March 6, 2018

JEONG | Bursting the Asian Bubble Myth

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Over the weekend, Cornell hosted the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference — the largest Asian American conference in the East Coast. Overall, it was a notable weekend: Asian Tinder was absolutely on fire, Duffield radiated with the smell of food from the homeland and Buzzfeed’s sweetheart Steven Lim graced campus with his wholesome presence. It was inspiring and uplifting to see so many Asian American students from all over the country discuss ever-relevant issues in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

During my freshman year, Eddie Huang of VICE Munchies and Fresh Off the Boat fame came to Cornell to talk about food, media and everything Asian American. Unabashed in his opinions on racial politics and embraced by viewers of all colors, he represented what I believed to be the best of what a new generation of Asian Americans has to offer. So during the Q&A segment, I sheepishly took the mic asked him something along the lines of: “how will we ever be a part of the dominant American culture if we stay into our ‘Asian bubbles?’” I don’t remember all of what he said, but I distinctly remember him prefacing his remarks with “I clench every time I speak because I know someone might ask me this question.” It’s a topic that’s fraught with delicate nuance, but one that is essential to understanding the role of Asians in the American social schema.

For those unfamiliar with the “Asian bubble,” let me explain. I went to a California Bay Area prep school where my graduating class was comprised of a majority of East and South Asian students, which meant two things: we had a phenomenal STEM program and we had to spend at least ten minutes to get through the “C” and “W” last names during graduation. For the most part, it was like any other high school experience. Every year, guys would devise unoriginal and painfully awkward ways to ask girls to prom, underclassmen would flock to friends who recently received their driver’s licenses, and sleep-deprived students would doze off in the back of first period A.P. Bio. However, there were comforts that came along with sharing a heritage: mutual struggle under a culture of high expectations, a shared propensity for bubble tea, and implicit understanding that you better take your shoes off when you come into my house.

The data shows that Asian Americans don’t self-segregate more than any other ethnic group in their time in college. Nor is it a sociological revelation that people tend to stick to other people from similar backgrounds. However, as a racialized group, we go through our own individual set of systemic racial barriers that are almost entirely unique to our demographic. Statistically speaking, if you are an Asian American student at Cornell, you are likely to have come from a middle or upper class family that immigrated to the United States in the past several decades. Therefore, we fall in this hazy limbo between socioeconomic advantage and social disadvantage that allows us access to some avenues of white America while blocking others. These realities manifest themselves in the everyday lives of every Asian American student in the country.

For instance, take Greek life. Most Asian students in IFC and Panhellenic have at one point or another discussed with each other the invisible racism of rush week. When you are Asian and you rush a house, you can’t help but look at generations of white faces on composites and feel like an outsider. Or when that house you thought you clicked so well with never calls back, you can’t help but feel that it’s because you’re not cool enough or that you don’t fit in. You’re not only “not a fit for the house,” but you are also not welcome into the bigger social circle dictated by generations of institutional racism.

This is why the existence of Asian American interest fraternities are so important. If you Google “Asian fraternities Cornell,” one of the top searches is a College Confidential thread from 2011, in which one commenter posted, “I personally do not understand why Asians want to join Asian frat/sorority. Why should race come into play when making friends?” This narrative is one that I’ve heard from several people, but it is completely ignorant to the societal realities of Asian Americans on college campuses. The reason Asian American interest fraternities and the Asian bubble exists is because it is only once we remove ourselves from historically white and patriarchal institutions that we can escape the racialization of our people. In the Asian bubble, we find comfort in knowing that we are free from judgement and condescension.

In retrospect, the issue with my question for Eddie Huang was that it was founded on the assumption that our goal as Asian Americans is to assimilate into the dominant white culture. Instead, the Asian bubble is its own cultural sphere, one in which our mutual struggles and interests are pushed to the forefront. The Asian bubble should not be dismissed, but rather celebrated. Furthermore, I believe it is fundamentally flawed to tell people who they should and shouldn’t surround themselves with. And admittedly, I am not the most well-versed in the literature or the issues of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. However, there is one thing I have absolutely no tolerance for: the self-effacing Asian Americans who drunkenly chime along to “ching chong” jokes with non-Asian friends. We’ve all seen it, and those who participate are cowards whose insecurities make them complicit in a system of disenfranchisement. The reason why organizations like ECAASU are so important is that it is only through collective consciousness that we can transcend stereotypes and dictate our own American narrative.

Jason Jeong is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at Jeongism appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.