‘Taking pride in one’s own culture:’ Daniel Li’s Path to Law School

Over the 2022 holiday break, the BC Law Impact blog is running a series of some of the most powerful and fascinating admissions essays from first-year students. These personal statements, submitted as part of their admissions applications, tell a variety of compelling stories, but the thread connecting them all is an example of the kind of person who is attracted to a BC Law education: one who is driven to work collaboratively with others, achieve great things and make a real difference in the world.

We want to thank the Office of Admissions, and all of the student essay writers, for agreeing to share their stories with us. For more Admissions tips and other content, check out BC Law’s new TikTok channel.

During the first thirteen years of my life, living in Hungary, I cannot count how many times I felt embarrassed for doing something that was only natural to everyone else at school: talking to my mother. The only difference was that my classmates spoke Hungarian, while I spoke Chinese. The difference is minute, but it was significant for me. As my mother picked me up from school and asked how my day was, I chose either to stay silent or occasionally, say “hao,” which means “fine” and is a short and sweet, one-syllable word, just sufficient to answer my mother’s question and to not embarrass myself in front of my Hungarian classmates. But the source of embarrassment did not stem from being different in general—it rather stemmed from being Chinese, as my classmates made countless “harmless” jokes about eating dog meat, or engaged in “well-intentioned” stereotyping about having “almond eyes.”

After graduating from middle school, I flew to Boston to live with my father. He immigrated to America years earlier so that I could attend high school and eventually university in the States. During my first few weeks as a freshman in high school, I was incredibly excited, having made friends who were also Chinese. But I still could not escape the same frustrations that bothered me in Hungary, even in the acclaimed “Melting Pot.” This time, though, this feeling of unbelonging came from speaking English instead of Hungarian; seeing Snapchat stories of lavish Thanksgiving turkeys while eating the same stir-fried tomatoes and eggs only strengthened my yearning to be “cool.” The culmination of years of internalized racism towards my heritage resulted in a view where belonging to one culture must mean belonging less to another culture. Yet the small but encouraging comfort that I gained while making Chinese American friends and being re-exposed to Chinese culture not through my parents began to corrode my internalized racism, and began my eventual reconciliation of my Chinese, my Chinese Hungarian, and a newfound Chinese American identity.

I elected to study abroad in Shanghai in the spring of 2019. This was my first time in China without my parents. I felt not only was I unshackled from parental supervision, but also from the reminders of cultural juxtapositions that living as a minority created in my mind. While the main reason I decided to pick Shanghai was to perfect my Chinese language skills, the journey to China became an extension of wanting to find reconciliation with my own cultural background. While I expected to find my source of empowerment outside of the classroom, I unexpectedly found my true empowerment from a class titled “Law, Culture, and Politics in China” taught by Professor Dan Guttman.

During the first week of class, Professor Guttman introduced a concept called “translating between operating systems,” an explanatory framework of how Chinese and American legal systems function under different assumptions and conventions. A few months later I saw how this explanatory framework applied not only to legal culture but also to my own background. Just as how American and Chinese legal systems serve essentially the same function—ensuring the welfare of society—despite the two systems having vastly different backgrounds, I could see that being Chinese and being American were just two sides of the same coin. Rather than feeling the need to always compensate and explain my own culture, this understanding cultivated my acceptance and celebration of the differences in the cultures I have grown up in.

I hope to harness the power I gained from reconciling my three identities to create a lasting impact in the field of Chinese law education in the United States by introducing the dynamics of cultural sensitivities to supplement academic knowledge of Chinese law. Boston College Law School’s commitment to an interdisciplinary study of law allows me to examine the Chinese legal tradition with a critical eye. Learning not only about historical, cultural, and political themes that frequently appear in legal texts, but also from students of different backgrounds, I hope to learn more about the cultural sensitivities of not just the Chinese legal tradition but other international legal traditions as well. Through an interdisciplinary study of law, I hope to create a stage to examine and debate the Chinese and other international legal traditions to connect students from different backgrounds. Equipping scholars with the knowledge to skillfully navigate cultural spaces, I hope to share the joy of reconciling and taking pride in one’s own culture with many more Chinese American and immigrant students.

Daniel Li is a first-year student at BC Law.

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