A Lasting Impact

Winter 2011

By Aya S. Murata

When people ask me what I do at Phillips Academy (Massachusetts), I wish I could just say something simple like, “I teach math,” since it easily satisfies the curiosity of the questioner. Instead, I have to tell people that I serve in an administrative role as a dean and as the advisor to Asian and Asian-American students. This latter role often elicits a variety of follow-up questions. What does being the advisor to Asian and Asian-Americans students mean? Why does this position exist? Is it really necessary? 

Implied in such questions is a feeling either that Asian and Asian-American students don’t really need our focused support or that the questioner had not considered the possibility before.

My favorite questions, however, comes from educators who understand that the specific needs of Asian and Asian-American students are too often overlooked in school. When I tell them what I do, they respond, not with puzzlement, but with excited curiosity, “What can our schools do to best support our Asian and Asian-American students?1

The short answer is that there’s a great deal we can do — and need to do.

ACKNOWLEDGING ALL STUDENTS

Phillips Academy established its Office of Community and Multicultural Development in the late 1980s with a single advisor for black and Latino students. Shortly thereafter, the academy recognized that there were other constituencies on campus who could be further supported by similar advisors and, thus, the school established the positions of international student coordinator; advisor to gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students (“transgender” has recently been added to this title); and the advisor to Asian and Asian-American students. In creating these positions, the school recognized that the transition and experience of particular groups of students might be different and, in certain ways, more challenging than the transition and experience of students in the white American, straight majority. 

I stepped into the role of advisor to Asian and Asian-American students in 1994, excited by the opportunity to mold and shape this relatively new position. In this role, I serve in two major areas: (1) support for Asian and Asian-American students and (2) development of activities and programs to assist the community (students, staff, and faculty) to learn more about and better understand Asian and Asian-American history, culture, and issues. I develop both informational and social programs relating to Asia and/or Asian and Asian-American issues. Such programs have included a study of Phillips Academy’s Asian and Asian-American students’ experiences, an Asian Arts Festival (an annual event raising awareness and showcasing Asian food, art, culture, and talent), faculty development opportunities, an alumni and student event, various guest speakers and performers, and social activities such as trips into nearby Boston. 

Additionally, as faculty advisor to student organizations such as the Asian Society, I work with student leaders to develop social activities and educational programs and to lend support. Other organizations under the umbrella of the Asian Society include the Andover Japanese Connection, the Andover Korean Society, the Chinese Taiwanese Student Association, and the Indian and Pakistani Society. Along with student leaders and the other faculty advisors to these clubs, we work to recognize and support the school’s Asian and Asian-American students and to continue to educate the ever-changing community of faculty, staff, and students regarding the issues and challenges these students face.


Why does this position exist at Phillips Academy and why should it exist in other schools? Because Asian and Asian-American students in independent schools confront a number of unique and complex issues, including but not limited to: 
 
  1. a sense of invisibility particularly in the dialogue about race;         
  2. shouldering and managing (and in the case of Asian international students, learning about) the label of the “model minority” and other limiting and damaging stereotypes;
  3. balancing and negotiating the line between being an American (referring specifically to white American values and images of beauty) and yet honoring and appreciating their Asian heritage simultaneously;
  4. coming into their own sense of authentic being as they explore their identity and what role being Asian plays in that identity development; and
  5. for international students, understanding what it means to be Asian in America, particularly in cases when they move from the racial majority to the racial minority.
While some students will never cross my doorstep, the importance of having a specific advisor dedicated to Asian and Asian-American students cannot be overstated. It says to these students and students who identify as Asian and Asian American, “You are important; you are recognized; and we acknowledge that your experience may differ in some ways from your peers.” These students often feel that that they are expected to perform well in the classroom, to stay out of trouble, and to contribute to the community in particular areas. They can feel that their concerns and challenges are invisible or, worse, dismissed because they are expected to be the “model minority.” 

The term “model minority” was coined by William Petersen in his 1966 New York Times article “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” Petersen used the term to underscore his belief that Asian Americans are successfully integrated into American society, are achieving the “American Dream,” and are thriving — due to their hard work, perseverance, emphasis on education, and strong family values. Unfortunately for all, this stereotype has persisted ever since. It is inaccurate, of course, because it assumes that the experiences of all Asian Americans are identical. More importantly, it is detrimental because, among other things, it renders invisible the real struggles and challenges facing Asian Americans, serves to justify ignoring the critical needs of the Asian-American community, and drives a damaging wedge between Asian Americans and other minority groups. 

For Asian and Asian-American students, the feeling of invisibility can be further compounded when schools discuss issues of race — since, often times, the conversation quickly falls into a black-white paradigm, with Asian and Asian-American students left asking, “What about us?” Indeed, some schools and/or educators use the term “students of color” to refer only to their black and Latino constituencies, which further renders the Asian and Asian-American student community invisible. When topics of race are raised, it is critical that schools recognize all students of color. Alongside black and Latino students, Asian and Asian-American students want to be engaged in these conversations because they are, in fact, racially located in particular ways in the U.S. and also experience both blatant and institutional racism. 

THE BURDEN OF STEREOTYPES AND ASSUMPTIONS

Compliant, good at mathematics, accomplished musicians, self-sufficient, and hard-working. This is a partial list of racial stereotypes and assumptions that some people mistakenly see as “positive” and, in so doing, do not acknowledge the limiting and damaging effects that these stereotypes have on Asian and Asian-American students. 

In classrooms, these students have to regularly negotiate comments and expectations from both teachers and peers that can annoy, belittle, and/or dismiss them and their individual abilities and accomplishments. When college admission decisions are released and cum laude lists announced, Asian and Asian-American students are barraged by remarks that are drawn from crude racial stereotypes and serve to diminish one’s achievement or sense of self. Furthermore, depending on the school, if an Asian or Asian-American student is the only Asian or Asian-American student in a class, dorm, or playing field, adults and fellow students often look to that individual student to speak on behalf of his or her race or ethnicity or expect him or her to comply with their idea of what it means to be “Asian.” 

These kinds of experiences build over time and become an additional burden — one which Asian and Asian-American students need to negotiate on top of the everyday trials and tribulations of being students at independent schools. Some Asian and Asian-American students grow increasingly fatigued by the comments, questions, and jabs about “not needing to work hard to succeed” and “being foreign” and “being un-American.” Consequently, they feel they must retreat to a safer and more supportive group of peers and, in some instances, this inadvertently prevents them from engaging in the wider community. 

Some students experience other emotions such as anger and sadness. Some subsequently have issues with self-esteem or self-hate. Adolescents most often pick up their own sense of self from what others see and reflect back to them — so it makes absolute sense that many Asian and Asian-American students begin to hate the self that is “Asian” because it seems to cause them the most pain and alienation. The statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are startling and cannot be ignored: “Asian-American women ages 15–24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group.” 

In an Asian Society meeting at my school last year, students discussed what it meant to be an “American.” They shared stories of the tightrope some of them felt they must walk between the white American values they were raised with in their schools and through the mass media (e.g., freedom of expression and independence) and the Asian values and traditions their parents have taught them (e.g., obedience and respect), some of which are in deep conflict with one another. Other students talked about feeling more American — which they described as “mainstream, white” — in their outlook and values, while simultaneously knowing that, in most settings, people see their Asian face first and often assign stereotypes accordingly, particularly the view of Asians as the “perpetual foreigner.” 

Asian and Asian Americans have a markedly different experience and perspective. Asian-American students, for example, recounted with frustration the number of times people told them they spoke English very well or asked, “Where are you from?” expecting an overseas locale. When given a U.S. locale, the questioners pushed to know the students’ “actual” origins. Compare this to the Asian international student who swells with pride when complimented on his or her fluent English skills and thinks nothing of responding with his or her hometown abroad. 

Still other students in our Asian Society meeting discussed feeling pulled in opposite directions by their Asian and non-Asian friendship groups and struggling with the pressure to choose between them. Each choice comes with its own set of stereotypes, such as being labeled with the derogatory terms “banana” or “twinkie” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) simply for hanging out with white friends, or a “FOB” (fresh off the boat) for choosing to spend time with their Asian or Asian-American friends.2

It is important for these constituencies to talk to one another about such issues and for non-Asians to understand these critical differences as well. In the end, as Jean Wu, professor of American Studies and educational director of the Office of Diversity at Tufts University, told me recently, “a Korean international student who just arrived to campus and the ­third-generation Asian American are both subject to being called a ‘chink.’ As long as it’s an ‘East Asian’ featured face in the U.S., regardless of paper and political status, that person can and will have an Asian-American experience.” 

In short, the day-to-day experiences of many Asian and Asian-American students are riddled with complex issues they must address and, yet, which are often not recognized or acknowledged by the school community. 

SUPPORTING ASIAN AND ASIAN-AMERICAN STUDENTS

To attend a boarding school such as Phillips Academy, students come from across the United States and around the world. Our Asian and Asian-American student population, which includes mixed-heritage Asian students and transracial and transnational adoptees, is approximately 24 percent of our total enrollment. Depending on their prior living circumstances, they may land at Phillips Academy and feel what it is like to be a minority for the first time, or for others who were the only Asian American in their previous school, they are thrilled to be a part of a significant critical mass. All are adolescents who are grappling with a developing sense of identity and learning and acknowledging what role being Asian is in who they are. These are considerable issues to tackle, and to do so in a vacuum is challenging and isolating.

The brief sampling of issues outlined above clearly elucidates the fact that Asian and Asian-American students confront a variety of unique challenges. It also highlights the clear need for our schools to recognize and address these challenges. With limited resources, however, it is easy for schools to cast an eye over this specific constituency and feel that these students are “doing fine” (e.g., performing well academically and out of disciplinary trouble) and that scarce resources are better directed elsewhere. Of course, I strongly disagree and urge schools to dig deeper and recognize that, as with an iceberg, there is much more below the surface.

All students need to feel affirmed and there are significant ways schools can make sure their Asian and Asian-American students feel that they are an integral part of the community, rather than an invisible minority relegated to the periphery. Such affirmation comes in various ways but here are some specific steps schools can take: 

1. Create an advisor position if one does not exist. 

This role should be filled with someone who identifies as an Asian American with knowledge about the complexities of what it means to be Asian in America. 

2. Hire both Asian and Asian-American faculty who will be involved with the Asian and Asian-American students, serving as active role models and mentors to this constituency specifically and to all students generally. 

It is not enough to have the “faces”; schools must hire Asian and Asian-American faculty who identify as such and are interested and sensitive to the complexity of the Asian and Asian-American experience and who are willing to support students regardless of their own personal perspective/experience. 

First and foremost, students need role models and mentors they can relate to and with whom they feel comfortable. All faculty members should be available to serve in this role. However, there will be some students who will more likely gravitate toward and open up to someone with whom they feel they share a kinship; therefore, it is important for schools to hire engaged and involved Asian and Asian-American faculty. In the words of one of my former students: “Coming all the way from Japan, I was super nervous about [the school] — you helped make this place my second home. For the times I was homesick, scared, frustrated, confused, and lonely — for the times I felt proud, excited, encouraged, optimistic, and challenged — thank you for the constant, comforting support.” 

3. Evaluate your programming to ensure that the Asian and Asian-American experience is represented in your school’s outside speakers, on-campus events such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in your curriculum. 

Regarding the latter issue, it is important to distinguish between Asian curriculum and Asian-American curriculum. Conflating the two is problematic and detrimental to students — not just to Asian and Asian-American students, but to all students. An Asian-American curriculum is not just some rarified curriculum incorporated to make the Asian and Asian-American students feel good, but is essential for all students’ education — as it is often a missing but critical piece of American history and experience.

Through my work at Phillips Academy, I collaborate with departments, I apply for grants, and I work with the administration to bring a wide range of Asian and Asian-American speakers/performers to campus. (See sidebar below.) Sometimes, these visitors provide specific insight and information regarding the Asian-American experience (e.g., writer and law professor Frank Wu and the late scholar Ronald Takaki) while other guests share their particular craft (e.g., writer Chang-rae Lee, actor B.D. Wong, comedian Jo Koy, and artist Lela Lee). These guests are important in affirming the experiences of our Asian and Asian-American students while also providing them with myriad role models. These outside speakers are important not just for the Asian and Asian-American students, but also for the school community at large. 

Since budgets are tight, we must think more creatively about how to provide such opportunities. One suggestion is to turn to local organizations, since their honoraria are quite reasonable; sometimes a speaker will come in gratis. Examples include local print and news media sources, Asian organizations, and politicians. Another suggestion is to tap into your alumni base and current parent network. 

Examining your internal programming and curriculum is also crucial. Do your Asian and Asian-American students see and hear themselves in what is presented and what is taught? If not, it is critical to take the time to explore ways to incorporate their experiences in all aspects of school life. “Extracurricular programming is not enough,” Jean Wu says. “The formal curriculum represents what all students are expected to know and be able to utilize in their lives, their continuing analysis and production of knowledge, and their interpersonal ethics and relationships. It is particularly important to recognize that teaching and learning about Asian America is not ‘just for’ Asian and Asian-American students. Knowledge about Asian America is critical knowledge for all.” 

4. Dedicate time and resources for faculty development aimed at addressing issues specific to Asian and Asian-American students. 

Whether it is required reading, off-campus workshop opportunities, or a mandated faculty meeting, faculty members need to better understand the complex issues Asian and Asian-American students confront so that they can best serve and support these students. 

5. Provide opportunities for Asian and Asian-American students to discuss topics of interest and concern in addition to occasions to share with the greater community their traditions, history, and culture.

At Phillips Academy, this is achieved through a variety of clubs (which are open to anyone in the school, regardless of race or ethnicity). The Asian Society, for example, meets weekly and its activities range from social endeavors like K-Pop karaoke and Chinese take-out to discussions on subjects such as Asian vs. American standards of beauty or the phenomenon of “yellow fever.” Additionally, this past year, I established the Asian Girls Forum (AGF) — an affinity group to exclusively serve the Asian, Asian-American, and Mixed-Heritage Asian girls. AGF meetings offer these girls the opportunity to share, express, unload, celebrate, and support one another in their common experiences as Asian females in a setting that feels safe and without judgment. 

It is also important to allow students opportunities to share their cultures. In the dorms, for instance, students can prepare snacks native to their heritage to share with dorm-mates. Throughout the year, the school can recognize and celebrate particular holidays (e.g., our dining hall prepares a special school-wide dinner for Lunar New Year). Additionally, I work with students organizing a large-scale event in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May).

I also see my role as keeping my finger on the pulse of opportunities available outside of campus, such as book readings and events in Boston or conferences. (E.g., Yale University and Columbia University both host conferences free of charge for Asian and Asian-American high school students, and local chapters such as the Association of Independent Schools New England host an annual high school conference for students of color.) As one of my students wrote to me this spring: “This year has been great and a real eye-opener for me in the Asian/Asian-American front. All the conferences and workshops were so important to me. I feel like (cheesy line coming up) I discovered a big part of my identity. I am so grateful to you because you were really the one who allowed me to learn so much about my culture and its history.” 

6. Finally, we all need to get to know our Asian and Asian-American students as individuals rather than relegate them to a homogenous population. 

It is critical to be aware of the various racial and ethnic stereotypes and assumptions we make about Asians and check those stereotypes and assumptions at the door. This requires that one familiarize oneself with the history and contemporary realities that create and sustain these stereotypes and assumptions. At boarding schools, in particular, our Asian and Asian-American students represent an incredible breadth and depth of perspectives and experiences — from the international student who has never been to the U.S. before, to the third-generation Asian American from California, to the transracially adopted child raised in an all-white community, to the “TCK” (third culture kid) who was born in Korea yet raised in various other countries, to students whose parents came to America under very different circumstances (scholars and refugees). Our Asian and Asian-American students want to be seen and known as individuals and not presumed to be “all the same.”

A recent graduate sent me a letter in which, among other things, he wrote, “You were the very first faculty member and the very first mentor I felt a connection with. You were the very first person on campus to really reach out to me. Coming from Hong Kong where I was part of the Asian majority, to being part of a minority at Andover, you can say that I was a little lost and confused. It was you who really sparked my interest in Asian Studies, bringing me into Andover Korean Society and getting me involved in Asian Society. I know that I will carry on this interest of mine for the rest of life, and it is thanks to you that I have developed such a curiosity and passion for Asian culture and language.”

In the end, my job is sometimes difficult to explain and in some cases justify, but when I receive letters from students, I stand tall knowing that what I do is important and that what I do makes a lasting impact on the lives of my Asian and Asian-American students.

Notes

1. For the purposes of this article, I define “Asian” as non-U.S. citizens who live outside of the United States (e.g., the student who is a Japanese national and whose place of residence is other than the United States) and “Asian-American” as U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents (e.g., the American citizen of Asian ancestry whose place of residence is somewhere in the United States). I also include students of mixed heritage Asian background and transracial and transnational Asian adoptees under the umbrella of Asian and Asian American.

2. “Banana” and “twinkie” are derogatory terms used primarily by Asian and Asian Americans to describe an Asian or Asian American who in their mind has made a decision to ignore their Asian heritage and all things Asian and to subscribe to white values/culture and hence they are “white on the inside, yellow on the outside.” A FOB, on the other hand, is a derogatory term used to describe a new Asian immigrant.
Author
Aya S. Murata

Aya S. Murata serves as a dean and as the advisor to Asian and Asian-American students at Phillips Academy (Massachusetts). She thanks Jean Wu, professor of American Studies and educational director of the Office of Diversity at Tufts University and co-editor of Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader (2010), for her role as reader and advisor to this article, and Linda Griffith, dean of community and multicultural development at Phillips Academy, for her continued support and encouragement of her work.