Sunday, February 17, 2008

Asian-Americans in our Universities-and our Society

I came across an article yesterday in the blogosphere ( about negative reactions to the heavy Asian-American student enrollment on the University of California campuses. As one who has been teaching part-time at UC Irvine since 1998, I was troubled by the thought that there is any anti-Asian-American feeling here in California-or anywhere for that matter.

Let me set the backdrop for this essay. Here in Southern California, we have a huge Asian-American population. It is especially demonstrated on our university campuses. At UC-Irvine, without digging up statistics, I would say that over 50% of our student body at UCI is Asian-American.

I should mention here that when we in the US speak of Asians, we are referring primarily about people whose origins are in the Pacific Rim, in other words, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, and so on. The British, on the other hand, see Asian immigrants in their country as primarily Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and so on. I am speaking of the former.

According to the article, the preponderance of Asian-Americans on UC campuses has stirred resentment from some other students who feel they cannot compete against the academic excellence of this minority group. This has led to some expressions of anti-Asian feeling in some quarters, and in some cases, of demands to cut back on Asian-American enrollment in the UC system.

I found the article troubling, not because I disagree with it, rather because of my own life experience and feelings toward Asian-Americans. Growing up in West Los Angeles, I was always surrounded by Asian-Americans (usually Japanese-Americans)as classmates and friends. Even though I was born as World War II was ending, Japanese-American kids were always popular in our circles. Later, in my 20s, I attended a Japanese-American Christian church for several years. From 1975-1978, I was stationed with DEA in Bangkok, Thailand. All in all, my life experiences have left me with a profound respect and affection for Asians in general and Asian-Americans in particular. Maybe I have been wearing blinders all these years, but I have really thought that Asian-Americans were well-assimilated and not really subject to any serious racism in this era. Don't get me wrong, I am well-read on the World War II relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps and the prejudice against Chinese immigrants in the 19th century (Chinese Exclusion Act, etc). I just thought that that was a lot of ancient history.

I have also been aware for some time that many Asian-Americans are uncomfortable with the expression "Model Minority" that has been assigned to them. First because it overlooks real problems within the community that they share with everyone else, such as drugs; second because it has the potential to pit them against other minorities such as blacks and Hispanics. It is true that the crime rates among Asian-Americans are lower than the population at large, yet certain communities like the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians have seen their share of youth delinquency and gangs.

What is the reason that young Asian-Americans are doing so well scholastically? Without the benefit of having resarch and empirical evidence at my fingertips, the obvious answer seems to be the emphasis on education and respect for family tradition that immigrants bring with them to America, qualities that, at the same time, seem on the decline in our country. The result is that Asian-Americans embody the best of the old culture combined with the best in American culture. Though they may look different, they are well-assimilated into American society. It is hardly surprising that they are achieving at such high levels academically and professionally.

At UCI, the fact that over 50% of our student body is Asian-American has a lot to do with the fact that UCI focuses primarily on the biological sciences and pre-med, fields that attract Asian students. In my view, it is one of the more attractive aspects of UCI that we have so many Asian-American students. Guess what? On our campus, you don't see so much of the nonsense and protests going on that you see on so many other campuses across the nation. These kids are at school because they belong there, they know why they are there, and they don't have time for all the other nonsense. Of course, I have written extensively in my blog about the problem of anti-Semitism at UCI, fomented by Muslim students, their speakers and their left-wing student allies, an issue in which I have involved myself personally. From my own observations, the Asian-American kids are not involved in any of this anti-Jewish movement. What are they involved in besides their studies? You can see them on campus involved in their fraternity and sorority activities and charitable drives. What you don't see them doing-at least at UCI-is protesting against this or that or complaining about America.

Yet, I read in the article that UCI is one campus where some expressions of anti-Asian sentiment have been expressed (usually anonymously in graffiti and other forms). I find it troubling. Equally troubling to me is the idea that any university should consider ways of limiting Asian-American enrollment. I believe in a strict meritocracy. To me, if our campus were 100% Asian-American based on grades, SAT scores and merit, I would be OK with that. If we find Asian-Americans to be overrepresented on our college campuses, then it is for us to do some introspection and ask ourselves why we are falling short. It is for us to do better.

As I said above, I have been involved in calling out anti-Semitism on the UCI campus, as well as the failure of the administration and faculty to confront it. It now seems that I need to open my eyes a bit wider to see if there is a problem with anti-Asian-American feelings. If there is, I don't think it is widespread, but it seems that I may have overlooked whatever there is.


Lance Christian Johnson said...

I think that it's easy for white guys like us to not notice the racism around us sometimes, especially when we're not engaging in it ourselves. We're caught up in our own lives and our own problems, and a lot of subtle stuff can clip right past us without us realizing it.

I remember as a kid reading a comic strip in Mad magazine called, "You Can't Win with a Racist." Of course, it's not funny if I explain it, but it showed the hypocrisy of racists and how they'll kick a group while they're down AND while they're up!

I have quite a few Asian students, and by the very nature of the subject that I teach, I'm able to get a sense of what they go through sometimes. I remember this one girl whose ancestry was Korean. She told me about how people will ask her, "Are you Chinese?" and when she responds with a no, they then ask, "Are you Japanese then?" When she responds no to that, they ask her, quite indignantly, "What are you then?"

It's almost funny that a person could be so ignorant, but I'm sure for her that sort of thing is pretty annoying. (Just like the kids from El Salvador who tell me that people will ask them what part of Mexico El Salvador is in!)

Gary Fouse said...

Good point. You pointed out something I should have added. One thing that I think is an irritant to Asian Americans is when people ask them where they are from, when they are born here, something that is usually apparent from their lack of any accent.

As for El Salvador, I have learned that a lot of Mexicans have negative feelings about Salvadorans. It goes on and on.

Ingrid said...

Being white and having an accent when speaking English I am often asked in the USA where I'm from, people guessing Sweden, France, the West Indies, Irland, whatever, hardly ever Germany, and I never get upset because people don't mean any harm by asking. I wonder why Asians or South Americans are so sensitive when asked what their origin is. I can only wonder that they themselves are racists, if they don't want to be confused with another ethnicity. They are all people. This should give them a good chance to educate people about their ancestry. Not everything is racist, and I can't always tell what ethnicity a person is and ask. Maybe I just don't get it.
Here in Germany I live in the Northern Part and my German is heavily "Franconian", people ask me where I come from and I tell them, from Northern California, that really blows their minds.

Lance Christian Johnson said...


The difference is that people ask where you're from because you speak differently. People ask Asian Americans, many of them have been born and raised in this country, where they're from. That sounds harmless enough, but the tone of the question implies, "You're not from around here and you're different." Obviously, it bothers some people more than others. Many can blow it off; some get irritated. I imagine many of them only are bothered depending on the tone of the person who's asking the question.

Gary Fouse said...

Lance stole the words out of my mouth. If a person speaks with an American accent, we should assume they are American.

I myself am often guilty when I meet a person who does have an accnet since I am anxious to practice this or that language. I mean it in a positive way.

There is indeed prejudice in Asia between many nationalities, but I don't think it continues in America between the young generations.