For students of Asian descent, education has always been marked by stereotype. First it was the “model-minority” myth, propagated most famously in Newsweek’s 1984 cover story, “The Drive to Excel,” which showcased Asian students as exemplars of minority achievement. After disturbing statistics of victimization, depression and even high rates of suicide emerged, Cornell commissioned a task force to paint what was clearly a more complicated picture of the Asian experience. The Task Force Report, which is now under consideration, unfortunately fights stereotype with stereotype, as it neglects to recognize the enormous diversity within the Asian community.
As early as 2000, the Asian American Studies program warned administrators that the challenge to students of Asian descent was two-pronged: while the model-minority stereotype presented a significant obstacle, so too did the “Asian American” label, which, because it describes so many diverse backgrounds, “[makes] it impossible to treat ‘Asian American’ as a singular identity.” As the study explained, “to present an ‘Asian American’ voice or concern … is an almost impossible task.”
Yet, in seeking to dismantle the model-minority stereotype, the task force essentially glossed over the issue of fictitious labels. In forming Cornell’s task force in 2003, Vice President for Student and Academic Affairs Susan Murphy said, “Even though there are such important distinctions and differences among members of Cornell’s Asian and Asian-American community, our students, faculty and staff have identified a number of common issues confronting them.”
Murphy highlighted bias-related incidents, a disproportionate suicide rate and under-representation among staff as common challenges, and in light of these concerns, the task force’s two most concrete recommendations were the establishment of a student center for Asian students and a staff position dedicated exclusively to Asian student programs and support.
Yet in conversations I’ve had with students of Asian descent, it’s clear that many “Asians” have almost nothing to do with other “Asians,” and that the idea of an Asian community is at best illusory.
For one thing (and this seems pretty intuitive to me), international students from Asia don’t tend to mix with Asian American students. As Lauren Chang ’09 explained, “People born in Asia gather together because they all speak Chinese or Korean, and all of the Americans speak English.”
For Chang and others, the foreigners are, well, foreign to them. Asian American students regularly refer to themselves as “whitewashed” — “just like white kids,” as Yaya Chang ’08 said — while Asian students who speak their native language are described as “FOBs,” meaning “fresh off the boat.”
Even within the Asian American community, there are deep divisions, mostly by nationality. Many of the Asian American students, almost all of whom attended high school in the United States, join up with the Chinese or Korean Student Associations, which are not unlike fraternities or sororities. This year, the Korean and Chinese groups held a “mixer” together, and both organizations host parties and formals at local venues. For Chang, the task force’s finding that Asians “tend to be more narrowly focused and intent on academic endeavors and success and less focused on non-academic activities and interests” rang hollow.
The foreign-born Asians also congregate in chartered groups, notably the Hong Kong Student Association. Its members are not only all foreigners, they’re all from one city. Mark Law ’08, who heads the 150-plus member-group, explained that members of the Hong Kong group are reluctant to make inroads with the Cornell community since many of them intend to return home after graduation. The Hong Kong students generally “just hang out with the Hong Kong people,” and they’re more likely to fit the workaholic Asian stereotype, said Law.
For some students, like Rajiv Ravishankar ’07, being of Asian descent generates no more connection to the mainstream Asian community than it does to any other minority group. “Culturally, we have different experiences than the average white student,” Ravishankar said, “but other than that, I feel no more connection to an Asian student than I would to a black student. The fact that we’re from the same continent doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Among the various groups, differences abound. While foreign students from Asia report A/A- GPAs within their majors, Asian Americans more often had GPAs of B+/B, according to the report. The foreign-born students worry about student visas, government scholarships and dietary differences, and often suffer from homesickness. Asian Americans (but not Asians) reported having little sense of community at Cornell, and said that they had been frequently discriminated against.
The task force even noted in its report that, though the “two groups are often confounded with one another … most of what has been written about students of Asian descent does not distinguish between these two groups.” Unfortunately, the report’s conclusion concurs with most of what has been written: “regardless of whether they just arrived in the U.S., or if their family has been here for generations, individuals of Asian descent are likely to be subjected to a widespread assumption of foreignness.”
The Asian American Studies Program expressed an even more pessimistic view of what links Asians and Asian Americans, writing that “Asian American students across a wide spectrum of … groups have expressed a common dissatisfaction with their experiences at Cornell.”
A space for Asian students might not be a bad idea (though I’d certainly be opposed to another program house being erected here). I’m just not sure that “common dissatisfaction” or “widespread assumptions” are sufficient reasons to conjoin what appear to be enormously disparate communities.
Stereotypes such as the “model-minority” or the “perception of foreignness” are not intrinsic to Asian students. To the contrary, they are misleading labels imposed by outsiders, and, more to the point, they’re in danger of being reified under Cornell’s watch. Because they’ve been academically successful, many Asian students have been overlooked by mental health professionals. But let’s treat them as they see themselves: as distinct and dissimilar from one another.
Two weeks ago, I referred to the “Nuremberg trial of Eichmann,” when, in fact, it was an Israeli court that convicted the Nazi officer on 15 criminal charges. Also, I will be studying abroad next semester, so you’ll find a different face opposite the crossword puzzle on Wednesdays until next year.
Rob Fishman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com Agree to Disagree appears Wednesdays.