Journalist shares stories of 'messy' cultural background

Mei-Ling Hopgood, a professor at Northwestern University and author of two books, spoke with an Elon University audience on Jan. 21 about her biological family in Taiwan, her adoption by white American parents, and the definition of “home” when you’ve lived around the globe.

She was born in 1973 in Taitung, Taiwan, and less than a year later she was the newly adopted daughter of blue-eyed parents in a suburb outside Detroit where people of Asian descent were almost nonexistent.

For Mei-Ling Hopgood, it took another two decades to embrace her Asian ancestry, which started in college after discovering the Asian American Journalist Association. By the time Hopgood reconnected in 1997 with her biological family in Taiwan – she was then working in newspapers – her Asian heritage was one in which she took pride.

But after traveling around the world and spending a significant amount of time in different countries, to which culture, exactly, does she belong? And what does “home” mean?

“We like to think about things like culture and identity and diversity in a stagnant way,” she said Jan. 21 to an Elon University audience in Whitley Auditorium. “We talk about it as something that’s unchanging, and we talk about who has it and who does it. It’s like something you’d have in a museum. A culture is something that you’re giving.”

“Culture is something that’s organic. It’s not just composed of your heritage or your background or your parents or where you grew up. It’s made up of the experiences you’ve had and the people who have had influences on your life. We are a fusion of all these things. While we may not be able to choose where we’re from, we have a choice where to take it.”

Hopgood spoke as part of the university’s 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Celebration, organized by the Center for Race, Ethnicity & Diversity Education, Elon Teaching Fellows, the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, the Black Cultural Society, the National Panhellenic Council, DEEP, the Office of Student Activities and the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

Author of “How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm” and “Lucky Girl,” Hopgood today is a freelance journalist and associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She has written for a variety of publications, ranging from the National Geographic Traveler and Marie Claire Magazine to the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe.

She has worked as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau.

It was Hopgood’s two books that provided the backdrop for her broader remarks on culture and identity. Growing up, she was joined in Michigan by two adopted brothers of Korean ancestry, and over the course of her career, she’s lived in Hawaii, Mexico and Argentina.

“Ultimately, I think home is something inside you,” she said. “I know that sounds very cliche. You’re made up of a lot of different experiences with people and places. It’s so much more complex and interesting than the straightforward things we like to say.”

As a successful author, Hopgood spoke as well about the keys to good writing.

“For you to be able to tell your full story, especially in a book, you have to have an understanding of what it means. You have to have perspective,” she said. “You can listen to me talk about my crazy Chinese family, but you’ll want to know, in the end, what does it all mean?”