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January 17, 2013

East Asian Studies, Part II

A columnist’s take on being Asian­—and being American—at UChicago.

This column is Part II of a two-part series about the experience of East Asian students at UChicago. Part I was published on January 15. It can be found here.

The alienation of international East Asian students from the domestic student population may seem to be the result of inevitable issues that arise for foreigners in a new country. The problem, however, becomes much more subtle and complex when the place of domestic East Asian students is considered.

Before I continue, I’d like to clarify that I am reporting a portion of the issues a specific, but significant, subset of the East Asian student body faces. Interpretations of racial identity, and the weight ascribed to those interpretations, vary hugely from person to person. I have met Asian students who do not share the anxieties I describe here, but I have also met many who do.

When I sat down at a table of Chinese international students, I should have felt hampered by language and cultural barriers. I am, after all, a Korean domestic student. Instead, though, that moment was the first time I felt truly comfortable at UChicago. Some East Asian international students also mentioned that they find it easier to talk to domestic Asian students than their Caucasian peers.

Research has shown that we are attracted to those that look more like us, and this undoubtedly plays a role in domestic and international Asian relations. This alone, though, does not fully explain the bonds connecting the Asian community. As I interviewed these students, I found that I sympathized with them more than I could have anticipated, and realized that there was a deeper emotional connection that ran through this community.

Some international students felt that domestic Asian students are more understanding of them than other domestic students. Intuitively, that makes sense; many of us are first- or second-generation children who have inherited stories of our parents’ struggle to adjust to life in the U.S. These stories range from eating lunch in the bathroom because no one would sit with them in the cafeteria to being discriminated against as a Chinese worker in California. We ourselves have our own stories of discrimination and social oppression, having grown up in a country with a European ideal of beauty and set of values, where kids on the playground chased after us yelling, “Where are your eyes?” and music teachers asked us if our parents “forced us to practice.” Often, these incidents do not stand out as formative moments in our memory as much as they weave a subtle and insidious narrative of otherness and shame tied to our ethnicity—an effect rarely talked about or even acknowledged, especially outside of the Asian community.

All of the students I interviewed said that, besides some isolated incidents, they did not feel wholly discriminated against at the University of Chicago. Past racism, though, continues to haunt us by shaping the way we see ourselves, and how we think others perceive us. One international Korean student said, “I’m always on the border: Am I really being discriminated against or is it all in my head?” Many East Asian students see their ethnicity as a social disadvantage, and this perception is enough to make them act shyer than they normally would.

We also, though, wish to be proud of who we are and where we come from. These two forces shape a unique Asian psyche: We are, and want to be, Asian, but we don’t want to appear too Asian. Many domestic Asian students I interviewed became defensive when I asked what percentage of their friends were Asian. Some defended what they felt was too high of a percentage; others, one that they felt was too low. I myself remember being proud of my mix of Caucasian and Asian friends in high school, thinking that I had achieved some sort of “good percentage” of Asian-ness. I now realize that this “good percentage” was probably just the socially acceptable one, moderate enough to appease both my Caucasian and Asian peers.

East Asian students find some comfort and freedom from these social anxieties in the sizable Asian minority at University of Chicago, where our race is at least a much smaller issue. For many, this is a welcome change from our pasts. One student said, “I’m more proud [at UChicago]; I’d proudly exclaim, ‘Oh, I’m Chinese!’” When I pressed him to tell me what he was proud of, he was silent for a while, and then amended, “It’s not so much being super proud of it, it’s more like I’m not as ashamed of it as I used to be.”

Before break, I attended an Asian(-American) InterVarsity meeting. I am not an international student; I come from Illinois. I experience no language barrier, and very little to no cultural barrier. Still, as the room burst into song and a girl put her arm around me, I felt a sense of relief and comfort so strong that I almost felt like crying. I felt, for the first time, immediately and easily accepted. Here I was, attending their penultimate meeting of the quarter, intruding on their already established social structure, and yet I was unquestionably one of them.

Ultimately what brings, and holds, UChicago’s Asian community together is an automatic acceptance of each other, which is closely tied to the acknowledgement and understanding of a complicated Asian identity. There is something to be learned from this. Progress towards a more unified campus is very possible, but must come from both sides. Although members of the East Asian community must branch out from their comfort zones, this will only happen when they feel confident that domestic students will accept and welcome their diversity of experience instead of misinterpreting their shyness. We must strive to replace judgment with unconditional understanding.

Eleanor Hyun is a first-year in the College majoring in English.

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