2000: Features (print version)
in five U of C undergrads is identified as Asian-American. That ethnic
ID encompasses many backgrounds and views-as this spring's PanAsia series
of events made plain.
though it's Friday at 5 p.m., Classics Room 10 remains bustling.
April 7, is the opening event of PanAsia, a series of lectures, performances,
panels, and culinary experiences designed to educate everyone on campus,
Asian heritage or no, about the vast diversity of Asian and Asian-American
cultures. This evening features Korean-American drum troupe Loose Roots
and tables full of savory and spicy Korean, Filipino, and Chinese food.
James E. Ketelaar, AM'82, PhD'87, speaks first. The director of the
Center for East Asian Studies, he notes the U of C's long history of
scholarship on East Asia--but also a lack of contact among Asian student
groups at the University. That disconnect, he explains, prompted him
to suggest to some of his students the idea for PanAsia, based on a
similar project at Stanford.
One of those students
is PanAsia chair Jay Monteverde. A fourth-year whose ethnicity is Chinese
but whose parents were born and raised in the Philippines (he himself
was born and raised in Chicago), Monteverde introduces Loose Roots,
which he says will be playing Korean celebratory music--in American
terms, "old-school block party music." Besides playing in the group,
he also serves as its bu-soe, or second leader. Wearing soft white trousers
and tunics, blue vests, and red or yellow sashes, Monteverde and four
other players take seats on the floor next to Julian Berke, a Caucasian
third-year who is the group's leader, or sang-soe. After 15 minutes
of glorious thunder from drums and gongs, the music ends abruptly to
eat!" Monteverde urges. If there is a truism of campus life, it is this:
Free food draws a crowd. Tonight, about 70 people queue for Korean japchae
and hot squid, Filipino pansit, and Chinese dumplings, fried rice, lo
mein, and cashew chicken.
Exhausted by the
performance, Monteverde takes a moment to wipe his brow and to explain
why, in a senior year full of exams, and soul-searching about his future,
he's devoted several months to the event: "PanAsia is so big you can't
ignore it." He has a story to tell, about a friend who heard some "Caucasian
jocks," U of C students, walk by the Asian Students Union film festival
a year ago and dismiss it as "just another Asian event." Monteverde
wants to make clear that the University community not only can't ignore
the event called PanAsia, but also can't ignore the ever-growing number
of students who are Pan-Asian.
As recently as
1980, Asian students made up just 6.4 percent of the undergraduate student
body, a number that grew to 15.35 percent in 1990. These days, according
to autumn 1999 enrollment statistics from the University registrar,
the undergraduate student body is 20.63 percent Asian-American, about
808 students. Nationwide, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as of
March 1, Asians and Pacific Islanders made up just 4 percent of the
population. While this clearly makes those groups minorities in the
U.S. as a whole, the situation on campus is a bit different. The U of
C's Coordinating Council on Minority Issues focuses most of its efforts
on African-American, Hispanic, and Latin-American students. Among Asian-American
students, there are differing views on whether they are minorities in
a sense beyond the statistical.
"Part of the reason
Asians are not really considered a minority on campus is because we
are pretty visually prominent," says Monteverde. "But the fact is we
are still a minority, and face similar minority issues such as racism,
prejudice, and poverty." He cites white supremacist Benjamin Smith's
1999 rampage through Illinois and Indiana, in which Smith shot at Orthodox
Jews, Asians, and African Americans, killing a Korean man and an African-American
man. Less tragic but still disturbing, Monteverde says that on campus
he has heard both racial epithets directed at Asians and stereotypical
remarks about Asians.
President Andrew Hong has a different perspective. Though his ethnic
background is Taiwanese, he considers himself "more American than Asian-American
if I had to choose." Whereas Monteverde credits faculty and fellow students
at the U of C with helping him to "connect with an ancestry halfway
around the world," Hong says that when he arrived at Chicago, "some
of that need to associate with Asian/Asian-American culture disappeared."
He doesn't really see Asian or Asian-American students as a minority
on campus, adding, "What makes the U of C so great is that any student
can rise to the top no matter what."
Despite the wide
range of opinions on what it means and how it feels to be Asian, Asian-American,
or American--even whether to take pride in those identifiers or to see
them as labels--students agree that you can't lump all things--and people--Asian
into one group. Says Monteverde, "There is as much diversity and sometimes
conflict in the Asian-American community as there is in America itself."
culture, politics, and expression, PanAsia was designed to be accessible
yet rich in information about the history and struggles of Asian peoples
in Asia and in the United States. It also provided students with a place
to share their own thoughts and feelings--and to have some fun.
The program, which
stretched over nine days and included more than a score of events, required
the efforts of some 15 Asian-related student groups, led by a coordinating
committee of Monteverde, events coordinator Marissa Graciosa, and financial
chair Rolando Capinpin. Each participating recognized student organization
contributed ideas and time, with most of the funding coming from the
Center for East Asian Studies, Student Government, and a quartet of
dot-coms: Indogrocer.com, Namaste.com, Bigwords.com, and Asianavenue.com.
The best-attended PanAsia events drew audiences of 200-plus. "I believe
we accomplished our main goal, which was to present, teach, and share
the various Asian cultures without resorting to stereotypes," says Capinpin,
a fourth-year who has participated in campus Chinese, Korean, and Japanese
clubs, as well as Samahan, the Filipino group that represents his own
ethnicity. "There was a good mix of Asian and non-Asian at many of the
food is a tempting and easy way to introduce a different culture,
the PanAsia organizers strove for much more nuanced depictions. At Monday
night's Pan-Asian Teahouse in the Reynolds Club, families and passers-by
came to munch but stayed for the art exhibit curated by Wen-Shing Chou,
vice president of the Chinese Undergraduate Students Association (CUSA),
which sponsored the teahouse along with the Chinese Students & Scholars
Association. Chou, a third-year, was born in Taiwan, has studied in
Italy, and lived in Germany. With help from the Chinese Cultural Association
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), she'd thrown the
exhibit open to both SAIC and U of C artists, picking about ten works
to mount on the wall. Three of the artists weren't Asian at all, but
their works still reflected Asian techniques such as anime or delicate
brushstrokes, or relevant themes such as the search for identity in
a multicultural world. Meanwhile, a video of an American's travels in
China played in the background, and in the C-Shop, undergraduates taught
all interested comers how to play Chinese chess and other games.
of the next night's offerings took on a more physical twist. In a martial-arts
exhibition in the basement of Ida Noyes, members of the Traditional
Karate Club displayed a rainbow hue of belts and skin tones while demonstrating
punches, blocks, and kicks to a crowd that started at 50 and continued
to grow. The resounding thuds of bodies dropping to the ground drew
gasps during some shorinji kempo sparring. And the kendo group, just
returned from a tournament at Harvard, did drills--practice strikes
at one member's head, wrists, and torso.
cultural events spanned the week as well as a range of interests. Stir
Friday Night, a professional Asian-American comedy troupe, helped get
the opening weekend off to a bright start. The first afternoon of a
two-day film festival showcased Japanese anime, a Filipino documentary,
and a feature by director Wong Kar-Wai, while the second night's bill
featured Asian-American pieces, including The Sixth Sense, directed
and written by M. Night Shyamalan. And no U of C conference would be
complete without a symposium. During the final two days of PanAsia,
graduate students from UCLA and the U of C, in addition to the Universities
of Georgia, Michigan, and Montreal, presented papers on 20th-century
Chinese art and literature. On the evening of Saturday the 15th, the
South Asian Students Association sponsored the closing performance by
local dance and performance group Funkadesi, which claims Brazilian
and African roots as well as Indian.
the same time, a speakers schedule of activists and academics ensured
that troubling political and social issues had a chance to be aired.
For her lecture on yellow power, U of C assistant professor of history
Mae Ngai drew on personal experience. Having taken part in the '60s
civil-rights movement in the U.S., she recalled to an audience of about
40 listeners her days fighting against both the model minority myth
and "yellow peril" bigotry, organizing labor unions, demanding Asian-American
studies programs, and protesting the war in Vietnam.
realized that the enemy was a people who looked like us," she commented
of the war. "American soldiers called their fellow GIs by the same slurs
as they called their enemies. The evidence showed that the U.S. continued
to view us as foreigners, not as Americans, and saw us as a threat."
As she recounted her activism for the students, she advised, "There
is a false opposition between the academic profession and community
service and orientation. I think you can do both."
Ngai's account, third-year Jessica Liu, a Chinese American from Youngstown,
Ohio, said she'd felt a flash of recognition when Ngai told of being
just one of four Asian-American children in school when growing up.
Coming from a white suburb, Liu explained, "I never really thought about
these issues before I came here." Sometimes people call being too assimilated
whitewashing, she says matter-of-factly. At the U of C, she's had the
chance to meet many more people who share her heritage. "I'll call home
and say, 'Mom, guess what? I made another Asian friend!" she laughs.
Sometimes, Liu acknowledged, Asian Americans do tend to hang out in
groups that may seem exclusive-but so do students of other ethnicities,
she argued. In such groups, "You don't have to explain yourself."
fact, the political was personal for many people involved with PanAsia.
Indonesian commentator Christianto Wibisono, spoke on his country's
social and political climate. Professor Arjun Appadurai, AM'73, PhD'76,
addressed ethnic violence around the globe, with a focus on India, where
the bloody conflict between Hindus and Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir
has been going on for years. Campus group South Asia Watch put together
a community-service bazaar--offering students the chance to get involved
in organizations like Apna Ghar, a social-service agency for domestic-violence
victims--as well as a brown-bag lunch with local activists for Asian-American
concerns. During Thursday's panel discussion of the May 1980 citizen
uprising in Kwangju, South Korea, Monteverde said that he first learned
of the unrest and subsequent massacre in a Korean civ class. "All these
people were fighting for a basic right to live," he said to an audience
of about 30. "That simple fact made me realize why Asians worship their
ancestors. Somebody before you gave up everything they knew so that
they could find a better way of life, you could have a better way of
life. The fact that somebody did all that for me is why Asian-American
is different from American."
PanAsia events provided students with a chance to give voice to their
own opinions and feelings on issues of race and ethnicity--and everything
else--in a more creative forum. On Tuesday night, Samahan hosted an
open mic featuring Asian-American spoken-word group I Was Born With
Two Tongues. As most poetry events do, it started half an hour late.
Held in Hutch Commons, the night opened with a poem written by a Caucasian
student inspired by his inner "academic brat." An African-American man
drew applause for his hip-hop inflected work. With time, students who
hadn't come to Hutch for the open mic began to pay attention, and people
who'd journeyed from around the city for the event began to show up.
Tongues, who've made a name for themselves on the local poetry scene
and toured the West Coast this spring, took the stage with bassist Darius
Savage after 9 p.m. Two of the four members have U of C ties: Emily
Chang is a fourth-year English literature student, while Dennis Kim
began his undergraduate career at the U of C. Kim warmed the crowd up
by freestyling for several minutes, and then Chang (a Magazine
intern) performed her poem "Hyphenation." Meditating on the confusion
of having immigrant parents and a hybrid culture, she spoke about being
a "long way from home no matter how far we walk." Feeling "stitched
together by hyphens," she finished by vowing to "extract the needle
from my heart and stitch together my own being." By the end of the set,
the crowd had swelled to six times its original size.
nights later, MOIM, the U of C Korean poetry translation group (the
name means "a gathering of people"), held its annual coffeehouse in
the third-floor theater of Ida Noyes. The group invited Loose Roots
and the staff of Kilmok, a campus Korean-American literary journal,
to join them. Tea lights, chrysanthemums, and daisies graced circular
tables where the audience dined on Korean delicacies. Dedicated to sharing
the beauty of the Korean language and poetry, MOIM members read in pairs:
one to recite a poem in Korean, the next to give the English translation.
Roots served as accompaniment to a military poem. Monteverde says he
plays with the Korean group, although he is not Korean, because he identifies
with the Korean sentiment of "han," or struggling to make one's way
through life. "In many ways, it's analogous to African-American music,"
he muses, comparing "soul" to han. "It's said that in order to sing
or play traditional Korean music properly you have to concentrate all
your han and explode it through your vocal chords or through the drums.
No matter if the music is upbeat and happy or slow and brings you to
tears, there is an underlying sadness of living life as an oppressed
of Kilmok read their own work as well as that of friends and
established writers such as Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee.
Second-year Bora Chang read a piece by a male friend of hers who asked
why porn flicks never feature Asian men and wondered how he'd learn
to get the girl and kill the bad guys without any cultural role models.
doubt some students left that night--and others--having discovered role
models they'd never heard of before. Some decided they really should
give karate a try, or campaign for an Asian-American studies program
at the U of C. Some had a great time seeing their friends' talents on
stage. And others have already signed on to organize PanAsia 2001.