Exploring Identity: The Asian American Experience at Harvard

While last year’s “I, Too, Am Harvard” focused on identity and belongingness on a multiracial campus, Harvard’s AAPI students will also examine these concepts within the context of their own community.
By Madeline R. Lear and Connie Yan
By Maia R. Silber

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UPDATED: September 25, 2014, at 1:15 p.m.

It is a Saturday night, and it is raining—two factors counting against attendance at the talk co-hosted by Harvard’s Asian American Brotherhood and Black Men’s Forum. But a surprising number of people have filtered through the double doors of Boylston Hall, filling the plush red chairs only vaguely oriented around an old-fashioned projector. Stragglers lean against the shade-less windows, their elbows forming perpendicular angles with the droplets pounding on the other side.

Really, it’s no surprise that neither weather nor the opportunity cost of missed social engagements has deterred the audience; the talk centers on the buzz-worthy issue of affirmative action. Both campus groups have invited an alumnus who’s an expert on the issue for two short presentations, to be followed by a Q&A.

Gregory D. Kristof ’15, the education and politics director of AAB, a campus organization whose mission statement cites dedication to brotherhood, service, and activism, introduces AAB’s alumnus. Kristof focuses on the third part of AAB’s mission—the group’s discussions of discrimination and race-relations.

“We can only make so much progress if we only discuss these issues among AAB—among Asian Americans,” he says.

Gregory D. Kristof ’15 is the education and politics director of AAB, a campus organization whose mission statement cites dedication to brotherhood, service, and activism.
Gregory D. Kristof ’15 is the education and politics director of AAB, a campus organization whose mission statement cites dedication to brotherhood, service, and activism. By Madeline R. Lear

As discussions about race and inclusiveness have moved to the forefront of campus life with the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, many Asian American student organizations have launched their own dialogues about issues pertinent to their community. But the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community at Harvard—representing around 24 percent of the school’s population—encompasses individuals of dozens of different national, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and religious identities. It includes students born here and students born in Asia, biracial students and multiracial students. How can a unified political force emerge from such a diverse and multifaceted population? Is this even a goal to aspire to?

Since last semester, Harvard’s AAPI community has seen the organization of a town hall meeting for the discussion of Asian American causes, the revival of multinational groups like the Asian American Women’s Association, and an emerging social network of students exploring pan-Asian and Pacific Islander identity.

At the same time, student groups continue to foster communities around unique national identities, while individual students determine whether and how to define themselves within a broader ethnic and cultural framework. While last year’s “I, Too, Am Harvard” focused on identity and belongingness on a multiracial campus, Harvard’s AAPI students will also examine these concepts within the context of their own community.

‘Who is Asian American and where is Asia America?’

It’s difficult to align an ethnicity with a continent large enough to be divided into five distinct regions—central, south, southeast, east, and west—and 48 countries. “Asian” citizens of the United States hail from all parts of the continent; U.S. Census data counts the 3.8 million Chinese Americans as America’s largest Asian population. Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and Korean Americans account for 3.4, 3.1, 1.7, and 1.7 million U.S. citizens, respectively.

Though the Harvard College Admissions Office does not provide a demographic breakdown of the proportion of the Class of 2018 that identifies as Asian American, a quick glance at the official list of student organizations reveals groups representing China, Hong Kong, Iran, Hawaii, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

“We have to ask, who is Asian American, and where is Asia America?’” says H. Blessing Jee ’17, who revitalized the multinational Asian American Women’s Association with Bernadette N. Lim ’16 and Nu Xiong '17 last semester.

Blessing Jee '17 is the co-president of the Asian American Women's Association.
Blessing Jee '17 is the co-president of the Asian American Women's Association. By Connie Yan

According to Anthropology professor Christine R. Yano, the term “Asian American” only came about in the 1970s. “It seems strange that it’s thought of as one category. If you talked to people from, say, Japan, and said their alignment is supposed to be with South Asians, they would vehemently protest,” she said.

Whether because East Asians are the largest or the most affluent Asian demographic in the United States, popular “Asian American” representations tend to depict individuals of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—but not say, Indian or Malaysian— descent. For non-East Asian Harvard students, this can make being identified within a broader “Asian American” category difficult.

“There have been moments on campus when I’ve said ‘As an Asian…’ and people said ‘But you’re not Asian,’” says Eman Riaz Ahmed ’16, co-president of the Pakistan Student Association. “Um, yes, I’m South Asian. I’m not sure why Indian and Asian American and South Asian are not the same thing in people’s heads.”

Jane Jacob '16 is the current co-president of the South Asian Association.
Jane Jacob '16 is the current co-president of the South Asian Association. By Connie Yan

When it comes to cross-organizational efforts, collaborations have tended to follow regional lines.
“The obvious collaborations are between us and the Pakistan Student Association,” says Jane Jacob ’16, co-president of the South Asian Association. “Then the Chinese Students Association and the Korean Association. That’s something we wanted to talk about [at a town hall for AAPI students] last year—why that’s happening.”

Many students remain unsure as to how to define their own identities. “Sometimes I think of myself as Asian, but sometimes I don’t,” said Jacob. “When I see an Asian collaboration happening, do I automatically think that we should be included? Not necessarily.”

“Asian American” identities are further complicated by biracial and multiracial heritages. Harvard’s Half Asian People’s Association holds an annual discussion called “So What Are You Anyway?”
“When we get together, people always ask, ‘Do you feel more Asian or more white?’” says outgoing HAPA president Allison W. Giebisch ’16, who is of half-Austrian and half-Chinese descent. “When I go to China, people don’t think I’m Chinese. In the U.S., people don’t think I’m American.”

Allison Giebisch '16 is the former co-president of the Harvard Half Asian People's Association.
Allison Giebisch '16 is the former co-president of the Harvard Half Asian People's Association. By Connie Yan

And what about the “American” in “Asian American?” Many students born and raised in Asia also identify as Asian American, like Crimson news editor Michelle Denise L. Ferreol ’15, an international student from the Philippines and former president of the Harvard Philippine Forum. Ferreol notes the presence of cultural differences between those raised here and those raised in the Philippines. “There’s a divide between national Filipinos and American Filipinos that exists and is obvious from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean the divide is unbreakable.”

Harvard Asian American Alumni Association president Bill Yao ’90 says that his organization recently decided to include Asian-born alums, with the philosophy that anyone can self-identify as “Asian American.”

Getting Involved

Whether and however students define their identities, the decision to actively participate in Harvard’s AAPI community—particularly by joining an official student organization—is not always an obvious one.

Jee, who got involved with AAWA during her freshman spring, was initially hesitant to align herself with an official group: “Coming in to Harvard, I was literally split—one [part] of me thought I was going to embrace my roots, as cheesy as that sounds, and the other side wanted to do whatever I wanted absent of race. [It wasn’t until] second semester [that] I really started to find a community there.”

Qasim Khan ’16, Ahmed’s co-president of the Pakistan Student Association, initially feared that as an international student, joining a cultural organization could alienate him from the broader student body. “You don’t want to come to Harvard and have the first thing you do be make a clique,” he said. “That’s the worst thing you can do in a place like this.”

For others, AAPI cultural organizations provided a much-needed sense of community. Sherry Z. Liu ’16 joined the Organization of Asian American Sisters in Service (OAASIS) after talking to a fellow Asian American member of the varsity swim team, which was mostly white at the time, about wanting to discuss her cultural and racial identity with students who might better understand her perspective.
“Sometimes when I talk about how my parents do things in a certain way, I feel as if people outside of the Asian identity might view that as a novelty or a source of humor. That weirded me out, when I realized those people were kind of laughing at me—because the whole thing was so foreign to them,” she explained.

Sherry Z. Liu ’16 is a member of the Organization for Asian American Sisters in Service (OAASIS).
Sherry Z. Liu ’16 is a member of the Organization for Asian American Sisters in Service (OAASIS). By Madeline R. Lear

After attending one of the organization’s “edu-pols,” group discussions about Asian American issues, during the recruitment process, Liu felt that she had finally found a safe space to discuss serious issues: “It was the first time I was with people openly talking about their identities. There was no joking, no passing comments about how ‘Asian’ we were…[it was] something to be taken seriously and meaningfully.”

Jee said that, despite her initial hesitation, becoming involved with AAWA “filled some kind of hole that was empty first semester.”

Socializing and Social Justice

For students who do choose to become active participants in Harvard’s official AAPI community, organized efforts might include social, cultural, service-oriented, or activist activities.

While some organizations, like AAB and OAASIS, include activism and/or political outreach among their founding pillars, other groups, like the South Asian Association, have recently made an effort to develop their emphasis beyond community-building in an effort to draw in new members and engage in serious campus discussions.

When it comes to cross-organizational collaborations, there are several long-standing intergroup traditions centered on culture and socializing. The Chinese Students Association, for instance, collaborates with other AAPI groups on events like the Crush party, the Moon Cake Study Break, and the Utopia boat party.

Activism-oriented collaborations, while on the rise, might be more difficult to foster.
From a historical perspective, Yano noted, “being a politicized group is something that’s quite foreign [to the Asian American community]…Asians haven’t been known to agitate.”

Some students said that the pervasive nature of the model minority myth—the idea that Asian Americans compose a nearly uniformly successful ethnic group and therefore do not suffer from discrimination—could make it difficult to call attention to Asian American political causes.

“Yes, there will never be an Asian Michael Brown, and it’s hard to rally the community every couple months when someone makes an offensive t-shirt,” says Crimson arts editor Alan R. Xie ’16, referencing a t-shirt a student made for the popular course ER18: “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” which featured a stereotypical image of a Chinese man. “But these issues do crop up. They’re important opportunities for students and administration to discuss how stereotypes trivialize identity."

Yet, Xie noted, Asian American activism itself is often trivialized. “I was talking to a friend last year about ‘I, Too, Am Harvard,’” Xie recalls. “He said, ‘If you tried to do that, they would laugh at you the way they laughed at Occupy Harvard.’ He thought it was ironic that Asians, who don’t appear to suffer from any type of discrimination, should protest.”

Some students have found it necessary to speak out. “You’ll have different opinions [on combating stereotypes] within the Asian American community,” says Peggy Su ’13, former president of the CSA. “My tendency is to be proactive and outspoken.”

Su reached out to the Asian American Association three years ago, after a number of Chinese American students expressed concerns to her about an annual Chinese New Year Party hosted by the Spee Club. According to Su, the party’s decorations included a blow-up stereotypical Asian man and a room filled with pillows and dim lighting called “the opium den.”

Along with the AAA leadership, Su met with the club’s president. “At the time, I thought it was a very productive meeting. It was helpful for us to educate them on the implications of those decorations—opium marks a really dark period in Chinese history, and a lot of oppression. They told us they hadn’t realized the decorations were offensive until we talked.”

Though Su later heard that the Spee continued to decorate the party as in previous years, though not explicitly labeling the pillowed-room “the opium den,” the incident made her realize that joining forces with other Asian American groups and opening broader campus discussions could be an effective tool for change.

“When I see something [like the party] my first feeling is shock. The second feeling is a desire to reach out to people,” she said.


For now, a single galvanizing cause might remain elusive—and it seems unlikely that Asian American activism would be reduced to a single cause or a single identity. However, especially since last semester, intergroup campus efforts have found productive ways to tackle common concerns.

One such concern, mental health, inspired AAB to create a social media campaign last semester. The project involved members overlaying their Facebook profile pictures with the words “you are not alone” and the contact information for University Mental Health Services. The campaign, while started as an internal AAB effort, had resonance for Asian American students across campus, who have found that the existing taboos against speaking up about mental health issues and the costs of academic pressure are amplified by the “model minority” myth.

A webpage created by Dominick Zheng ’16, one of the campaign’s organizers, cites four events of the 2013-2014 school year as the impetus for the campaign: “In one year, one student ended up in federal court for a bomb threat. Three students died. One of them committed suicide. Two of the four students mentioned above were Asian males.”

Current CSA president Eric Z. Wang ’15 explained why the model minority myth can have detrimental effects in an environment like Harvard’s. “There are Asian students who aren’t the traditionally ‘academically gifted’ types. This is Harvard and everyone gets in for different reasons,” Wang says. “So there are Asian Americans who struggle under the pressure to achieve what people think they should be achieving. Everyone thinks ‘the Asians will do well,’ so if you’re Asian and you get a C at Harvard, that’s hard. You have to deal with other people’s expectations.”

Not only does the model minority myth create the expectation that Asian American students should always succeed academically; it stigmatizes coping with failure, according to Min-Woo S. Park ’16, who collaborated with Zheng on the social media project.

Min-Woo Park '16 is co-recruitment director of the Asian-American Brotherhood.
Min-Woo Park '16 is co-recruitment director of the Asian-American Brotherhood. By Connie Yan

“With the model minority myth, everything’s okay, right,” says Park. “It’s not okay to be not okay.”
The Asian American Brotherhood co-sponsored the campaign with OAASIS; other AAPI student groups, and Harvard students of all backgrounds, began asking Park and Zheng to overlay their profile pictures with text, too. According to Zheng’s site, the project accumulated over 3,000 likes.

This year, OAASIS plans to continue examining the issue of mental health in the Asian American community by holding discussions examining the prevalence of eating disorders for female AAPI students.

Last semester also saw a town hall meeting where leaders from all sections of Harvard’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community were invited to discuss common interests and intergroup collaboration.

Jacob had just been elected president of SAA when she attended the event: “The new leaders were trying to figure out how we could collaborate because we saw a lot of unity in the black community with “I, Too, Am Harvard” and in the Latino community, too.”

The event also attracted AAPI students who had not previously been involved in activism or campus organizations. “It wasn’t just people who had gone to [official group] meetings, but people who heard about it through friends,” said Jee.

Some students wanted to see such collaborative discussions continue. An e-mail thread suggesting weekly meetings in which students might discuss pan-AAPI identity began to circulate. “The idea was just to talk about our feelings about ‘I, Too, Am Harvard,’ the needs of AAPI students on campus, and the need for racial organizing. It was a cool brain meld place to talk about what our various organizations were doing,” says Ivy Z. Yan ’15.

Though Yan emphasized that the discussion forum did not need to become an organized group, conversations about pan-AAPI identity did inspire the revitalization of the Asian American Women’s Association.

Jee felt that the group provided a certain sense of community and solidarity. “I don’t know if it was meant to address a certain lack or fragmentation in the [AAPI] community, but for me—I just wanted something more. That something more became AAWA.”

Meanwhile, students interested in pan-AAPI identity have begun brainstorming projects for the 2014-2015 school year. According to Yan, some students have been putting together an online “AAPI Guide to Harvard and Life” that provides resources specific to the AAPI community, like AAPI professors’ contact information and service/advocacy opportunities. She also mentioned plans to organize a second town hall event in the fall.

As students continue to meet in such broad forums, the diversity of the Asian American community will no doubt be a topic of discussion. Existing multinational groups like OAASIS often have discussions about the diverse perspectives of their members.

During a group talk on one of OAASIS’s semesterly weekend retreats, a Japanese member spoke about growing up listening to her grandfather’s stories about escaping from North Korea. The story prompted discussion about historical tensions between Asian nationalities, and how members’ backgrounds affect their views of family and life.

Liu says that she has found personal sharing to be the most effective tool in bridging cultural boundaries within her organization.

“It struck me how ingrained in history [the member’s] tale was,” says Liu. “The more you share about your personal experiences, the more you see who you currently are.”

Safe Spaces, In School and After School

For the discussions necessary for bringing together a diverse and multifaceted community, many AAPI activists seek a specific office or other location on campus, according to Jee. The leaders of “I, Too, Am Harvard” and Latino student groups have also called for physical spaces for their communities.

While Harvard’s “Community Conversations,” are meant to prompt discussions of race relations on campus, the infrequency of the event and the size of the discussions can create roadblocks—Community Conversations are only held once a year for freshman entryways, which typically consist of 20-40 students each.

“One meeting to figure out diversity and respecting each other is not enough, ” said Yan, who helped facilitate a conversation this year.

Jee also said that many AAPI students would benefit from the presence of an AAPI race tutor in every House, as well as an increase in AAPI faculty members and Asian American studies courses.

The Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance discussed the creation of an Asian American studies department with administrators a few years ago; though no Asian American studies department was created, HAAAA eventually helped establish the creation of an “Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights” field that would incorporate Asian American along with Latino and Native American topics. Harvard’s English Department has also recently hired Professor Ju Yon Kim, who specializes in Asian American literature.

“It can be unsettling, maybe a little isolating when you can’t see administrators or faculty of your culture,” said Neal K.A. Akatsuka, a social anthropology A.M. who co-chairs the Harvard Association of Asian and Asian American Faculty and Staff. HAAAF which is in the planning stages of creating a student-mentorship program.

According to Jee, the search for safe spaces, Asian American studies courses, and faculty representation all share one end—the fostering of discussions about Harvard’s AAPI community and campus race relations. “In general, the idea of having conversations is so radical,” she says. “’Hey, how do you feel about being an Asian person on campus?’ is such a radical step.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections and clarification:

CORRECTIONS: September 24, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the class year of Bernadette N. Lim. In fact, she is in the Class of 2016. An earlier version of this article also incorrectly stated the type of degree earned by Neal K.A. Akatsuka, a co-chair of the Harvard Association of Asian and Asian American Faculty and Staff. In fact, he has earned an A.M. but not a Ph.D.

CLARIFICATION: September 25, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that the Harvard Association of Asian and Asian American Faculty and Staff had created a student-mentorship program. To clarify, the group is currently in the planning stages of the project.

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