Staying Away From the Political Fray

Asian-American Groups at Harvard

Asians and Asian-Americans at Harvard have had much to be concerned about over the past year.

Last spring, hundreds of thousands of Chinese assembled in Tiananmen Square to press for democratic reform in their homeland. But when hard-liners gained the upper hand in government, the army fired into the crowd, killing hundreds, many of them students.

And last month, the news was dominated by a battle between President Bush and Congress over the fate of Chinese students whose visas were expiring.

Officially, though, most of Harvard's Asian-American groups were quiet on the issues. But in response to the Tiananmen massacre, some of the established Asian groups created an independent organization--Students for Democratic China--that condemned the Chinese government.

This indirect approach to politics by groups of Asian-American students at Harvard typifies the unique character of these groups, which have been influenced by internal debate over the role of the groups and by a historical tendency towards avoiding politics.

Focus on Asian Culture

Founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Asian-American ethnic groups like the Chinese Student Association (CSA), the Harvard Vietnamese Association (HVA) and the Koreans of Harvard-Radcliffe (KOHR), were formed to provide a place for Asian-Americans to socialize with others of the same ethnic background.

These clubs sponsor speeches and forums that deal with ethnic issues, cultural events like "food fest" and discussions with established Asian-American professionals about the role of minority groups in the world.

But the importance of ethnic clubs lies not so much in the events they hold as what they stand for, says Peter N. Kiang '80, lecturer of Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and former member of the Asian-American Association (AAA).

"Ethnic clubs are essential for ethnic students and valuable for the population and community as a whole, especially at institutions like Harvard where you are a minority and don't have a long history," says Kiang.

Members of ethnic groups say that Asian-Americans occupy an unique place in American society. On one hand, they say, they feel an affinity with those of the same cultural heritage.

"To be American is an amorphous thing," says Hajime A. Tokuno '88, former president of the Japanese Cultural Society (JCS). "To be American is not a defined thing as being Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese."

But on the other hand, says KOHR President Chung Joon Lee '90, Asian-American students still maintain a variety of interests and backgrounds. "Koreans are very diverse. That is the attraction. They want to learn more about Koreans and what it means to be Korean."

Minority students automatically become members of an ethnic club when they are admitted to the College. But students say that many of these ethnic groups are tailored to Asian-Americans rather than to Harvard students whose permanent residence is in Asia.

"CSA is a club for Chinese-Americans," says CSA President Jeanne N. Yee '90. "Being Chinese and Chinese-American are two separate cultures. Chinese students don't join because they don't see a need to get to know their backgrounds."