Relating the struggles of the first Asian American graduate of an American university to his own, Law School Dean Harold Koh spoke to an audience of about 150 students and faculty members Monday in a lecture entitled “Yellow in a White World.”
In the talk, which kicked off a year-long series celebrating Asian Americans’ contributions to academia, Koh discussed the contributions of Yung Wing, the first Asian American graduate of any American university who graduated from Yale in 1854. The lecture drew such a large crowd that about 50 people who showed up to attend the talk in the Hall of Graduate Studies were turned away.
Monday’s lecture also commemorated the 150th anniversary of Wing’s landmark graduation, an achievement Koh discussed extensively in his speech.
“Yung Wing is the spiritual ancestor of every one of us of Asian heritage who studies here today,” Koh said. “But in Yung Wing’s story we have heard echoes of our own lives.”
Upon returning to China after graduation, Wing married a Hartford woman and had two children, both of whom attended Yale. In 1876, he was awarded an honorary degree from the Law School. When Wing donated over 1,200 books to Yale in 1877, the collection formed the basis for the University’s East Asia Library.
“His story is about making your own choices, however difficult,” Koh said. “He consciously placed himself between two cultures, even though the result was that he never truly felt at home in either one.”
Koh also drew upon his own childhood experiences to underscore his advice to Asian American students. Koh’s father, the first Korean ambassador to the United Nations, responded to the 1961 Korean military coup by moving the family to New Haven, where Koh’s parents assumed positions on the Law School faculty.
“One day we were watching ‘Perry Mason’ and I asked my father if I should be a lawyer,” Koh said. “His reply was two words long: ‘Study physics.’”
Despite this demonstration of what Koh called the Asian-American tendency to be “risk-averse,” Koh said he chose to reject this mindset and pursue a career in academic and professional law. He was appointed Law School dean in November 2003.
The lecture, which was planned as a dialogue, included a question-and-answer section. Sarah Woo ’06 said Koh’s success was a testament to Asian-Americans’ increasing influence in the University system.
“What had the most impact for me was not the numbers he quoted about Asians in the U.S., but the simple fact that he was there behind the podium,” she said.
Saveena Dhall, Dean of the Asian American Cultural Center, said she was impressed with the lecture’s success and is optimistic about other events in the upcoming year.
“It was the perfect opening event,” she said. “Koh has an ability to engage the audience in dialogue. People know they have come from all different backgrounds but still felt a connection to what was being discussed.”
The talk was sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, the President’s Office, the Office of the Secretary, the Yale College Dean’s Office, the Graduate School and the Association of Yale Alumni. Upcoming events in the Yung Wing Celebration Series include appearances by Washington Governor Gary Locke ’72 as well as renowned architect and Yale Corporation member Maya Lin ’81.