Students trickle into the Saybrook Fellows’ Lounge in ones and twos, as they do every week. They ask each other about classes to shop and check in on winter breaks. Two members could not make it to the meeting; they receive resounding renditions of “Happy Birthday” on their cell phones. It is almost 45 minutes after sitting down to dining-hall stir-fry that newly elected President Cecilia Ong ’09 stands up, and even when she does, the mood is light as she gives coffee mugs and shot glasses to outgoing co-presidents Steven Le ’08 and Jerry Nguyen ’08. This is the weekly dinner meeting of the Vietnamese Students’ Association, where about 30 Yalies, most of Vietnamese descent, come together to make announcements, plan parties, and most importantly, catch up on each others’ lives.

Any given Yalie could describe himself though any one of a variety of characteristics — religion, sexual orientation, hometown, extracurricular interest — but for some, race and ethnicity remain the defining factors. For students raised in households inextricably tied to heritage-specific traditions, cultural organizations serve as a base camp while they venture into a college terrain where their customs differ from their suitemates’ and sectionmates’.

“I think it’s important to note that the cultural centers don’t play only a single role in students’ lives,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “They play different roles for different students, and sometimes they play multiple roles for any given student. One of those roles is to help one gain the self-confidence that comes with the understanding of one’s identity.”

But some students do not find this “self-confidence” through cultural organizations. Instead, it is theater groups, dance troupes or midnight chats with their closest friends that help them reconcile their back-home and at-school selves. Some do not join cultural organizations because they think they promote self-segregation; others are simply unhappy with these groups’ priorities. While the surrogate families Yalies construct may be based around different attributes, all agree that college is an opportunity to choose for themselves how to express their culture and, in the process, how to define themselves.

“A Laboratory of Ideas”

When Andrew Law ’08 arrived on campus, he joined the Chinese American Students’ Association, seeking a community of people with shared experiences. But Law said he did not fit in with the dynamic of the organization — he didn’t want to make stereotypically Asian jokes and didn’t feel like he could interact in the same way as the other CASA guys. The following year, Law decided he wanted to devote his time to the activities he considered most important — theater and his comedy group, Just Add Water — and opted to leave CASA. Soon, Law said, he became the “Asian kid who doesn’t identify with other Asian kids.”

But Law said that does not mean he does not have any “cultural capital.” He likes swapping stories about his immigrant parents with those who can relate, but prefers to do so with the two or three of his close friends who happen to be Asian rather than in the setting of a cultural group. Law said he sees an intrinsic danger in limiting friendships to people of a similar background, because it is easy to create a sense of “us” and “them.”

“What I think is most dangerous is that by assembling or coming together, you can also exclude,” Law said.

Sandeep Ayyappan ’07, who moved from Hyderabad, India to Omaha, Nebraska when he was 10, has been on the South Asian Society’s e-mail list since the time he entered Yale. But he said his involvement with the organization has been limited to occasional attendance at annual cultural shows like the always-packed Roshni.

“My culture is unique and so is everyone’s, and there’s no single organization that can fully or even adequately represent who I am,” Ayyappan said in an e-mail. “I don’t think being part of the SAS would make me more South Asian, and being South Asian is only a small part of my background.”

Like Ayyappan — and most Yale students — Law would identify himself by a different attribute on any given day, and only sometimes would that attribute be “Chinese.” In high school, he said, this multiplicity separated him from his Chinese peers. He and a handful of his classmates would spend every Sunday together, between service at his Asian church and sessions of Chinese school, but come Monday lunch, the others would sit at the “Asian crew’s” table, while he chose his own, more diverse clique.

Law and Ayyappan maintain their respective cultural identities through their families, some friends, and childhood memories. As a result, they say that they don’t need a cultural organization to fill that role. Law said he is no longer a member of CASA mainly because of the value he places on the sharing of ideas, beliefs and experiences in a university he called a “laboratory of ideas.”

“I have never felt the need to identify with Asian people, even though I don’t mind their company,” Law said. “I am not proud of the fact that I am not in a cultural group, but I am proud of the fact that my closest friends are very different from me.”

“When can I dance?”

Neal Ubriani ’08, current vice-president of SAS, said his cultural organization should be a tool students can use to engage their ethnic identities by exploring the deeper, more complex aspects of South Asian culture. Ubriani said that when he was elected to the board of SAS, he envisioned his ideal organization as one in which political, social and cultural issues were a priority over Bollywood and beer.

But after a semester on the job, he said, he has relinquished that hope. Time and time again, students have approached him at recruitment events with one question — “When can I dance?” Realizing that the social aspects of the organization are what sustain it in a university context, Ubriani, who still serves on the SAS board, said he now pursues personal projects to explore his culture in his own way.

Ubriani is not alone in this pursuit. Naima Coster ’08, for instance, chooses to engage her ethnic identity through social action and artistic pursuits. Coster participates in Steppin’ Out, a group affiliated with the African-American cultural house, and the Coalition for Campus Unity, which addresses bigotry on campus. With her group Ballet Folklorico de Yale, Mexican-American Melissa Campos ’08 goes to New Haven schools and teaches children of all races how to perform traditional Mexican dance. She said it is important that the Puerto Rican and Dominican children in New Haven’s schools know there are other Latinas in the city.

But Campos defines her Yale family as more than just the members of her dance group; among her closest friends, she said, she would count her water polo teammates and fellow Dwight Hall volunteers. Though she initially felt isolated from other Latinas on campus — a problem she attributes to not attending Cultural Connections, a pre-orientation program for minority students — Campos does not regret the composition of her friend group.

“I don’t want [Latinas] to be my main group of friends,” she said. “Why should you isolate yourself?”

“I was never an ABCD.”

The current Facebook profile of Govind Rangrass ’08 speaks volumes about his pride for his culture. His picture shows him wearing traditional Bhangra clothes, and he is “Married to” popular Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan. His “Favorite Quotes” include the Indian National An
them, and under “Courses,” he described MCDB 202a — Genetics — as “Punjabi Dominant Genes and the Punjabi Origins of All Advantageous Phenotypes.”

Since childhood, Rangrass has immersed himself in his culture, speaking Hindi at home with his parents, running his temple’s youth group and dancing in cultural shows. He said he was “never an ABCD” or an American-Born Confused Desi, a term used to describe Indians living in the United States who feel disconnected from their culture. Rangrass put his name on SAS’s e-mail list as soon as he arrived at the Freshman Bazaar, and by the following semester, he was already recruiting students — one of whom became his girlfriend — to join the organization.

While he said it is obviously not ideal for any person to have a homogeneous set of friends, he thinks self-segregation is inevitable and to some extent a positive thing, because it allows for preservation of culture. Rangrass said that in his opinion, the United States is not a “melting pot” of cultures but “pockets of grease on a pan.”

“Culture is something that is ancient and rooted in mythology,” Rangrass said. “America in general does not have a culture. You can’t uniquely identify with America.”

But Kean Hsu ’06 said that when he was at Yale, he chose to participate in three separate cultural organizations — CASA, the Taiwanese Students Association and VISA. Though his family is Chinese, Hsu said he joined all the groups because they gave him an opportunity to learn about other cultures and “experience the world” while never leaving Yale. He said one of the aspects of college life that he misses the most is the “very warm and open” families that he formed while in these groups.

A Sense of Home

The board of the Yale Hillel, a Jewish student group on campus, starts its weekly meetings at 7:42 p.m. because the members are “so Jewish” that they could not agree on either seven or eight. The previous week, they had to postpone the meeting; they met at 8:53 p.m. All of the members arrive at the session promptly (except one board member who is chronically late — each week, all the other members bombard him with phone calls until he arrives), and they embark on a marathon meeting that will likely last until close to midnight.

Sarah Kellner ’08, one of the group’s co-presidents, was one of a few Jews in South Carolina, while Daniel Hoffman ’08, Hillel’s other co-president, was one of many in Massachusetts. Kellner considers herself a cultural Jew; Hoffman said he is observant. But the two interact like siblings in the larger Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life family, a group so tight-knit the members once considered getting a Slifka puppy.

“I think diversity is really important,” Kellner said. “You can certainly have your identity and not be surrounded by the same type of people.”

“But I think it’s a matter of degree,” Hoffman added. “It’s definitely crucial to have some time set aside to be with your own group. That’s even a good thing.”

Across the University, leaders of student organizations said that students who join their groups stay because of the sense of community that is quickly developed among people with similar backgrounds. Le and Nguyen said this is especially important in the Vietnamese community on campus because it is so small. There are only 10 to 12 students of Vietnamese descent in every class, they said, and about nine of them join VISA in a typical year.

Andrew Yu ’08, president of the Korean American Students of Yale, said he joined the organization because the upperclassmen members were immediately welcoming towards him, and since there were very few Koreans in his hometown in Texas, he thought it was time to recognize his culture. Yu said the same characteristics that cause what others often view as self-segregation are what inevitably create the feeling of family and togetherness that makes the group so important to its members.

“It happens, but it is a little overblown,” Yu said of self-segregation. “It’s not out of any kind of malice.”

Defining and Redefining

Nicole Fish ’09 is half Vietnamese, one-quarter African-American, and one-quarter Native American. Her father identifies as African American, while her mother, though Vietnamese by birth, identifies with the Italian-American culture she was adopted into. Fish said that in her household, race, ethnicity and culture were simply not addressed, and when she came to college, she was disconnected and in search of a cultural identity.

Fish said she found the identity she was looking for when she joined VISA, and that just by immersing herself in this group, she assimilated more cultural knowledge than she could have in any other way. When Fish deferred her Yale entrance by a year and sent her brother to the second round of Bulldog Days in her stead, he met the members of VISA and told them about Fish. When she showed up on campus five months later, the group already knew all about her.

At the Wednesday meeting, Fish is one of the students celebrating her birthday. Another member of VISA arranges a bowl of ice cream, multi-colored Baskin-Robbins style, for the meal’s end. Fish’s Yale ID is passed around the table, and the rest of the VISA members, sounding like great-aunts and -uncles at a family reunion, comment on how much she has changed over the past year.

“Choosing friends is a very personal thing,” Fish said. “[VISA] became more of a family.”