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Asian American Studies at a Crossroads

When Dr. Chia Youyee Vang arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee five years ago, numerous Hmong students along with community residents called for more courses specifically examining their life experiences.

Vang, an assistant professor of history, found herself in this dilemma: add Hmong courses or pan-Asian courses first? Because of limited resources, priorities had to be made.

Her answer became clear when 200 people turned out for a Hmong event on campus.

“For us, it made sense to focus on Hmong,” Vang says of the campus where Hmong-Americans, at 2 percent of student enrollment, represent the largest subgroup of Asians.

Now, her university offers a certificate in Hmong diaspora studies. It is part of a growing tide within Asian American studies — more ethnic-specific courses and programs. And it suggests that Asian American studies as a field is transitioning its curriculum in response to changing U.S. demographics.

However, while some educators understand the desire of students to learn more about their histories through ethnic-specific courses like “Vietnamese American Experience,” they’re concerned students lack an understanding of broader histories, struggles and issues offered in pan-Asian courses. 

“This generation of students wants both, and the ethnic-specific experience matters a lot to them,” says Dr. Kyeyoung Park, associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We have to recognize the importance of ethnic-specific experiences. It’s a challenge for Asian American studies because, as ethnic study increases, what’s the long-term rationale for Asian American studies? We may have to reconfigure it.”

Meeting Demand

Today, in response to students’ demands, universities across the country offer menus of ethnic-specific courses that are unprecedented in depth and variety.

While the growth cannot be quantified, courses like “Japanese American Personality” and “Cambodian American Culture and Community,” at San Francisco State University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, respectively, are showing up on course listings with more frequency. The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Asian American Studies, founded in 2000, has offered “Chinese in the United States” and “Literature of South Asian Diaspora,” among other topics.

The students clamoring for such classes as Park’s “Korean American Experience,” which often has a waiting list, include those majoring in Asian American studies as well as those taking a class or two as an elective.

“These classes reflect contemporary experience, and they’re specifics that merit attention,” says Dr. Rick Bonus, associate professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington. Bonus served this past academic year as president of the Association for Asian American Studies.

The appeal of ethnic-specific courses is organic, educators say. There’s no single Asian culture or language; students are curious about their individual roots. But Dr. Gary Okihiro, a pioneer in Asian American studies, says the discipline isn’t necessarily centered on personal identity. Rather, he considers it more of a discipline focused on “who holds power in U.S. society and who doesn’t and how that intersects with race, gender and sexual orientation.”   

“I certainly understand that individual students want and need to locate themselves,” says Okihiro, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. “But sometimes their interests are limited to their perceived sense of self when, in fact, they already belong to multiple constituencies and have multiple identities. Our responsibility as teachers is to get them to see that.”   

No stranger to ethnic-specific courses, Okihiro has taught classes focused on the Japanese internment camps of World War II, dating to the late 1970s.

What has occurred more recently is the explosion of ethnic-specific courses coinciding with escalating Asian student enrollment. From 1995 to 2005, Asian-American enrollment climbed from 759,000 to 1 million — a 37-percent jump, according to the American Council on Education.

The growth stems from the millennial generation reaching college along with ongoing immigration. And today’s presence of Southeast Asians at U.S. colleges is a dramatic change from when Okihiro’s career began — a time when thousands of Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian and Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War struggled to build new lives here.     

Park believes some students who are 1.5-generation immigrants have a stronger sense of multiple ethnic identities because of being so strongly racialized here. Many of their parents maintain strong transnational ties, even returning overseas to vote. Park and others have noticed that, during this year’s U.S. Census count, such students voluntarily describe themselves as Taiwan-born, Hong Kong-born and so on, similar to how some Caribbean-born Blacks do not identify with the African-American label.

“We shouldn’t see pan-Asian versus ethnic-specific as any zero-sum game,” Park says. Certainly, pan-Asian courses such as “Asian American Film & Literature” and “Asian American Communities” remain staples in many programs and, say educators like Park, can dovetail harmoniously with ethnic-specific ones.

Dangerous Mindset

Still, Vang and other educators who support ethnic-specific endeavors also raise concerns about young Asian-Americans becoming too insular within subgroups.

Asian subgroups share common political and workplace struggles in this country. Their clout in those areas usually lies in their broader fabric as Asian-Americans, rather than as Hmong-Americans or Korean-Americans, educators say. With so many different populations being racialized into just a few groups here, young Asian-Americans need to grasp and accept this reality.

It’s a point of contention for Okihiro when young people sometimes pay too little attention to subgroups of Asian-Americans outside their own.

“I get a little ticked off when that happens,” Okihiro says. “I don’t like it when Chinese-Americans, for instance, have no interest in Korean-Americans and so on.”

That mindset plays out with the self-segregation of Asian students in campus organizations. The proliferation of ethnic-specific extracurriculars has led some students to virtually cocoon themselves within their subgroup.

Dr. Rebecca Kim, an associate professor of sociology at Pepperdine University, asserts in her book God’s New Whiz Kids that Christian fellowship groups are not only wildly popular among this generation of Asian college-goers but that it’s common for clubs to become ethnic-specific, rather than pan-Asian.

According to Kim, some evangelicals she interviewed worried “about adjusting to day-to-day life after graduation without each other. They seem to live in a bubble within a bubble. They spend so much time together, they joke about it. One student said he’d forgotten how to start a conversation with anyone but another Korean Christian.”

Dr. June Chu, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH), says she occasionally sees in her students the negative effects of an ethnic-specific mindset.

“Some students don’t see how the model-minority stereotype is harmful. They lived in places where they were the majority, like Hawaii, or a middle- to upper-income ethnic enclave. Model minority might be a compliment if you’re good at math but what if you’re not? What if you’re not interested in math or what if you’re in Chinatown living 15 to a room?”

That’s why, educators say, the classroom is where Asian-American students should be reminded of their places in the broader racial quilt. Some ethnic-specific courses already offer students an opportunity for comparative study. In his “Filipino American History and Culture” course, for instance, Bonus weaves in content about the political events of Guam and Cuba when he discusses U.S. colonization of the Philippines.

“I don’t teach purely ethnic study. We shouldn’t isolate events from each other,” Bonus says. “Students need to understand the larger narrative. If we don’t contextualize and compare one ethnic group to another, we as faculty are being myopic.”

Most students in Vang’s “Hmong Americans” class don’t know how badly marginalized their forebears were as refugees, despite many of them aiding the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.  

“Many students ask, ‘Was this just a Hmong thing?’” Vang says. “That’s when I get into the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese internment camps. Certainly, some issues are specific to an ethnicity, but there is a long legacy of discrimination against Asians in this country.”

Armed with knowledge of the broader pan-Asian experience, Vang says “(students) better understand themselves as Asians because, if they’re walking down the street, they’re seen as Asian, not Hmong.” 

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