The Role and Importance of Asian Identites at Amherst

I grew up in a community that was a bubble. Demographically, my school district was dominated by Asians. My family rarely left the area except to visit our relatives in China. I grew up thinking that it was normal to be surrounded by Asian people and Asian culture, and if not, to be surrounded by people who understood them. It was only when I was older, and I started paying attention to media and news, that I began to realize the difficulties Asian Americans face nationwide. It was only when I traveled to the east coast for a summer program that I realized I have always subconsciously self-segregated into Asian friend groups — back at home, almost every student I knew was Asian, so having only Asian friends was the norm.

At Amherst, the first thing that struck me about the racial distribution was how white the campus seemed. When I looked around, I noticed groups of only white students walking together across the first-year quad, and tables filled with only white students at Val. One of the main reasons I chose to come to Amherst was because of its advertised diversity — why then, do I feel like an outsider on campus? Here, my race is one of the first things that a student will notice about me. Instead of helping me to blend in, my race sets me apart. I am a diversity statistic, an exception to the overwhelming rule. I am either “that one Asian friend” or a member of “that one Asian group.” There is no in between. Here, I am seen as my race, rather than my ethnicity. My culture is something unfamiliar, and it gets grouped in with every other Asian culture on campus, despite our differences. When others do ask about it, I feel like I am being scrutinized rather than accepted. Amherst boasts of its diversity, but diversity is not enough when students still feel alienated and out of place.

And yet, I have already met so many Asians who have had a completely opposite experience than me. They came from schools where Asians were vastly underrepresented. For them, Amherst has more Asian Americans than they have ever seen together in a community. Amherst is strange and different for them, too, but in a way I cannot even begin to imagine. All of our different experiences exist together, and though I do not want to generalize the feelings of every Asian student on campus, I have spoken with many people who share my feelings of confusion and alienation.

I have been told that Amherst is in an awkward transition period. Amherst Uprising happened nearly a year ago, and now the class of 2020 enters with no first-hand knowledge of what happened. Sure, we have all heard about it by now, but the unfortunate truth is that we will never be able to fully understand the magnitude of what happened. The class of 2020 will only ever experience Amherst in the aftermath of Amherst Uprising, without a personal experience of it. At the first meeting of the Asian Student Association this year, I learned that the ASA had just been revived three semesters ago, and participation was iffy at best until Amherst Uprising, when membership surged. People have already been having conversations, but the class of 2020 does not know what has already been said and what has not been said. I do not know where my place to contribute is, and I do not know the extent of my ignorance on these issues.

Being at Amherst has made me so much more aware of the strange space that Asians occupy. The model minority myth grants us certain privileges, but also holds us victim to other forms of discrimination. It is a confusing and complicated and nuanced identity to occupy. I keep trying to process what it means to be Asian in America and at Amherst, but every aspect seems contradictory and the pieces do not fit together into one smooth image.

We may face a different kind of systematic oppression than black communities do, but we still have our own distinct problems. We are plagued by mental illness, and we glorify stress culture. Yes, we should function as allies to black communities, but in order to do so fully we must also address the colorism and light skin privilege within our own groups. We need to talk about our absence in the media, lack of political representation, the Asian glass ceiling, the perpetual foreigner stereotype and exoticization. We need to discuss why, at the 2016 Oscars specifically dedicated toward drawing attention to diversity, Asians are still boxed into stereotypes. We need to bring attention to diversity within the Asian community at Amherst and defy the idea that only East Asians are “true Asians.” For Asian Americans, there is an endless battle to not appear too “Asian” lest you be characterized as “fresh off the boat,” but also not too “white-washed” lest you be rejected by your own community. Audre Lorde expressed it best as, “there is no hierarchy of oppression.” Our issues are not petty, and they demand attention.

My experience of the Asian identity is complicated by the fact that political apathy was ingrained in my culture as I grew up. My mom has voted a total of two times, once this year and once eight years ago. My dad is still not registered to vote, and he has been a U.S. citizen for decades; he has spent more time in America than in China. When the personal is political, but I have always been told not to be political, how am I supposed to still grapple with the personal? Especially now, at a time when race is the focus of so many conversations, on campus and in the nation as a whole? Asians are so often stereotyped as docile, submissive, and quiet. Many of us grew up within cultures where that image was encouraged even within our own communities. It is time for us to defy that stereotype and speak up about the real issues. The only thing I can think to do is write, talk, dance and declare my uncertainty and frustration.