Amani Kitali ’07, an international student at Yale who was born and raised in Tanzania, said that even though he has now spent almost four years in the United States, he is still struck by the large role race plays in the way American Yalies define themselves.
“I consider myself to be part of the black community, but at same time international,” he said. “The way I see Africans making friends on campus is much more diverse than African-Americans, and I think it’s just because we don’t have that strong sense of race. I don’t think it’s bad, I don’t think it’s good. I just think that’s how it’s happening.”
For the minority students among the 16 percent of Yalies who were born and raised overseas, the decision as to how to participate in Yale’s thriving cultural scene — which includes dozens of student organizations as well as University-run cultural houses — forces them to confront questions of race and identity in the United States. Most Chinese and African Yalies, who make up two of the largest groups of international students on campus, said they belong to campus groups with other international students from their home countries. But these students said they have mixed feelings about participating in cultural groups that include Yalies with international roots who were born in the U.S.. Some questioned how much minority Americans have in common with their international counterparts, while others questioned the value of making distinctions based on ethnicity at all.
A divided history
A night spent with a screw date could go in a number of different directions — a hookup, a relationship or just an awkward night of small talk. But for Ming Min Hui ’10, a Chinese-American from New York and member of the Chinese American Students Association, the Freshman Screw was an eye-opening cultural experience. Her screw date was a Chinese international student, and Hui said that before the dance she had assumed that she would have little in common with someone who had grown up in mainland China. But as the night progressed, she said, she found that her date’s upbringing was in many ways similar to her own.
“There are some cultural values that my parents instilled me with that are distinctly Chinese in some ways, and it comes through when you talk to fellow Chinese-Americans and even people who were born in China,” she said. “My screw date was able to understand and give his own take and input on all of that. I guess we had in common this shared sort of background.”
Chinese international students and Chinese-American students at Yale both trace their origins back to Yung Wing, who graduated from Yale College in 1854 as the first Chinese person to be educated in the United States. But Yuan Ren ’08, an international student and president of Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale, said that until recently, there was a “very distinctive line” between Chinese and Chinese-American students at Yale.
One reason that these groups remained isolated from each other for so long, Ren said, is that all of Yale’s Chinese undergraduate students belong to CUSY, which is separate from CASA. Ren said that for years, the two groups had little to no interaction, but since he started as a freshman, there has been a definite push for more projects that involved collaboration between the two groups. Activities that have involved both CASA and CUSY include last Friday’s Firecracker celebration of the Chinese New Year. The two groups will also co-host a Chinese hot-pot meal this Saturday.
Former CASA president Aaron Meng ’08 said the increased interaction between CASA and CUSY members — and between Chinese-American and Chinese students in general — is a step in the right direction, although he said it is important to recognize that the two groups have different perspectives on Yale and on life in the United States.
“There is a distinct difference in outlook and maybe even interest,” he said. “Chinese students are more international in the sense that China is their homeland. [But] I think there are more similarities than differences.”
Both CASA and CUSY sometimes use the facilities at the Asian American Cultural Center, which “does not distinguish” between the international and the Asian American groups to which it is available, said Chris Lapinig ’07, a coordinator for the House.
Lapinig is a former magazine editor for the News.
Dean Saveena Dhall, director of the AACC, said international students are “very much” a part of the community at the Cultural Center. She said despite its name, the AACC is open to students of all backgrounds, and that because so many Asian-Americans are first-generation or the children of recent immigrants, the categories of Asian and Asian-American are fluid and based on personal preference.
Despite the increasing communication between the organizations, most Chinese and Chinese-American students said having separate cultural groups allows them to deal with the issues of greatest concern to their own members.
“Although CUSY has its own cultural identity, I think it is very important for us international students to interact with American students,” said Yuefei Qin ’09, vice president of CUSY. “This is a very important part of our education in America.”
Race, culture and identity
Most of the African international students at Yale belong to the Yale African Students Association, which is separate from the main African-American group on campus, the Black Student Alliance at Yale. Both groups are housed in the Afro-American Cultural Center, often called the House, which is the center of black student life on campus and whose Web site describes its mission as providing a home “for those who aspire to greater understanding and appreciation of African-American, African-Caribbean and African culture.”
Many students said there is there is no firm distinction made between African and African-American House members, and there is considerable overlap in participation in, and sometimes also membership of, YASA and BSAY. But Frank Mokaya ’09 — who was born and raised in Kenya — said while he is an active member of YASA and feels like a part of Yale’s wider black community, he has not become involved in BSAY or any of the many other African-American-centered groups that meet at the House. He said YASA, which holds African dinners and screenings of African movies, gives him a “home away from home.” But he said he has hesitated to become more involved in other aspects of House life because he does not want to restrict himself to a single ethnic group.
“I didn’t want to be so close-minded and just stick to people I would want to think are like me,” he said. “When I came to Yale, it being a place that you meet so many different people, it wasn’t in the best of my interests to be like, ‘Oh, these people have this in common with me.’ I actually looked for people who come from all walks of life.”
Both international students and other members of Yale’s black community said while students from Africa do inevitably differ from their African-American peers, all Yalies with an Afro-American background share some of the same values and face similar issues.
Clarence Agbi ’09, a first-generation American and a member of BSAY, said while at some level having the House as a resource center for both African and African-American students reinforces the stereotype that all people with dark skin are the same, all black students at Yale are at some level are “cast as one body” and consequently all face similar race-related challenges.
Agbi said the atmosphere at the House is generally accepting of a diversity of perspectives, and the African students involved in YASA fit in well with the rest of the cultural groups. But he said while he does not feel that the African students at the House form an exclusive clique, he has noticed that people sometimes avoid situations they are not familiar with. This may make Africans and African-Americans hesitant to participate in each other’s groups, he said.
“People don’t want to be in a situation where they don’t know anything about the culture,” he said. “That, I think, is what stops most people. They think, ‘I can’t really hang out with them,’ but really we’re all dealing with the same issues.”
Branching out and fitting in
Both Chinese and African international students said a central goal of their education in the United States is to learn about American culture and meet American students. While most said they appreciated the opportunity to participate in cultural groups, they also emphasized the need to move out of their comfort zones and meet people from all different backgrounds.
Warrena Wilkinson, resource coordinator for the Office of International Students and Scholars, said groups like YASA and CUSY provide international students with a base from which to branch out and meet a wide variety of new people. She said any interaction between international students and the rest of campus is positive for everyone involved, although there are big differences between Yalies who come from abroad and their American ethnic counterparts.
“In a very generalized kind of way, culture and heritage is something they have in common,” she said. “But specifically for the ones who are international students, I think it’s more of an acceptance and adjustment to North American culture that really brings them together.”
Most international students said they like the current system. Members of Yale’s Chinese, Chinese-American, African and African-American communities agreed that having two different cultural groups for students of the same ethnicity — one with a more international focus and one with more of an American bent — allows those groups to deal with problems that specifically concern their members. But they emphasized that maintaining a close relationship between the groups is key to creating a sense of cultural community.
Kitali said his membership in YASA enabled him to “settle down” and adjust to life at Yale, and that he has found only benefits to participating in the black community of the Afro-American Cultural Center. But he added that while race is an important part of his identity, he thinks people should not allow their ethnicity to define who they are.
“The most important thing is that I don’t think people should dwell too much on distinctions,” Kitali said. “Just notice they’re there.”