API is not the packages in CS (sorry). API is Asian Pacific Islander. Being Asian American is an identity I had no trouble of adopting, but the challenge lied mainly in understanding the implications of being Asian American.
Currently, home is the Asian American-themed dorm on campus. I’m what they call a preassign. What that entails is that I engage with the community, and I hold a presentation on any Asian American topic that is worth discussing.
Honestly, I wanted to be in the dorm for its community and its single. My connection to being Asian American really surrounded food, culture, YouTube, KPop… certainly not issues that pervaded through the community. Back in April 2015, there was no way I was confident in my ability to articulate my views and thoughts on the API community. I was nowhere well-versed, and I would even say that it was quite intimidating to be surrounded by such educated and seemingly passionate and angry people. How do I even compare to these big figures on campus?
Fall quarter was a flurry of overwhelming talk about activism and how change needs to happen. All I could think was this is not the community I chose to be around. Everyone around me is always so angry. Can I say anything without receiving backlash? Why is race and ethnicity the #1 topic on college campuses and not outside the college bubble? What is important to address and what seems like needless complaining? I, as a result, could only do so much and I shut myself down, turning to my schoolwork for solace, thinking “I just need to graduate.”
As more and more of my friends seemed to get sucked into that community, curiosity got the better of me. I didn’t want lack of information and understanding to be the determining factor with regards to not participating in such activities and discussions. I also want to be well-informed, but I don’t want to not be challenged. There is this concept of a safe space that I think has been abused to some extent. “Safe space” is created for people to feel comfortable with voicing their thoughts and their opinions. I think that is so powerful since there are so many perspectives. But like how in the game telephone, the phrase gets shorter and shorter and may lose its initial meaning, not many people understand the purpose of a “safe space.” “Safe space” is now known as a place where we all say whatever we want and we get a pat on the back… Excuse me (but not really) as I say that this is ridiculous. What is the point of getting a pat on the back and being in your comfort zone when you’re only interested in getting your voice out there and not being willing to hear other perspectives? We grow from failures, from challenges, and by putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and as a result, we become better grounded in our views! I was well aware my views did not necessarily align with popular opinion (aka that of Asian American activists) but I wanted to learn why their views were such.
From all of this comes (unintentionally) a several-month long endeavor in recording, reflecting, and discussing. For my film class, I and another girl in the dorm did a video on one of our friends’ take on the Asian American identity. In Week 2 of winter quarter, I along with about 20 other people put on a day-long conference called Listen To The Silence surrounding Asian American issues. I was the co-chair for the Concert portion of the day, and I had the privilege of inviting DANakaDAN and Jhameel to the stage at Stanford. I really want to turn my attention to Dan. He has such a unique story, growing up in a non-Asian family, and as a result being so fully aware of the color of his skin because it was so different from that of his parents’. He went and learned more about his heritage and grappled so long with his identity, but when he performed at LTS, he ended with a powerful statement about how he is proud to be Asian American, and the nation needs to host more conferences that bring light to the issues of being a minority, and yes even when perceived to be a model minority, in America.
Speaking of model minority, just two weeks later, I was put in the spotlight to hold a presentation on a API topic. To be honest, I agonized over this starting months before. While others tend to rush this at the last minute, I was almost paralyzed at the idea of saying something that is not of popular opinion. I wanted to focus on education, but I had neither the expertise nor the sound opinions that I wished I had on the topic. But as I continued to do more research, the more I was affected by the concept of a model minority. Amongst my friends and my immediate circles, when we hear model minority, we think “psh that is ridiculous. Everyone knows that the model minority is nothing but bullshit. Is it even worth talking about?” Unfortunately, I find that it very much is a worthwhile topic. People don’t even know where the term comes from. Less than a century ago, Asians were described as illiterate, undesirable, and unassimilable immigrants, full of “filth and disease.” As “marginal members of the human race,” they were denied the right to naturalize, denied the right to intermarry, and were segregated in crowded ethnic enclaves. The term “model minority” was first used by sociologist William Peterson in an article titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style” in January 1966, right in the middle of the civil rights movement. In his paper, he had concluded that Japanese culture with its family values and strong work ethic enabled the Japanese Americans to overcome prejudice and to avoid becoming a “problem minority.” By attributing Asian American successes to Asian culture and values, the stereotype allowed people to downplay the significance of racial discrimination as an explanation for the underprivileged status of other minorities. It was turned to in order to discredit the civil rights movement, and as the myth gained more momentum, it started to quickly generalize to all Asian Americans, regardless of the diversity in culture, education, and background.
And it still persists today. People look at statistics and see that Asian Americans outperform and are the most successful of all racial groups. But no one sees that within the Asian American demographic, there are Southeast Asians who fled from their home countries during the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge and did not have the chance to get that education. There are East Asians who are entrepreneurs…. of family-owned shops, dry cleaning services, and they struggle day to day with language barriers and getting empathy from those who control law and legislation. We see psychology studies of yes, there are correlations of certain personality traits that are prevalent in Asian Americans and success, but readers and media pick out the sensational parts and decide to claim that Asian Americans are successful… because they are Asian Americans!
And it really doesn’t stop. We also only end up seeing the drastic sides of stories such as that of Jennifer Pan where Asian parenting supposedly goes awry and creates monsters of these children. That leads to high school teachers upholding the model minority. That leads to these teachers saying things like “do you want me to talk to your mom about not pressuring you?” when they have absolutely no evidence from the students that they experienced pressure from parents. That leads to students seeing their parents in colored lenses and it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotype threat is so dangerous and so potent in our community.
Did you even know that an overwhelming majority of white college students have either one or no friends of color? And these are the people who also very much believe in the stereotypes placed upon these groups. Intergroup communication is key, and yet we don’t encourage it enough. I myself just assumed that everyone at Stanford, a group of high-achieving and well-read people, would know better than to succumb to media-perpetuated stereotypes. But recently, articles have popped up on campus and a new president has taken place and it has fueled so much fire. Honestly, these are such complex issues but that does not excuse people from just speaking without better understanding disparate perspectives and the context from which everything arises. Questions like “Is it #BlackLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter?” completely disregard the context from which this arose.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently and she was just as confused about the campus climate that is so turbulent. She asked me, “why can’t we just aim to be color-blind and not take into account race? There are a lot of just as important, if not more important, factors such as socioeconomic status that we should be putting more weight on.” Friend, I understand your reasoning. That is the goal, right? For the color of our skin to not have to set us apart. Unfortunately, we live in a reality where communities are marginalized, communities are not well understood and as a result not as well heard as the majority. America is a nation that will have the unique problem of being the country of immigrants and home to so many different communities. We still have a lot to work on.
So where am I now? I’m still studying Symbolic Systems. I’m still following my passions which are different from those of my friends. But I recognize that this discussion on race and ethnicity is multifaceted and multilayered. The least I can do is better educate myself and share my thoughts and findings with those around me. I want to live in a place where information freely flows and we all strive to understand the different perspectives. To be honest, I don’t quite know yet what we’d do with these different perspectives, but a baby step is better than no steps. Oh, and I’m so proud to be an Asian American.