By Sarah Hong
Two of the greatest hallmarks of democracy are political interest and free elections. Perhaps that’s why so many SIPA students vigorously campaign for themselves every November to get a seat in student groups of their choice — they believe that they have the merit and potential to contribute to the common good of our SIPA community. In order to gain votes, they make fancy posters with LinkedIn-quality headshots, hand out candies while pitching agendas, and sometimes get their friends to campaign for them through social media, like Facebook or WhatsApp.
The Latin American Student Association (LASA), one of the biggest communities in SIPA, is no exception when it comes these election processes. This year, a candidate with an “Asian” last name applied for the Cultural Chair position, and one of his friends decided to campaign for him in the SIPA-wide WhatsApp group chat. Usually, the chat dies down after a couple heart or “hands-up-in-the-air” emojis, but not this time. Someone decided to reply with what they considered a joke: “Afraid [the candidate] got somewhat lost…” Immediately, many Asians and non-Asians rushed to explain that the candidate has a Mexican, Chinese, and Ecuadorian background, and someone tried to dissipate the tension by saying that Latinos have a great sense of humor and so we shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. The chat moved on.
Or did it?
Although many of us were thankful that people came to correct the situation, to a lot of Asian-identifying SIPA students, this wasn’t anything new. In Frank H. Wu’s Race in America Beyond Black and White, Wu describes the idea of Asians and Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners” (although as seen in the former example, this experience isn’t unique to Asian Americans only). By assuming that we have a stronger relationship with the country of our ethnic heritage than the country we were born in or reside in, we become second-class citizens who are unable to become full authentic citizens of the country we live in. And trust me when I say we feel it in SIPA. During orientation week, we come across at least one disappointed face when our answer wasn’t Tokyo or Taipei to the question of where we are really from; we know that whenever the class topic involves China or North Korea, our professors and classmates turn to us to see if we have any “two cents” to contribute. I’m not trying to say that their assumptions aren’t logical, because we do have a high number of international Asian students at SIPA, but it’s precisely those assumptions that hurt and silo us. We will always be seen as foreigners. The moment we speak our mother tongue with our friends in front of others, we become the other.
Not only are we the perpetual foreigners, but we are also seen as a monolithic race. I assume this generalization feels similar to Latin Americans or Africans when others cannot, and do not, care to see differences within the bordering countries. Some of my friends experienced this during the Halloween boat party. Someone came up to them to campaign, saying that they need vote from “Chinese students”, and when my friends said that they’re not Chinese, the person laughed and said that it doesn’t matter since they are still Asian. Geographically, yes, China is in East Asia, but to assume that all Asian students would think the same - let alone disregard personal values and characteristics - is an ignorant way of understanding who we are. Some people at SIPA even seems to think that all Asians look the same. In the beginning of the semester, a professor for one of my friend’s classes called 3 different other Asian names on the photo roster before guessing my friend’s name, brushing it off and saying that she looks “different from her photos”.
To complicate matters even more, there’s an invisible line of distinction between the Asian Americans, Asian [insert a non-Asian country that is not the United States], and Asians who came to the U.S. to study, perhaps unknown to those outside of the community. While some choose to embrace their “Asian-ness” by participating in cultural events and being the spokesperson of their ethnicity, others avoid being seen as too “fobby” (“fresh off the boat”, a derogatory term for immigrants who have arrived from a foreign nation and have yet to assimilate into the host nation's culture). An ethnically Asian SIPA graduate shared with me how they felt like a “stranger in [their] culture” when they tried to search for the sense of belonging and home through a SIPA organization; this not only felt like a rejection, but also created an uncollaborative dynamic within the group, because they didn’t fit in “culturally”. Another SIPA student shared with me how she doesn’t speak Vietnamese with mainland Vietnamese students, because she fears that her speaking ability isn’t good enough. It’s almost as if her experience of growing up in a Vietnamese household is invalidated - she feels alienated from both her western-ness and Vietnamese-ness.
If I’m being critical of myself, I’m guilty of perpetuating all of the aforementioned behaviors too. I’ve certainly distanced myself from the “fobs” because I’ve been living in Canada and the U.S. for more than half of my life. I’ve also joked with my friends about how their Korean isn’t perfect or how they don’t know what I consider crucial “Asian childhood memories”. I’ve been surprised when I realize that someone has multiple ethnicities, or lived in a country that I didn’t expect to hear. And I understand that I act that way because of how I’ve been socialized. As humans, we are socialized into categorizing people into different communities. Subconsciously, certain skin color, hair, clothes they wear, accents, and how they carry themselves become more than what is at the face value.
Still, if we want to grow as individuals and as future policymakers, we need to do better than this. We need to recognize what biases we hold, how we are socialized to believe in those stereotypes, and stop ourselves from perpetuating them even further. We live in a global age in which we are no longer caged into a single version of ourselves. We will come across many others who were born in one country, to parents of multiple ethnicities, only to live in different countries than the country they were born in — we cannot let our preconceived notion of “who is supposed to be who” get in the way of changing the world for the better.
I’m not writing this article to claim that Asian and Asian American communities are the biggest victims nor to say that we are perfect. We can spend thousands of hours talking about anti-blackness in our community, the privilege of being East Asian in comparison to being Southeast or South Asian, or classism and the financial gap that exist within our communities. I’m writing this article to share, as an insider-who-sometimes-feels-like-an-outsider, what it’s like being an Asian at SIPA and what we are up against. I believe that being vulnerable about our experiences and sharing multiple perspectives help break down barriers; I hope others can share their own experiences to create SIPA culture that respects both our heritage and individualism that make us who we are.