desire to reconnect] is more a recent thing,” Rangwala said. “In the past I didn’t really have as much of an interest — like for Bollywood movies, I just put the English subtitles on, but now I think it’s really cool to have a distinct culture … While being born in America [is cool], I think it’s really cool to hold on to your own culture and identity and to get more in touch with it. I think that’s a recent thing, and I think a big trigger for me wanting to get more in touch with my culture is from my travels, or from my trip to India this winter break because I felt a little disconnected from all of the stuff that was going on there.”
Though Rangwala has seen little dissonance between his parents’ cultures, he said that a large point of discussion for them was cricket.
“My dad played a lot of cricket, and I’m kind of split between rooting for Pakistan and India because that’s one of the biggest rivalries in cricket [ever], so all our Pakistani friends want us to side with Pakistan, and all our Indian friends want us to side with India,” Rangwala said. “I think it’s just really cool but also disheartening to see how much rivalry there is between them. I also think it’s kind of cool to be able to say that I’m from both places, or at least have backgrounds in both places.”

Despite varying degrees of how much students felt they were “Americanized,” each student we interviewed said their own identity – what makes them who they are – is closely intertwined with the customs and values of their culture. Whether they have spent summers in Croatia or India, grown up in different places, or are influenced by the cultures their parents associate with, students are connected to a place they or their parents call “home.” What each of them has finally come to terms with is melding their identity out of a mix of their experiences that are defined by American and non-American values.
Hopefully CHS students will be reminded by this article of the widely diverse backgrounds which define people’s attitudes and values that make our school the culturally rich place that it is. CHS is not simply a place to learn facts and figures, but also a place where we can be shaped by others’ very different perspectives if we open our minds. In the end, it will be those whose backgrounds are very different that may ultimately end up shaping our own values the most.

Story by Meredith McMahon and Katherine Ren

Photographs by Noah Engel and William Wysession. Bottom photo courtesy of Adam Rangwala.