I grew up in a neighborhood in central New Jersey fondly dubbed “Chindia” — for obvious reasons. My core group of friends was first-generation Chinese, middle-class and successful in school. We ate dumplings for Thanksgiving and almost exclusively watched anime, Studio Ghibli films and Korean soap operas.
One of my goals as I entered my first year of college was to expand my cultural horizons by befriending people of different ethnic backgrounds. I had told myself that I wasn’t going to do “Asian things.” But then an employment opportunity as a graphic designer at the Asian American Cultural Center popped up. It was a wonderful opportunity, so I took it, predominately because I wanted to design posters, not because I wanted to be involved in the Asian community at Yale.
I expected to play with Photoshop a lot. And I have, and it’s fun. But I’m also staffing the many events that the AACC organizes — events that encourage not only the pan-Asian community to come together, but the larger Yale community as well. I’ve discussed racism and how it applies to a so-called “model minority,” and how that minority may not be as model and homogenous as it may seem. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my co-workers to make the AACC feel welcome to all students on campus, regardless of race or affiliation. In fact, the amount of time (and money) we spend trying to conjure up ways to bring together different groups within Yale’s pan-Asian community, collaborate with other cultural houses and invite non-Asian people to the house is pretty unbelievable. Actually, scratch that — it’s very believable, because this is the central purpose of the AACC: to connect people.
Self-segregation is facilitated by the individual, not the institution. It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that a group of Asians and Asian-Americans is diverse, but I beg to differ. To someone who grew up knowing only one type of Asian (primarily middle-class, ethnically Chinese, Japanese and Korean), exposure to minorities within the Asian-American community, and even internationals, was quite eye-opening. My increased awareness of race and how it affects interpersonal relationships has enriched my interactions with friends belonging to different ethnic backgrounds. For example, I have more insight on the objectification of black women (explored by the Yale African Students Association in a discussion about black women and dating) because of conversations we’ve had in the AACC about the eroticization of Asian women, something about which my friends and I have had many conversations. And I’m sure that I’ve only just cracked the surface of so many issues that need to be thought about and talked about.
I would venture to say that Chindia was sadly uniform, and we were self-segregating, if not by conscious choice then by unfortunate circumstance. Because of our close proximity, our shared heritage and upbringing and coincidence of classes, we clumped together in our high school. We existed as chunks thrown not into a melting pot, but into a sort of incongruent and coarsely chopped salad. However, at Yale, this is not the case.
That isn’t to say that cultural houses are perfect. How do we go about addressing what freshmen and the larger Yale community think of the AACC? How would their perceptions change if they attended AACC events more often, and what should we do to convey a more accurate image of ourselves? How can we make the AACC a place where more students can relax, play and study without reservation? These are questions that the staff have been asking and are trying to address.
In some ways, I may be biased. Yes, I do get paid to work at the AACC. And yes, I do spend a lot of time at the center pouring over stock images and typography, answering the door and signing people into the kitchen. So yes, I do spend a lot of time with Asian people and enjoy their company. But that doesn’t mean that being involved with the center has limited my social circle — if anything, it’s only expanded and enriched my relationships, strengthening them and giving them deeper meaning.
A cultural center brings together people who are similar, but those people don’t have to be similar in every way: shockingly, people of the same race aren’t actually the same people. Communities strengthen the individuals within them, but they also strengthen the connections to individuals in other communities as well, and in this way, there is no clearly defined line between one community and another. A cultural house doesn’t only build pillars to support itself; it’s an essential building block of the larger ecosystem that is Yale.
Mariah Xu is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .