Katherine Zhang didn’t know many other Asians when she was growing up in a white suburban neighborhood outside of Charlotte. As she got older and noticed cultural differences between her family and those of her friends and neighbors, Zhang wondered whether those differences were “because we were crazy or freaks or because we were Chinese.”
Zhang, a senior, shared her observations last fall at “Behind the Yellow Mask,” an informal gathering of Asian and Asian-American students who explored notions of identity and assimilation (or not) into the Duke and Durham community. Some were from families who had lived in the U.S. for decades; others were international students who planned to return to their home countries as soon as they’d earned their Duke degrees. When asked how she identified herself, junior Nadia Estelle-Fiat, a cultural anthropology major, echoed an observation shared by several other students. “I never called myself Asian or thought about being Asian until I got to Duke. I’m from Thailand; I’m Thai.”
Asian and Asian-American students represent the largest minority group on campus. Their presence is creating a ripple effect of institutional change along social, cultural, and academic lines. Just as the continent of Asia encompasses a vast array of countries and cultures, Duke’s Asian and Asian-American population is similarly multidimensional and multifaceted. Here are some of their experiences.
Senior Ian Zhang was born in Duke Hospital when his father, Jing Zhang Ph.D. ’95, was a graduate student in cell biology. He is currently president of the Multicultural Greek Council (MGC), which consists of seven fraternities and sororities with a focus on Latino/a, Asian, and multicultural life.
When I got to Duke, there was a perception that Greek life was the center of the social scene at Duke, so I initially planned to go through the rush process and join one of the fraternities in the IFC [Interfraternity Council]. But my freshman year, I met international students who had arrived straight from China, and I also took a Chinese language course and engaged with many other Chinese-American students. I realized there were parts of my identity that I’d never thought about, so I began the process of exploring and reclaiming that part of myself.
I was drawn to Lambda Phi Epsilon because, like most of the MGC groups, it was a close-knit community. Some fraternities have more than 100 members, but in my fraternity it feels more like a family. We all know each other and each other’s parents. The other main difference is where we focus our philanthropy. We recently joined efforts with [South Asian-interest fraternity] Delta Sigma Iota to register hundreds of new bone-marrow donors on behalf of our community and our national philanthropies.
MGC also works closely with the other Greek organizations to promote cross-council unity and promote understanding of different cultural traditions. We sponsor the Greek Unity Blaze the Stage Stroll Show, where people from different chapters form teams and spend weeks practicing rhythmic dances. It’s the largest Greek unity event on campus. This year we had more than 200 students participating on twenty-eight teams, and more than 1,000 people attended the show in Page Auditorium.
Born into Nepal’s lowest caste, junior Laxmi Rajak faced dim socioeconomic prospects until a scholarship to a local school changed the course of her life. She flourished academically and began to imagine a life of her own making rather than one predestined by birth. A recipient of the Karsh International Scholarship, Rajak has all her Duke expenses covered, including three summers of research. She’s pursuing a double-major in international and comparative area studies and math and a minor in education.
It wasn’t until I got to Duke that I started to think of myself as South Asian, and that was because of how other people defined me. I always just thought of myself as a girl from Nepal. At Duke, I think of myself first as being from Nepal and then as an international student.
When I was growing up, my parents fought, and there was always chaos at home. Girls are viewed as someone else’s property in Nepal, and my father was very unhappy that he had three daughters and only one son. Dance gave me a way to express those feelings of sadness, and it became a huge part of my identity. When I got to Duke, I auditioned and was accepted into Dhoom, which is a fusion dance group combining traditional and modern dance styles. Dhoom has given me a platform to continue my passion.
Through my summer internships, I’ve worked with children in Mumbai and with young girls in Kenya through WISER [Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research]. Before WISER, very few girls in the community went to secondary school. They would drop out or engage in transactional sex to get money for secondary-school fees, which could lead to pregnancy or contracting HIV. By focusing on girls’ education, WISER has made the whole community stronger and healthier.
I’ve been so fortunate to receive my education, and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have been given. Without the support and generosity of other people, I would have never made it to a place like Duke today. It has made me even more motivated to return to Nepal, where social and cultural practices like early marriage and dowry often do no favor for girls in their pursuit of education. However, through my personal experience, I believe that education is the most important way to empower women.
A second-generation Chinese American, senior Remi Sun grew up in California’s Bay Area, which has one of the highest concentrations of Asian and Asian Americans in the U.S. Early in his freshman year, his quest for authentic Asian cuisine led him to a meeting of the Asian Students Association (ASA); he’s now the organization’s president. After graduating this spring, he’ll join Boston Consulting Group’s San Francisco office as an associate consultant.
My ethnic identity had not been a marker for me until I got to Duke because of the predominance of Asian Americans where I grew up. I came to an ASA meeting because of the free food, but I ended up staying because of the people and the conversations taking place: What does it mean to say you are American, or Asian American? Is it when you get a green card? Or is it measured by how long you’ve been in the country?
I know people who are third- and fourth-generation Americans, but they still are considered Asian in their communities.
While I’ve been here, ASA has expanded from being mostly a cultural and social organization to becoming more political. Our Voices series looks at issues related to Asian-American politics broadly, and we also work with other groups like Mi Gente and the BSA [Black Student Alliance] around themes like paths to citizenship or sexual stereotyping of minorities. Another popular topic right now is the “bamboo ceiling,” the preconceived perceptions people have about Asians and their ability to excel or not in certain jobs.
On the other end of the spectrum are Duke students who aren’t involved with ASA or other ethnic and cultural groups because they don’t see themselves defined by their Asian-ness. They primarily identify as members of a particular living group, or a club, or a multicultural dance group like DefMo.
Yan Li is a staff psychologist at CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) specializing in international, immigrant, and Asian and Asian-American student populations. A practicing Buddhist and certified yoga instructor, she employs a counseling style integrating both Eastern and Western psychology, including mindfulness-based treatments and explorations of spirituality.
It’s important to emphasize that Asian and Asian Americans are the most ethnically diverse racial group in the U.S. It is crucial to avoid stereotyping and over-generalizing. So we pay attention to and understand their individual struggle within the context of their unique cultural, developmental, and social environment.
However, there are some challenges that Asian and Asian-American students may be more likely to experience. Acculturation conflicts between parents and children, struggle between interdependence and independence, great pressure to succeed academically, and the model-minority myth all can create tremendous stress and conflict, particularly for international and first-generation Asian students. For example, if the parents don’t speak English very well, the student might be trying to manage the family’s needs while simultaneously trying to keep up with classes and assimilating into a new culture and community.
Developmentally, young adults this age are in the process of forming their adult identity. Asian and Asian-American students also have to think through what it might mean to have a bicultural identity. Are they Asian or American or both? At this crucial and sometimes crisis stage of their identity development, it is important to help students connect or reconnect with their Asian and Asian-American heritage. Hopefully, they will develop a positive and comfortable identity as Asian or Asian American while developing a deeper respect for other racial and cultural heritages.
Most Western counseling approaches value individualism; they emphasize direct emotional expressiveness, self-responsibility, and freedom. Asians are less likely to express emotions openly or verbally. Most Asian students tend to link mind, body, and spirit together to explain their health condition. It is important for mental-health professionals to employ more culturally sensitive and holistic approaches when working with Asian students.
Leo Ching came to Duke in 1994 as an assistant professor of Japanese cultural studies and became chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) undergraduate program in 2004. He is among a group of faculty members working on a proposal for an Asian American Studies certificate, which will be submitted this fall.
The Asian-American experience, like the African-American experience, is part of U.S. history. So viewing Asian-American studies as identity politics is the wrong approach.
For the certificate to be successful, we would want to attract international and non-Asian- American students interested in U.S. history. We also would want faculty members from a variety of disciplines integrating material into their courses, and that’s where Duke’s interdisciplinary approach would be to our advantage.
Racism persists when there is ignorance. So an important part of addressing racism against African Americans has to do with educating people about things like the legacy of slavery and the impact of the civil rights movement. The certificate also would include a service-learning component, whereby students would work directly with people in local Asian-American communities.
Right now we don’t teach Asian-American history in the public education system or at Duke. So when you have parties like Asia Prime [a 2013 party thrown by the Kappa Sigma fraternity] that play on racial stereotypes, it’s not surprising. Making fun of other cultures has a long history—it’s based on ignorance and lack of understanding. It’s also why a lot of students, both Asian and non-Asian, didn’t see why those stereotypes were so hurtful.
During her time at Duke, junior Charlotte Ke has been a PathWays Chapel Scholar and a member of Duke’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and the coed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. She is general programming co-chair for the Duke Culture initiative and vice president for political affairs of the Asian Students Association.
The phrase “model minority” really ticks me off. On a personal level, the stereotype that Asians and Asian Americans are all math-science geniuses doesn’t apply to me. And then when I do really well on something, it’s taken away from me because the assumption is, “Well of course you did well, you’re Asian.” Assigning accomplishments to the race rather than the person erases the value of the individual.
The model-minority myth also erases the struggles of many Asian-American groups. For example, Hmong and Cambodian Americans have the highest poverty rates of any ethnicity or race in the country as well as the lowest high-school graduation rates. On average, 50 percent of Asian-American women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, but they are less likely to report than any other race for a multitude of reasons, including but not limited to fear of losing face as “model minorities.”
It’s also frustrating to hear people talk about how Asians self-segregate. We hear that about IVCF, which has become predominantly Asian and Asian American. But you never hear that Cru [Campus Crusade for Christ] is self-segregating because it’s predominantly white.
At the same time, I do believe in the idea of safe space, not just for Asian and Asian Americans but for people of color in general. Having a place where you’re surrounded by people who look like you, even if their ethnic cultures are somewhat different, is very comforting. When I ask another Asian person where they are from, it’s to determine where our ethnic cultures might coincide. But when a non-Asian person makes comments like, “Oh, your English is so good, where are you from?” it conveys this message that I must be a foreigner or an outsider, that I don’t belong here.
GO DEEPER in this story with this look at The Multitudes Project: While teaching the house course "Special Topics of Asian American Social Justice," Tong Xiang '13 and senior Katherine Zhang explored questions of Asian parenting, sexuality, affirmative action, activism, and art. They sought to expand the conversation by inviting Duke students who identified as Asian to participate in "Multitudes," a photography exhibition that went on display at the Perkins Student Art Gallery in the spring of 2012. The exhibition, excerpted here, featured forty portraits of students, accompanied by text that completes the sentence: "I am Asian and.........." Project co-director Zhang is shown in the first slide, which follows the organizers' Artistic Statement.