Column | March 3

A model of constructive discussion

Last weekend, I took a break from the Orange Bubble and went to the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference, which was held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. ECAASU is a nonprofit whose mission is to “inspire, educate and empower those interested in Asian-American and Pacific Islander issues.” Every year for the past 36 years, ECAASU has had an annual conference dedicated to bringing together Asian-American college students to discuss issues that are relevant to us in a series of workshops, as well as to create a forum for Asian-American students to share and discuss their experiences. On Friday afternoon, some Princeton students and I squeezed into two rented vans and made the four-hour drive down to D.C. The conference effectively brought together students from different schools with different experiences to discuss relevant Asian-American issues, spreading ideas and inspiring each other. The topics that were brought up for discussion were also topics that are usually brushed over, ideas that go through our heads at some point but are too big to bring up and talk about during our stressful daily lives at Princeton.

The workshops introduced topics such as self-identity, Asian-American feminism and leadership. The first workshop I went to, “How Far Have We Come?” addressed the presence of Asian-American studies departments at various universities. This workshop consisted of a panel of students from different universities who were all involved in either pushing for an Asian-American studies program at their respective universities, or were a student in the Asian-American studies program that already existed at their school. Evan Kratzer ’16, current copresident of the Asian-American Student Association at Princeton, was a panelist in this workshop as one of AASA’s main missions is to create such a program at Princeton. Princeton currently has no Asian-American studies program studies within the American Studies program, and the creation of the program is in the preliminary stages of planning. At a conference like this, ideas are spread when student leaders get together and share their experiences about creating Asian-American studies programs at their schools, and because the development of Princeton’s own Asian-American studies program is currently in the works, such discussion is especially constructive. At Princeton, it’s hard to discuss big topics like these in everyday conversation, especially when the student body is so diverse and has so many different interests. A conference like ECAASU is effective and productive because it brings together people who share similar goals and thoughts in a setting to discuss important political issues that are often under-discussed.

The second workshop that I went to was called “#notyourasiansidekick,” and the speaker was an Asian-American feminist. We talked about stereotypes of Asian-Americans in the media: Asian-American women are portrayed as either the Dragon Lady or the delicate china doll, and Asian-American men are similarly portrayed as either the martial artist or the nerd. These binaries that are so prevalent in the media in turn create images of us that the public holds, and these stereotypes prevent us from achieving individuality. We talked about issues like misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in the media; the appearances of Asian-Americans in Hollywood are often limited to small roles of foreigners, requiring them to speak foreign languages when in fact, the actors and actresses are born and raised in America and speak perfect English. In other places, discussions like these are rarely held because they are only relevant to the Asian-American community. Being able to hear the thoughts of Asian-American women from different areas of the East Coast was especially enlightening. This highlights the importance of gaining new perspectives from as many angles as possible, something we rarely give a second thought to.

The conference was especially effective in that it brought together Asian-American students from up and down the East Coast, and it created a space to discuss specific Asian-American issues. By both bringing a number of diverse perspectives together and creating a concentrated forum for discussion of specific issues, the ECAASU conference provided a unique opportunity for what might be the most effective type of discourse possible. In the future, student organizations at Princeton should strive to promote this sort of discourse on any and all important issues.

Katherine Zhao is a freshman from East Brunswick, N.J. She can be reached at kz2@princeton.edu.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that there is no Asian American studies option within the American Studies certificate program.

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