ATLANTA – Arriving into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 6 o’clock in the morning running on little more than a latte and hope, I make my way through the crowds of unfamiliar faces in America’s busiest airport and eventually squeeze my way onto Atlanta’s MARTA light rail system. Passing through downtown Atlanta, I disembark at the Midtown station, sinking myself directly into the downtown heart of Georgia Tech’s modern campus. As the subway doors close behind me, I take a big sigh of relief. “I’ve made it here,” I think to myself, “I’ve got 14 hours to make my mark.” My two tasks for the day? To explore, and to inspire.
Stepping outside the station, I meet Nghia, one of the students at Georgia Tech who graciously welcomed me at this early hour. With about five hours to spare until the start of the ECAASU mixer, I got an unparalleled opportunity to explore the heart of Atlanta. Other than random tidbits of information I picked up (like the fact that Atlanta is the proud home of Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines), I quickly cast Georgia Tech as one of “those schools.” You know, the kind swarming with engineers, Asian engineers with foreheads pressed against their books and fingertips glued to their calculators, crunching numbers and downing coffee even before 9AM. On a Saturday morning.
Coming from a university with a liberal arts curriculum, Georgia Tech was perhaps my worst fears realized—a place of conformity to the stereotypes that we try so often to combat: the Asian nerds, the geeks, the can’t-get-any caricature with which we are so often confronted in the mainstream media. The reason why I, as a political science and psychology major, will always be confused for an engineer or a doctor.
Before I can catch myself, I am greeted by the two organizers of the ECAASU Atlanta mixer—Claire and Gar—who also happen to be the founders of the Asian American Student Union at Georgia Tech and my newfound acquaintances for the remainder of my time here. Over coffee at the hipster-esque brunch joint West Egg, I had so many questions to ask them about their campus life, the state of Asian American activism on their campus, but I had to refrain: we had a show to run, and, however curious I was, it would have to wait.
Wrapping up brunch, we made our way quickly to Georgia Tech’s Student Success Center, overlooking the football stadium, where we were greeted by some of the other AASA members. What struck me was how similar they were to my own ASA board back at Duke, and to some degree our ECAASU National board too. They were young, bright, a little overwhelmed, but enthused nonetheless.
Before long, students started trickling in, and the mixer was underway. After a hurried introduction of ECAASU National, the conference, and our many programs, Emory University’s Dean of Students Donna Wong joined us in our dialogue, sharing her own experiences as an advocate of Asian American studies programs; as a native of California (or what I often refer to as the Mecca of Asian American activism), Dean Wong was certainly no stranger to Asian American issues herself. In a speech that resonated with many of the students present, she highlighted her own conflicted experiences as an Asian woman but an American citizen, a self-proclaimed balancing act of two identities and a tension that so many of us contend with in our everyday lives.
Following her welcoming remarks, David Wang—a University of Michigan student studying at Georgia Tech for the semester—joined me in sparking a discussion on all things Asian American. We had no set agenda or talking points; we wanted to let the interests of the students in the room guide our conversation. To say the least, the conversation was tough. If you’ve ever tried to lead a discussion in a room full of engineers, you know the feeling.
After some prodding, we realized that many of the students present, though from various schools and of myriad experiences, had never heard of Asian American studies in their lives. Few had heard of “the model minority” stereotype, and even fewer had heard of Vincent Chin or acclaimed activists like Grace Lee Boggs. Some didn’t even know what Japanese internment was, or that there were immigration restrictions placed on Asians immigrating to the United States.
However, what students lacked in factual knowledge, they made up in interest and curiosity. The collective narrative that slowly emerged from the students in the room centered around the notion of identity: while the students may not have known about the White House Initiative on AAPI’s or the popular Angry Asian Man blog, they did know the hurt when their friends called them a racially-charged epithet, or the isolation they felt in elementary school when they were teased for bringing fried rice to school instead of a turkey sandwich like their peers.
Despite our differences, there was a singular strand of history that bound all of us in the room together: the perception of our shared identity. While each one of us had a nuanced experience and a distinctive life story, we were identified as simply an “Asian face” to the rest of the world, nuance and distinction lost. Surely, there were efforts to break free from these stereotypes or at least merge them with a hybrid Asian American identity; the performers were certainly an exemplification of this—the dance group “Ninja” and the Chinese Yo-Yo performance were not only stunning performances in their own right, but also testaments to the enduring struggle to define what is (and what isn’t) Asian American.
The ECAASU mixer was an eye-opening experience for me in a number of ways. It showed me that Asian American students from diverse backgrounds can share common, though distinctive, experiences. It affirmed for me the fundamental wisdom to never judge a book by its cover—and to mistake lack of information for disinterest. It illustrated to me that Asian America takes many forms and faces, and that, we, at ECAASU, need to continue to work to meet people where they are, to appeal to them on their own terms. And, finally, it showed me that what drives movement is not merely passion, but curiosity. Curiosity is the cousin of possibility and the seed of activism.