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JUNE 2000: Features (print version)


PAN ASIAN PERSUASION

One 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.

Even though it's Friday at 5 p.m., Classics Room 10 remains bustling. Tonight, 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.

History professor 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 much applause.

"Everybody, let's 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.

Student Government 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."

Highlighting Asian-American 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 events."

While 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.

One 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.

Other 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.

At 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.

"We 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."

After 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."

In 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."

Two 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.

Two 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.

Two 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.

Loose 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 person."

Members 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.

No 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.

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