Interview with Lily Cheng

The Asian Articles
9 min readApr 30, 2021

conducted by Danielle Dungca

Please introduce yourself.

Hello, my name is Lily Cheng. I’m a senior at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California. I plan on studying computer science and arts in college. In terms of occupation, I am aiming towards video game design!

Can you describe your organization, Umlaut Foundation?

Umlaut Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting foster and kinship youth, specifically those in middle school and high school, but we have supported elementary and pre-school students in the past. We are based in Pleasanton, California, but are actively accepting volunteers and foster youth from all throughout California. Basically what we do is provide volunteer-supported mentorship to our community of foster youth. Our mission statement is to support these students in terms of helping them discover their passions, forming bonds between the youth and the volunteers, and spreading awareness to our high school community.

What was the inspiration behind your organization and what was the process of its creation?

I am a kinship youth myself. If you don’t know what that is, it is youth living with their extended family. So, in my case, I live with my older sister. I have been living with her for the past 4 years now. Last October, I actually moved in with my grandparents as well. So a majority of my life, I have been living mainly with my extended family, like my cousins or grandparents. I have lived with my mother in the past, but it doesn’t usually go so well, as in most cases with foster and kinship youth. I have had times in the past where I realized that being in the education system is harder, or wanting to pursue your passions is more difficult when you don’t have parents to support you.

But actually, Umlaut Foundation is the nonprofit idea actually started during one of my classes, when we were debating about “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” One argument had come up about adoption, adoption centers, and how they are over-run or overworked. This had really interested me and I have heard that statistic before, but never really looked into it. So, I decided to do some research, and that helped to inspire this nonprofit. Originally, we were for supporting students in adoption centers and group homes. When I reached out to my county’s director of student services, Ms. Tarango, she let me know that adoption centers and group homes are becoming a thing of the past, it has instead been moving towards the foster system. She let me know that there is definitely a need in the foster care system for tutoring services. From there, she directed me toward the Pleasanton Unified School District’s Liaison for Foster and Kinship Youth, Ms. Montgomery, and that’s how this nonprofit got started!

Your organization works to help foster youth realize and achieve their capabilities. However, it is rather unfortunate that people think that this is impossible. Why do you think this misconception has arisen?

In my experience, it is not really that people believe it is impossible for foster youth to realize and achieve their capabilities, but rather, just, in reality, it is harder for foster youth themselves to do this given the resources they have. Before going on, I would like to qualify my perspective. Even though I am a kinship youth, I have never been in the foster care system myself. In my childhood, I lived with my first-generation Chinese mother, who had always pushed me into all sorts of hobbies, extracurriculars, and academic ventures. Without parents to guide you and push you into your passions, and without a financial safety net to try new extracurriculars, it becomes a lot harder for any student in this situation to have the motivation to discover their capabilities. I do want to add that as an example. Let’s say that your a foster youth who loves basketball, you want to play basketball, and you’re really good at basketball, but things as simple as not having someone to drive you to practice or to be there for emotional support when you’ve had a bad practice or a bad game can really demotivate you. Adding on, not having the financial support to go into club basketball leaves you trailing behind your peers in terms of skills, you can’t make connections with your local coaches, or have the experience of meeting new teammates. So, there are just a lot of privileges that come with having parents that often go unseen. We can also talk about Asian households specifically. Parents are a really great resource for learning about new opportunities. As a foster youth, you don’t have someone to talk about a new summer camp that opened up or to even help you sign up for new classes that can be helpful in your future. I feel that I am in a really unique position to talk about these situations because I have lived with my cousins and their more typical “tiger parents.” Being with them, I was treated as one of their kids, and so they pushed me into taking AP Computer Science Class in my freshman year of high school, they also told me to apply to a summer camp that actually got me interested in Video Game Design. Even my interest in art actually came from my sister, who bought me a drawing tablet for my birthday. This just goes to show that when you really pick at what your interests are, a lot of times they root from having family to push you into that field of interest. Again, these are all personal experiences that I have had, not within the foster care system. If you actually look at the foster care system, there are a lot more fundamental things that make it even harder for these foster youth to get into their passions or excel academically. When you are a foster youth, you are transferring foster homes and you are moving cities. If you are moving cities, that means you are most likely moving schools. What happens with this is that you begin to lack stability in terms of your curriculum when it comes to learning, you don’t have someone you can always talk to when it comes to friends or teachers that you want to confide in when you’re having struggles. It is so inconsistent that it becomes fundamentally challenging as a foster youth to achieve your capabilities, as we say at Umlaut Foundation.

How do you feel society can work to combat the stereotype brought to light in the previous question?

It is really about awareness in my opinion. Being in this nonprofit and working with it, I have realized how many people, and myself included, just don’t understand what the actual challenges are in the foster care system or that there are so many youth in the system. I was actually super surprised that we have 200 foster and kinship youth in our school district alone. I didn’t realize that and it was a very surprising statistic. When I had been advertising Umlaut Foundation to my high school peers, they were also very surprised. Everyone thought that there were only maybe 20–50 youth at most. So, it’s really important that society in general really understands what exactly it is that is challenging for these foster youth. So, it means providing more accessible programs, whether it’s summer camps that are more accessible to foster youth, or tutoring for example in our case that becomes accessible. Also just making sure that they have the emotional support that they need. It is really important that people believe in these foster youth because these youth, like all youth, need emotional support: someone to believe in them when they aren’t ready to believe in themselves.

There are so many forms of self-expression. For you, it can be through your organization, but also through your art. How do your art and creativity allow you to express yourself in times of uncertainty?

This question was actually a bit funny to me! Looking at my art, it’s mostly fan art basically of shows or characters that I enjoy of anime or cartoons. In terms of expression, it was only recently that I have been public about enjoying anime and shows even though I have enjoyed it all throughout my childhood. I think that is because of stigma and stuff like that. Again, it wasn’t until recently that I realized that people don’t really care. I have met a lot of cool people from having an art Instagram, drawing, reading, and watching shows. Though it’s not the typical art of “expressing yourself through creativity”, it has just been something that I realized has been a part of me because I love consuming this media and making this media as well.

How have you been able to incorporate your artistic abilities and expression into Umlaut Foundation?

So actually this is something that is unique to our organization. All of our directors and volunteers know that when you are working with foster or kinship youth at Umlaut Foundation or in California in general, we have to abide by an anonymity policy, and that is that we can’t release any personal or contact information of the youth that we are working with. This is for security purposes because it’s highly privatized information in the welfare community. This actually extends to having photos or posting photos on social media of these kids. So, if you notice, even though we are all about supporting youth, we have no pictures of them on our social media or websites. So, what we have had to do is that I have had to draw almost like cartoon characters or stick figures and arrange them on our website. So that has just been a “replacement” so that people still know we are supporting kids, but we can’t distribute any information about the real kids.

Art is one form of media that is so versatile. However, people often associate different stereotypes with it, especially in the Asian community. One of these common misconceptions is that Asians are automatically gifted in art. Though you are one person that has been fortunate to have been given this amazing talent, what are your feelings toward this stereotype?

I do want to say that I have not encountered this specifically to art. But, people do think that there are some people who are good at certain things simply because they are Asian. However, a majority of the artists or musicians that I know are Asian, and part of the reason for this is because — I am in a sort of Asian bubble in Pleasanton, California — Asian American parents tend to push their kids into art. This is because, in their case, it’s about college. A lot of the Asian Americans that I know who are pursuing art or music are originally doing it because they were told by their parents that they need a “leg up” in college admissions. It’s a scenario in which when being compared to other Asians, you need to show that you are creative and well-rounded. So, I feel that art or expression in the Asian American experience has really been about separating yourself from a typical Asian or from the stereotypes. So, I do feel that it is a bit opposite when it comes to having a stereotype that you are gifted or talented in art, specifically when you are Asian, instead of the drive for being an Asian in art is because you want to show yourself as an identity beyond just being Asian, but rather being an artistic mind.

How can people get involved with the Umlaut Foundation?

We do accept volunteers from all across California when it comes to our tutoring services. But actually, we unfortunately just temporarily closed that application as a way to balance the amount of students we support and volunteers we manage. But, we are currently working on a college preparation program called the “CPR Program” or the “College Prepared Readiness Program.” This coming summer, we will be working to accept volunteers from the Pleasanton Unified School District who can act as college counselors for our foster youth for especially in their college applications: helping them write essays, getting them really interested in college because that is one of the challenges we are trying to address in our community specifically. Eventually, we will extend it to other foster communities, but we do want to trial it in Pleasanton before we do more outreach all across California. Other ways you can get involved with Umlaut Foundation is donating, we’d love donations, whether it’s physical donations such as a textbook or monetary. You can also email us if you have any ideas for Umlaut Foundation as well, we are always open toward opening our programs to more cities when it comes to not just our tutoring services. You can also contact us on other ideas such as reporting stories, or things like that!

Where can people find you, your art, and organization?

I have a portfolio website, which was originally created for college, but I loved spreading it around because it was fun for me to design it. You can find my art and traditional media on www.shuilily.com. My Instagram is also @shuilily if anyone is interested in finding me there! You can find Umlaut Foundation at https://www.umlautfoundation.com/. We are actually starting to publish articles on there, newsletters, and we have also started a podcast! You can tune in on any listening platform and find us by searching Umlaut Foundation!

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