"WE WERE NEVER SUPPOSED TO BAND TOGETHER": THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE AASC

INTERVIEWS & EDITING BY SOPHIA JENNINGS ('16), CREATIVE DIRECTOR

PHOTOS BY RICK MANAYAN ('17), STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Last Wednesday, METHOD hosted a photoshoot and roundtable discussion with the board of the Asian American Student Collective. Seated in the living room of the Community Engagement House, I asked three questions. “Who are you?” “Where do you come from?” and “Why did you join the AASC?” What followed was a discussion on identity, narrative, and community on the Wesleyan campus.

HARIM JUNG. SENIOR MUSIC & PSYCHOLOGY MAJOR. MADISON, NJ.

ON COMING TO WESLEYAN... Prior to coming here, I never really thought or even heard the term of "Asian American". I come from a mostly white suburb in New Jersey and had very limited interactions with other Asian Americans. The only community I had that consisted of Asian Americans was the Korean church. 

ON THE KOREAN COMMUNITY... When I first came to Wesleyan I tried to explore what it means to be Korean American, tried to reconnect with this Korean culture that I never felt connected to. So I got really involved in the Korean community my freshman year but realized the culture was something I really didn’t identify with, something that I’m really distant from. Because I was born and raised in America, there were a few things about Korean culture that I just couldn’t understand. It hurt me to hear sexist and misogynistic things from my peers. Especially because I come from a single mother household and my family has a history of domestic violence.

ON THE AASC... Sophomore year I took Intro to Sociology and read a paper about the lack of media representation of Asian Americans on TV. That really opened my eyes and made me question what it means to be Asian American, what this identity. is. Ever since joining sophomore year, I’ve been trying to understand that identity and really claiming that. It’s helped me get a sense of a community and a voice on campus. And I learned a lot about the different forms of micro aggressions and racisms that I experienced while growing up that I was completely unaware of.

ON THE MODEL MINORITY... Just the myth itself, it completely neglects an entire history of oppression of Asians in America. Also in present day, saying all Asians are model minorities is just neglecting an entire population of lower socail economic status Asian Americans from a whole bunch of different backgrounds. It's ignorant.

GRACE WONG. SOPHOMORE AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES & FGSS MAJOR. QUEENS, NY.

ON FINDING A VOICE... I came to Wesleyan because of the African American Studies program, and looking back I used that topic as a way to navigate being a person of color in a white dominated society. AASC for me has been a place where I don’t have to be an ally, I can be the person voicing my oppression. Its really hard to find spaces where you can voice how you feel when you’re only talking about anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

ON KNOWING YOUR HISTORY... I’ve had this shocking realization that knowing your history, and knowing your ancestors past is a privilege. Cause I don’t know my family’s past, my grandparent’s past. In my mind they just appeared, and then there’s me. You don’t know the context of where they grew up and what they were like at all. What I know about my grandparents is that they were born in China and then my parents moved to Queens. and that’s about it. So I can pretty much give you my familial story in two sentences. When I ask my parents about my grandparents the conversation goes, "they were at war and then they died". I’m not even sure what war. We don’t even learn about wars Asian Americans had to participate in. And then, especially when you’re trying to assimilate, US History becomes your history which is another form of preverse oppression.

ON ACTIVISM... There’s this image of activism as being cool on campus. But this stuff is our survival, our emotional mental and physical survival and we need this space to continue functioning as eloquent human being. But, when asians get together and hang out people get threatened.

SARAH CHEN SMALL. SOPHOMORE UNDECLARED. SAN FRANCISCO, CA.

ON BEING MIXED... I’m the most white person here. I’m mixed. and I’ve never been part of a Student of Color group.  I think in some ways growing up in an Asian dominant community, I spent a lot of time being in between white and Asian. Maybe because there are less Asians here, I feel a lot more accepted. There was never a question about me being in AASC. And you know my last name is Small and I’m like eight thousand feet taller than most people in this group. And I play volleyball which on the east coast is a very white girl sport.  And I certainly talk like a Cali girl.

ON AN ACADEMIC SPACE... I took Afro-Asian Intersections in the Americas with Amy Tang, and that’s how I got asked to be on the board. And that’s something we’ve fought for a lot. Culturally maybe you can find friends who understand your heritage but finding the politicized and academic space is so hard when you don’t have AASC and the classes that bring people in.  I'd never had a class that reflected my own history. I was so overwhelmed and I think a lot of the people in the class were having a similar experience. It’s sorta insane its taken us this long for all of us to get here and push for these classes. I really wanna make sure those classes stay a part of Wesleyan culture because without that class I wouldn’t have found AASC.

ON KNOWING YOUR HISTORY... When there’s so much trauma in our family backgrounds, and language barriers, its really hard to piece together the fragments of the small amount of Asian American History we’ve learned in school or the fragments of your family histories that we know.  I still don’t know what context my family lived their lives in, I couldn’t place a Revolution or a War but I know there was violence. Not knowing your history is very normal for Asian Americans and also very disorienting. I think in that way, we sort of piece together each other's stories when we come together and realize that multiple people have these shared experiences. It’s like the extended family story.

ON DEFINING PEOPLE OF COLOR... I never indentify as a Woman of Color. And I think its more complicated being mixed, and mixed with white, but I think when people strongly say, ‘yes, I’m a Person of Color,” you don’t want to erase darker peoples, you don’t want to erase the very real struggles of people who come from a history of enslavement. Because realistically, our histories are very different. But I think we’re very aware of that and it doesn’t have to be exclusive, that you say Person of Color and you don’t understand your privilege. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we talk about these things. We’re really focused on being better allies and always trying to work with the greater community. People assume that If you say POC you don't understand your privilege, but if you don’t say you're POC then you’re a traitor. And you’re leaning towards the white. And this is so a thing with Asian Americans being the middleman minority. It’s all about choosing and positioning. That’s why its really important to self identify.

ON THE ASIAN STEREOTYPE... With all these discussions about what we mean when we say Asian American, there’s such a clear stereotype that comes up and is so isolating to people in the Asian American community. 'Cause you don’t expect Asian Americans to come together and be political and talk about these issues. You just expect us to put our noses in our books. And that’s whats so liberating about this group is realizing how we are all so totally defying these stereotypes. We’re diverse Asian Americans.

 

 

JENNIE HE. SENIOR PHILOSOPHY & FGSS MAJOR. BUFFALO, NY.

ON BREAKING DOWN THE RACE BARRIER... I joined AASC cause the thought of joining was uncomfortable to me. It’s been a trend of mine to dive in to the uncomfortableness. I started out my activism in sexual assault, gender violence, women rights. I was so comfortable in gender equity, that I was never cognizant of my race and how it played a factor in all these gender politics. And when I was told that I should be more intersectional, when I was called out on my white feminism, I remember thinking, why do we need to take down race at the same time as we’re taking down gender stereotypes and gender barriers? It wasn’t until I started to really try and understand oppression and greater social barriers that I realized in order to take down one thing you need to take down the whole.

ON STANDING TOGETHER... AASC has been branded as extremists. I'm not quite sure where the motivation for this claim comes from. Last year we had a photo campaign against micro aggressions, we had talks on cross-cultural solidarity, and we had discussions on reenergizing and reimagining Asian America. Although all of these "rock the boat," none of these actions were drastic or fanatical, if anything, they were discursive. I feel that the reason why the actions of AASC are catalogued and dismissed as radical extremists is because we [Asian Americans] were never supposed to exist in this social landscape. We were never supposed to band together. The existence of AASC where Asian Americans connect with each other and support each other is terrifying for the current status quo. We're supposed to assimilate. We're supposed to just expunge our history and become this "model minority." I think people see a group of marginalized identities uniting together as a threat. Our existence very much ruptures the docile, obedient stereotype that we have been forced into. Standing together is a revolutionary act. 

ON LOOKING FORWARD... I guess the verb that I’m fucking with right now, is activated. Activated Asian Americans, activate Asian America. Yes we do have a diversity of opinions and backgrounds but we don’t have nearly as much diversity as we want. A lot of the rhetoric of what it means to be Asian American is being a first and a half generation Asian American, language barriers, generation barriers. Going home to Asian parents and speaking a different language. Which is not just Asian America. There are so many other nuances involved, there are so many other backgrounds that we haven’t been able to activate at all. So we’ve been actively reaching out to South East Asian, Pacific Islanders, Hawaians, because those people are also part of the Asian diaspora but they’re not spoken about. We are very East Asian heavy but we’re actively trying to get rid of that and make us more inclusive cause what Asian America should be is not East Asian America.

LIAM TRAN. JUNIOR MUSIC & THEATER MAJOR. HOUSTON, TX.

ON VIETNAM... I grew up with a very different background than my fellow board members because my culture is marked by major American wars. I’m Vietnamese. And the Vietnam War was a huge part of my parents’ lives, my grandparents' lives. I learned a lot more doing genealogy in high school than I ever learned growing up. I learned that I had an uncle that passed during the Vietnam War when he was fighting, I learned that both my grandfathers fought on my the American side. I learned that my dad and a lot of his siblings suffered from malnutrition. And when we see this kind of family history of suffering, we can find it in a lot of other people in the AASC community. When we talk about our parents, and the way they don’t wanna talk about their history, it’s very evident in a lot of immigrant children.

ON DEFINING MINORITIES... One of the first questions we talked about when I got to Wesleyan was, ‘are Asians People of Color?” And I responded yes very vehemently. But I guess, not everyone identifies that way. Which is very interesting. I’ve always lived with a philosophy that your identity is your identity so if you tell me yes or no I will respect that. If you tell me you are not a Person of color then fine. I myself will always say I’m a Person of Color. But for someone else to say, Asian Americans are not People of Color is kind of insulting. Cause for so long, I feel like a lot of Americans tried to define minority to say this is what a minority should be like, and make us fight against each other to vie for this approval of white America. And I think its ridiculous cause we can be people of color. Just because these stereotypes exist does not mean I have to abide by them. I say I’m a Person of Color so stfu and accept that.

ON ASKING QUESTIONS... The beauty of this group is there is no hard fast definition of Asian American, every single person in the meeting gets to decide for themselves what Asian American means to them. Our club allows people to find themselves by having this huge support group behind them. We, as a club, are not here to tell you what to think. We’re here to help you form you own thoughts.

KATE DAVIS. SENIOR ECONOMICS MAJOR, CEAS MINOR. RED HOOK, NY.

ON WESLEYAN... Unlike some of the people in AASC, I grew up in a very, very, white community. So when I got to Wesleyan, I, unlike a lot of people here, thought, wow look how diverse this place is. And honestly, before coming to Wesleyan, I didn’t identifymuch with my Asian American identity. It just wasn’t something that was a way I would express myself or think about myself in the context of the community around me.  No one ever told me that I was a Person of Color.

ON CHINA... While l was abroad in China, I thought a lot about my identity because for some reason, they aren’t really aware that you can have multiple identities, Chinese-American. They were confused why I look Chinese but said I was American. I didn’t even try and say I was Chinese-American. But I think when I was in China I thought a lot about both sides of that identity so when I came back to campus it was something that I really wanted to explore. So that’s when I applied to be on the board.

ON THE AASC... I guess the one thing about the AASC that makes it so unique is the diversity of backgrounds. We do all identify as Asian American but we all have different experiences. I was adopted, so I grew up with the whitest background ever. And you know, in many ways I think that was a privilege cause I had had an upbringing that was very comfortably middle class in a small suburban area of New York. That makes the identity of being Asian American or being a Person of Color I think different because it is strange to identify as something that your parents can’t identify as.

ASHLEY INJI WANG. SOPHOMORE BIOLOGY MAJOR. PEQUANNOCK, NJ.

ON FITTING THE MOLD... I come from a very white community. I was born and raised in Northern New Jersey, and 96% of my town is made up of white people. So inevitably, I was labeled and understood as my ethnicity, or the misrepresentation of my ethnicity in a white society rather, and not as an individual. Back at home I was always worrying whether or not I fit in with the Asian stereotype. And I always felt like I had to justify myself in regards to how much I fit, or didn’t fit, the stereotype. If I liked math or science, then I would have to say, ‘oh it’s because I’m Asian.’ But then, if I liked English or art, I felt like I was trying to defy a stereotype. And in hindsight, that shouldn’t have been an issue. I should be able to like what I want to like, without any worry of whether I fit or defy something that shouldn’t exist. Just because a stereotype exists doesn’t mean I have to abide by it either.

ON WESLEYAN... When I came here it was so refreshing to see that there was an Asian community. Of course, the stereotypes and microaggressions don’t magically go away once in you’re in a more liberal and accepting place, but I was fortunate enough to find a community where I can share my experiences and build myself as a person. I didn’t have this safe space before coming here. And even outside of AASC and the general Asian community, I have met plenty of people on campus who are more than willing to listen to and take in my perspective as an Asian American.

ON THE AASC... A lot of people tend to think that Asian Americans who are socio-politically active are extremists. But I think it’s pretty extreme to not care and talk about these issues – to not feel compelled to be seen as an individual with definitively different experiences from another individual of the same race. Our voicing of these concerns and feelings of misrepresentation are completely warranted.