The recent talk at Harvard about being Asian American on college campus made me reflect.
During my senior year at Claremont McKenna College, I was the head chair of the Chinese Student Association (CSA), which was a 5-college organization that spanned the Claremont Colleges. The primary reason I joined the group was because I was at the time sort of a Chinese language and culture fanatic. I had gone on the Taiwanese Love Boat, my family was going on regular trips to Asia two to three times a year, I was studying mandarin Chinese and becoming truly fluent in it for the first time, and I was totally head-over-heals into Chinese Kung Fu movies and was systematically working through all the Jet Li and Jackie Chan movies I could find. I figured, hey, if I’m really into this stuff, I can bring that presence onto the campus through this student organization.
At small liberal arts colleges like the Claremonts, it’s very common for us students to be invited to participate in faculty meetings, interview of potential faculty candidates, have dinner with the dean, etc., so it was on one of such occasions I happen to be sitting in meeting with the Dean of Faculty discussing attrition rates. I was invited to join the discussion because I happened to be working on a paper regarding attrition at the time, and my professor thought I could bring some student perspective in this. The subject of ethnic minority students associations like CSA came up, and the Dean of Faculty at the time said something like, “Do we really need these clubs? I mean, why don’t we have an Italian American Students Association too?” Apparently, he was of Italian heritage, and he was basically trying to understand, from a White Man’s Perspective, why we would need such groups. He didn’t know I was the leadership of one of said ethnic student groups.
Being not so bright at 19, I felt the discomfort of him saying what he said, but at the same time, I couldn’t really explicate the reason for it, so I didn’t respond because I didn’t really know what to say to him. Today, the answer is perfectly clear in front of me why we should be having these sorts of groups for minorities and not for White Men:
For me, the CSA was a cool way for me to explore and share Chinese language and culture on campus. However, its real value was to build a community among the Chinese and Chinese heritage students on campus so that when needed, there was the power of numbers and the power of people who share similar challenges to form a coalition against any inequalities. Watching kung fu movies and having Chinese tea parties and all that was fun and may seem like just a waste of time and money to the casual observer, but there was actually real social capital being built with each relationship and bond created. I just wish I had been a smarter leader back then and capitalized on it to make a bigger difference on campus.