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May 1 2013
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More stories from Columbia’s military veterans
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Missed the Cliterary Open Mic? Check out the highlights here
March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
"I don’t know how to befriend Asian Americans,” Julie Ahn says.
Ironically, I first met Julie, who is Korean American, about three weeks ago as I was coming back from the opening ceremony of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. We struck up a conversation about the Asian American clubs on campus, and her reaction was immediate: “I feel awkward around them. Most Asians here integrate or cluster—and I just feel uncomfortable.”
Now a first-year at Barnard, Julie studied abroad in Korea before coming to college, in her words, “to learn how to be Korean.” Yet she does not feel welcomed by Columbia’s Korean Americans. “I had an easier time making friends with Koreans in Korea than Korean Americans here,” she says. “Koreans saw me as an international student, so they wanted to get to know me and take care of me, but I think Korean Americans here just see me as super white. ... I came back expecting to hang out with Korean people—I was looking forward to meeting them—but it didn’t happen. I have no idea why. It’s so disappointing because for three years I could seamlessly blend in. One month here and it’s gone.”
“I’m an awkward in-between,” she says. Neither Korean nor Korean American.
I listened with a pounding heart as I reflected back on my own experiences at Columbia. I, too, had my share of trying out Asian and Asian American clubs on campus, and I always felt as if I never completely fit in. Early in my first year, I became a board member of APAHM and later its co-chair, but it felt more like a job than a place to explore my identity. In an attempt to get in touch with my birthplace, I joined the Hong Kong Students and Scholars Society but quit after realizing I didn’t belong with the privileged international students who filled the club. I tried the Asian American Alliance for a month, but I felt inadequately educated in race theory and refrained from sharing my ideas for fear of saying something wrong. And I rushed Pi Delta Psi, one of the two Asian-interest fraternities on campus—but I was unable to commit to pledging, fearing getting pigeonholed or judged by my non-Asian friends. Somehow I feared that giving myself unconditionally to a group would make me lose control over my identity. I tried to protect myself. But the more I resisted committing, the more frustrated I was that I wasn’t able to figure out who I was.
Gradually, I realized that I had few close friends in the community. I also realized that I just didn’t feel comfortable going to the events any more, and so I withdrew from the scene, identity issues unresolved. Yet I couldn’t simply wish the Asian American community away. I was reminded by its presence: the people I’d see on campus, the inside jokes being traded on my Facebook news feed, and the ubiquitous flyers for events on campus reinforced my own feelings of loneliness every day. On one hand, it obviously felt bad to be left out. But on the other hand, I felt responsible. After all, I hadn’t really shown the community the level of dedication and commitment it required. Maybe I was just not that much of an Asian American—or at least, I wasn’t a “good” Asian American. I carried with me a sense of guilt, and whenever I told people that “I don’t really hang out with them anymore,” I felt like I was betraying my own kind.
Coming back to reality, I see Julie slumped in her chair. “I’m just disappointed that I haven’t found someone who understands me. Can you tell me what I should do?”
I struggled to find the right words.
Hedan Zeng, a junior in CC, did not have these problems as a first-year. Coming from North Dakota, she was one of the only Asians at her high school and hung out with “mostly white people.” Although she was “not particularly in touch with her Asian culture,” she says that joining the Chinese Students Club during her first few weeks at Columbia was not a difficult decision.
“I’ll be brutally honest,” she says. “The only reason why I joined CSC was because they were giving out free moon cakes in the basement of Carman Hall.” After that first point of contact—“perfectly situated” to recruit freshmen, she notes wryly—she was invited to attend a CSC mixer in JJ’s Place. “There were so many Asians. I wasn’t used to it, but I was like, ‘OK, I’ll interview, whatever.’” She made it to the second round before being chosen as one of 12 freshman Organizational Committee members, or OCMs, out of an applicant pool of 60.
What Hedan learned over the next few months was that the Chinese Students Club is one of the largest and most powerful student groups in the Asian American community. With a full-time board of 25 people, an annual operating budget in the tens of thousands of dollars, and an email listserv reaching thousands of students and alumni, CSC is, as she puts it, a “well-oiled machine.” Its signature annual cultural showcase, Lunar Gala, is one of the most highly anticipated and well-attended Asian American student events of the year, with a variety of music and dance performances rivaled in vibrancy only by the fashion show. CSC’s Night Market is a similar spectacle, crowding out Low Plaza once a year with lantern-adorned canopies that shelter tables of ethnic food and an outdoor stage. These events are repeated year after year, following the same formula—and, as a result, are flawlessly executed.
Hedan recalls a senior member taking her out for lunch shortly after she joined. “She tried to sound modest about it, but she basically said that CSC was ‘not a joke.’”
As I listened, I felt vaguely uncomfortable. It seemed like such a totalizing experience—and I had to wonder, did I really get to participate? Sure, I’d enjoyed their shows and eaten their food—but aside from that, I was not sure if I had taken away anything meaningful from the events CSC held on campus.
Struggling to unpack this, I turned to Gary Okihiro, who taught my Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies class sophomore year, thinking I could use an academic framework to sort through my emotions.
Sitting in his immaculately clean office, Okihiro explains that celebrating different cultures without a critical lens only serves to reaffirm divides between races, because it glosses over the politics and power that go into creating racial hierarchies in the first place. “Multiculturalism sees cultural difference as a given, and all we have to do is acknowledge them and understand them and appreciate them, which is not just a mistake but is a political move to mitigate the power of ethnic studies in the United States. The power of ethnic studies is that it is a fundamental critique of U.S. society.”
So are student groups that merely celebrate culture being irresponsible? Okihiro pauses, then shakes his head. Events such as Night Market and Lunar Gala “are political events,” he says, “even if the student planners might not realize it. They are an expression of what they perceive to be their own culture. To celebrate it is in its own way a political act, especially in an environment that might denigrate or make fun of it or make light of or homogenize.”
Cindy Gao, a CC senior majoring in comparative ethnic studies and a member of the Asian American Alliance, is dismissive about CSC’s events, which she does not believe to be political.
“I’m from St. Louis, Missouri,” she says. “Every year my dad puts on Chinese culture days at the botanical gardens. In a way, that’s political, because we live in a place where we’re not supposed to do those things. But Columbia is a place that is all about multiculturalism. Yes, of course, you can put on these great culture shows. But I definitely don’t see them as acts of political resistance. One, because they don’t really think of it that way. Two, I think Columbia has a certain view of itself as this beautiful, liberal, multicultural space where everybody can eat each other’s food and go to each other’s culture shows.”
Cindy describes AAA as a “political organization,” not a culture club. On campus, it has hosted everything from Asian American Studies teach-ins to a “privilege workshop” to “Asian American History 101.” It seeks to educate and empower students.
Thus, she explains, it is a mistake to boil down identity to food and performances. “Food is very important to my life as a Chinese woman, but there’s so much more than that. People at these events are like, ‘Wow, I really learned something.’ But what did you really learn? You learned that we have a dance troupe or something,” she says.
Kevin Suh disagrees. A sophomore in CC, Kevin is a brother of the Asian-interest fraternity Lambda Phi Epsilon and the vice president of the Korean Students Association. “I think a defense of culture clubs would be, it’s just students who are interested in those cultures taking an opportunity to explore it more. I think the biggest problem Okihiro has against multiculturalism is when it is politicized and institutionalized. But anyone is free to avoid or not participate in the events that culture clubs organize, so I don’t think there’s a conflict. Now if those clubs started to institutionalize an image and celebration of their race that they expected mainstream society to follow with, then that would be a problem.”
I recalled something similar Okihiro said to me: “If students want to group themselves in certain ways, why not? It only becomes a problem when it excludes other people.”
That’s when it started to make sense and when I realized precisely what my problem was with these student groups—they do exclude other people, even if not explicitly. From my vantage point, their events were political, but not in the courageous way that Okihiro described. Instead, they created a narrow ethnic safe space for themselves that had the effect of leaving others out. I felt marginalized by the very people who had sought to create an Asian American community. I thought back to Julie and to the 48 freshmen who must have felt terrible after getting rejected from the CSC board, and I felt angry.
Having beat out the other applicants for leadership on CSC, Hedan found herself on a fast-track into the inner circle of private Asian American social communities at Columbia. “I joined, and it was really nice because when you come to a campus from somewhere that’s so far away, you look for a home away from home—and CSC became that for me because there were so many older people on board who became mentors for me. At the beginning of the year, the executive board made sure to bring me out to parties, introduce me to other people, like, ‘This is Hedan, this is one of my OCMs. She’s really cool.’ And that really helped.” Before long, she was a regular attendee at invite-only parties and social gatherings.
Navigating the social scene was more than a perk, though—it was a necessity. Every year, CSC members’ ties to Asian American social life are put to the test during board elections, when students running for board positions may invite any Columbia students to attend and vote for them on the condition that the voters remain locked inside a room in Lerner for three hours to prove their commitment.
In principle, the idea of the elections is to keep CSC accountable to its “general body,” a vague term that can refer to anything from member’s close friends to anyone who walks through Night Market and buys a plate of dumplings. In practice, candidates’ fortunes are heavily dependent on the preferences of the Greek organizations who always show up to elections, stay the three hours, and then vote as a block. The result is that CSC members find their standing dependent on their ability to curry favor with the Greek community, especially for a position like president or vice-president. “We are beholden to Greek life,” Hedan says, “but it’s a problem. The bros always come out to just about every single Asian American event. Which is great, but at the same time, there’s the question of, ‘Who is truly a member of the Asian American community?’” It was heartening to hear Hedan express awareness of these problems.
I talked to Derrick Fu, a particularly well-connected member of the Asian American social scene. As the president of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity and a junior in CC, Derrick believes in the importance of uniting Asian American student groups. “We need to reach out to different Asian American groups … get perspectives from like, Club Zamana, Club Bangla, the Organization of Pakistani Students, and so on. They’re Asian American. Bringing together those clubs is important.”
This is a commonly expressed sentiment among student leaders trying to build any sort of community: more co-sponsorships with more diverse groups. But it didn’t satisfy me. While it’s good to talk about expanding the scope of the Asian American student group network, what about looking beyond it as well?
To get a perspective from the outside, I turned to Sueminn Cho, a sophomore in CC who I met my freshman year in the basement of the Intercultural Resource Center at one of the first Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop rap cyphers. Wearing a white hoodie, Air Jordans, and a fitted cap, she proudly announced that she didn’t hang out with any Asians and that she more or less saw herself as black, “hood,” or “ghetto.”
Now, two years later, she sits in my Schapiro single, sporting a simple sweater, jeans, and flats talking about embracing her Asian American identity. She starts her story in elementary school: “I was bullied a lot. There were so many people who had never seen an Asian before—classmates wanted to touch my face. I felt so different that even when we were doing beginning sex ed in sixth grade, half of my mind felt like it wouldn’t happen to me because I felt like a different species than everyone else.”
After moving to New Jersey in high school, Sueminn dated a black boy and then was ostracized by her Korean American friends. “I didn’t check the ‘Asian’ box on my Columbia application … and I carried that into the start of college.”
“I think a lot of us have internalized a lot of self-hate,” she says. “That’s a huge statement to make, but you have to consciously think about it.” She tells me about a few Asian American friends she recently met. “We were talking, and we realized that before we came to Columbia, we’d all say out loud, like, ‘No, I’m not going to date another Asian—I hate Asian American culture!’”
For Sueminn, the turning point came earlier in the year at a ROOTEd discussion where other Asian Americans and hapas (a term for a person who is of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander race) were present. She describes the epiphany: “I’m Asian, ethnically Asian. Even if it’s a social construct, it’s reality enough that I’m treated like that wherever I go. I think that if you’re an individual who happens to be of this ethnicity and if your individuality or personality don’t match up with the stereotypes, that means the stereotype should be expanded to include you and your identity instead of you having to move to another group.”
Nevertheless, she has no interest in joining any of the Asian American cliques on campus. “I’m just not into that type of scene, whether it’s people clinging together because of music or ethnicity. It’s just my personality.”
It started to hit me then how personal the search for identity is. I looked at her and saw a blossoming consciousness that she hadn’t developed through fitting into a crowd of people who looked like herself or earning titles like “OCM” or “VP.” For Sueminn, self-discovery was achieved through grappling with conflict and constructive dialogue.
Nidhi Hebbar, a recent CC graduate and a former resident of the Intercultural Resource Center, also chose not to join ethnic student groups but developed her sense of identity through discussions with supportive friends. “People in the IRC community genuinely want to know who you are and what you are passionate about rather than saying a superficial “hello” and moving on with their lives,” she says. “Communities like the IRC push people to always keep an open dialogue—when you are forced to articulate your thoughts out loud you learn a lot more about yourself and the people around you.”
“I would consider myself an ‘outsider’ of the Southeast Asian community, but not necessarily as a fault of the community itself. I felt that these groups represent only a sliver of Southeast Asian interests—interests that I don’t necessarily share. That’s not to say that the people in the community aren’t friendly and welcoming, because they are.”
As I looked at these individuals who kept themselves separate from the cliques and social circles that I had held up to be sacrosanct, I realized that the idea of an Asian American community that I had carried around for so long—with its culture shows, politics, and drama—only had power over me because I assumed belonging to it was a prerequisite for becoming a real Asian American. But by fixating on the clubs—I was missing out on the conversations that were happening among people on the margins. Asian Americanness had to be developed, not inherited. Becoming a real Asian American wasn’t about wearing the right Greek letters or planning the best culture shows or getting invited to the most parties. It was just about self-acceptance. Suddenly, this so-called Asian American community that I felt I wasn’t good enough for was no longer threatening to me because I realized it was just one community among many, one way of being among infinite possibilities.
But if this is all true, do we have an Asian American community at all? If our experiences are so diverse, is there any meaning to being an Asian American at Columbia, or does it just come down to each of us individually?
“One cannot find oneself in isolation from others,” Okihiro says. “We understand ourselves in relation to others, so we have to understand others to understand ourselves.” If I hadn’t talked to all of these people, listened to them, empathized, and used their stories to think about my own experiences, where would I be right now? Still at square one. “One does not need to build barriers to protect one’s tender self,” Okihiro says. “One is, in fact, curious about what one is not.”
For Cindy, the fact that she has gained an understanding of herself means she has a responsibility to help others. “Even if I’m in AAA and I don’t agree with a lot of people who are Asian American on this campus, I still feel responsibility for them in that this is still an Asian American person in the world—this is still a person who I think would benefit from learning some things, and I still care a certain way. And I don’t think that means I have to be in their clique.”
“I think a lot of people think of me as an angry person,” she says, reflecting. “Which I am. But that anger comes out of deep love, deep passion, and that feeling of responsibility.” After all, she says, we are dependent on others. “It doesn’t mean that we’re all physically together, thinking the same things. I think that’s a dangerous idea because it leads to these feelings of alienation, feelings of, ‘Oh, I wish I had a real community.’ It never works that way, and it shouldn’t work that way. But it’s important to understand that we’re not competing with each other—we’re actually dependent on others in many ways. Maybe AAA is even dependent on CSC for helping to create this image that we want to.”
“I struggle every day with identity,” Hedan admits. “I didn’t realize I had an identity problem before I came here. As an American, I thought I should just integrate. Here, it’s raised more questions than it’s answered. But the first step to finding yourself is to ask a question, so I think it’s a good thing that I joined the Chinese Students Club.”
I thought back to the night of the APAHM opening ceremony. Dean Melinda Aquino of the Office of Multicultural Affairs gave the opening speech: “I encourage you to examine the subtle forms of behavior that dictate who belongs and who doesn’t belong,” she said. “Who’s a part of the community, and what does it look like? Look around—who’s not here? And, more importantly, why?”
Now, thinking back, I realize I never really thought about who wasn’t present. Yet ultimately, “Who’s not here?” is the question that every community should take some time to reflect on. Even as I write about Columbia’s Asian American community in this piece, I have to ask myself: Why did I mostly interview East Asians? Why did I only focus on certain groups? Who might I be excluding with my own narrative, and by writing about my experiences on campus, whose experiences am I glossing over? These are sobering questions—ones that are important if we are to figure out how to create a common humanity.
I wish Julie had heard the speech that followed Aquino’s. It was by a sophomore, Janice Yoon, the current co-chair of APAHM and another “awkward in-between” who had spent the first half of her life in California and the second half in Korea before coming to New York for college.
“My entire life, I took for granted that I identified as Asian American, even living in Asia as an American citizen,” Janice says. “I came to Columbia and left my first year like most freshmen felt: knowing for certain that I knew very little and not knowing where I was exactly and where I wanted to be. But that is the beauty of the school. It shakes you up a little and makes sure you’re not 19 and already overly complacent. It challenges you, momentarily defeats you, but ultimately gives you countless opportunities to redefine and discover yourself.”
It’s true. Looking at the bigger picture, Cindy says, “The Asian American community needs to not say that this is what you look like, this is where you’re from. It needs to say, ‘We’re here now together, and how do we build from that? We have some similar experiences and some that are not.’ And that is the hard part.”
Update: A previous version of this story quoted Derrick Fu as saying Club Bhangra. He actually said Club Bangla.
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