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Staying Away From the Political Fray

Asian-American Groups at Harvard

By Lan N. Nguyen

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."

In the past, Asian ethnic groups have been charged with being nothing more than social clubs, gathering places for people of the same ethnicity to self-segregate.

"I sort of think organizations like AAA and KOHR are sort of racist," says Paul N. Matsui '93. "I can realize the importance of getting a part of your society and heritage. But what I saw when I went in the beginning is that they're exclusive and seem to exclude other minorities. I don't reject them; they're not right for me."

Joonhung J. Min '93 adds that organizations like KOHR are "very clique. KOHR is a place where a bunch of insecure Koreans get together."

But ethnic club supporters deny the charges of self-segregation by emphasizing that the purpose of the clubs is to promote ethnicity.

"Ethnic clubs are not self-segregating," says Kiang. "That is often the mistaken and misguided argument about ethnic clubs. People are coming from the wrong assumption that mainstream culture is the only culture."

Staying Away From Politics

As most of Harvard's Asian-American clubs focus on cultural and social affairs, few take a stand on political issues. And while individuals are free to adopt political causes, members of ethnic Asian organizations say that politics causes dissension within clubs, which are meant to unify the minority students.

"It's nice to do culture and meet other Vietnamese people," says Nhan Vo '93 about HVA. "I like it the way it is. Politics always divided the Vietnamese people. When Vietnamese people get into politics, we get into trouble. We fight with other people and with each other," he says.

"When you bring up an issue and HVA has to take a stand, who in HVA will make it? The majority will, but then the minority, will they break away because they disagree? The goal right now is to be a social and cultural group," says Trang T. Nguyen '90, co-president of HVA.

Many Asian-Americans say they are reluctant to involve themselves in politics because of familial pressures. With parents who suffered from the upheavals created by politics, children were warned not to get involved with politics for fear of "being dragged into dirty politics," says Stephen W. Chik '87.

"There has always been a cultural mentality that students should not mess around in politics according to their parents," says Chik. "Parents told their children that when they become members of a community, they will get hurt."

Asian groups also shy away from politics because Asian-Americans lack a single political agenda, students say. Leaders assert that many cultures are represented in the word "Asian-American," cultures that in past centuries warred with each other.

"In terms of cohesion, Asian-Americans are a complicated population--different societies and cultures," says Kiang. "It is very understandable why there is a lack of cohesion, which explains the lack of an Asian-American political voice."

Finally, some Asian-Americans, notably those of Korean and Vietnamese descent, have difficulty understanding the issues and engaging in discussion because many have recently immigrated to the United States and have a difficult time communicating in English, says Lee.

The Internal Debate

The question over whether Asian clubs should address political issues has continually plagued many of these groups.

In his attempts to expand the CSA's agenda to include politics, Chik says a division occurred within the club when some members felt it should only be cultural.

"The issue has always been: should we be a social and cultural or political club? I favored a stance in all areas--social, political and cultural," says Chik.

When Asian students wish to get involved in political issues, they do so outside of the clubs. They either join politically oriented organizations like AAA or volunteer the manpower and "moral support" AAA needs to stage an event, says David S. Chiu '91, AAA co-president.

The AAA has traditionally been looked on as the political representative of the Asian community at Harvard.

"There is a tradition in AAA to fight to get Asian-Americans recognized as a minority group," says Arlene M. Mayeda '91, co-president of AAA.

For example, in Lowell, Mass., where there is a large contingent of Southeast Asian refugees, AAA is helping in the fight to prevent the city from making English its official language "to the exclusion of their own language," says Chiu.

But AAA, the largest Asian group on campus, has also chosen to play a more active role in Asian social and cultural events as part of their strategy to get students involved, according to Cara J. Wong '92, an AAA steering committee member. Once students are involved, she says, then members can learn about politics and participate in the club's political activities.

By expanding its role in the social and cultural areas, AAA is also trying to unify other ethnic clubs, says Theo K. Cheng '91, vice president of AAA. This year's AAA is seeking to "be more encompassing" by sponsoring the annual Cultural Food Fest and last fall's semi-formal Autumn Dance, for example, Cheng says.

But ethnic club and AAA leaders are quick to assert the independence of Asian ethnic clubs from AAA. While students and administrators refer to AAA as the "umbrella group" for all Asian clubs, that is not the case, says Cheng. "AAA is independent with a different mandate than [other ethnic clubs have.]"

It is difficult to predict whether other Asian-American groups will follow the lead of AAA and eventually enter the realm of politics. But Asian-Americans say that until they can find a unified voice, the clubs will keep quiet on Asian affairs.

"The Vietnamese community in America is still in a precarious standing," says Vinh Q. Nguyen '91, HVA co-president. "If we fight among ourselves because of politics, we will disgrace ourselves in front of the American public."

Today's Snapshots page is the first in a regular feature series appearing on alternate Mondays.

Snapshots will take a closer look at Harvard students and their lives. It will examine many of the student activities and clubs on campus, and will profile some of the more outstanding students at the University.

Rather than simply chronicling the events around campus, Snapshots seeks to give a vivid description--a snapshot--of student life at Harvard.

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