Courtesy of Kathy Mae Min, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee and Ohshue Gatanaga
This year, some Yalies used their senior thesis projects to explore a wide range of Asian and Asian American issues. The News spoke to three seniors — Kathy Mae Min ’21, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 and Ohshue Gatanaga ’21 — about their experience working on such a project and the impact of their research on Asian and Asian American discourse.
Kathy Mae Min ’21
Min’s thesis fills a gap in Idaho’s Asian American history.
Growing up in Boise, Idaho, Min didn’t encounter much Asian American history in her school curriculum, if at all. When textbooks did cover it, she recalled, many of the narratives included were from over a century ago. While important, these narratives aren’t representative of Idaho’s current Asian population, which mostly came to the country after 1965 when the Hart-Cellar Act abolished racial quotas for immigration, she said. Today’s Asian community in Idaho is therefore far more diverse than textbook narratives imply, Min said. This lack of representation in Asian narratives is the backbone of Min’s senior thesis.
“Asian American history is poorly taught, and that has ramifications for the dignity of the people of color in Idaho,” Min said. “There’s just so much disconnect between my experience and what I’m seeing in classrooms.”
Inspired by professor of American studies and history Mary Lui’s course — “Asian American History, 1800 to the Present” — Min began a quest of collecting oral histories of Asian Idahoans. Her thesis analyzes these interviews, drawing out themes of regional racial formations and migration to Idaho and the United States after 1965.
While many perceive Idaho a state with little racial diversity — Idaho’s population is 93 percent white and 1.6 percent Asian per a 2019 Census estimate — Min has personally observed a vibrant and culturally diverse Asian American community in The Gem State. Idaho she notes, has also seen recent influxes of refugees from around the world, making the documentation of diverse voices all the more necessary.
“I’m Chinese American, but I did not want the project to be all Chinese American history,” Min said. “So I did try to reach out to different folks from different ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic statuses and different parts of Idaho.”
The 17 oral histories, conducted via Zoom interview with 19 residents, will be entered into the University of Idaho’s Asian American Comparative Collection and made available to the public.
Min says that she plans to continue adding more interviews to the collection in the coming years.
“Oral history can really fill in these gaps where, I think, there’s such a lack of nuance in thinking about Asians and Asian America,” Min said.
Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21
An Ethnicity, Race and Migration major, Kumar-Banerjee has focused their work on recent trends at the border between India and Bangladesh, where years of complex security policies and disputes have impacted the lives of millions on both sides.
“My thesis draws on literary theory, cultural theory, political theory and anthropology to analyze the developing narratives from different groups about migrancy at the border,” Kumar-Banerjee wrote in an email to the News.
This topic of transnationality caught Kumar-Banerjee’s interest during a study abroad in India when they attended protests against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which was denounced for excluding Muslims from citizenship pathways. Kumar-Banerjee’s thesis is also influenced by border stories told by their mother, who is of West and East Bengali heritage.
Kumar-Banerjee hopes the analysis contained in their thesis reflects a deeper engagement with their heritage.
“As someone in the diaspora, I’m cognizant of the instinct to romanticize my heritage without engaging with a critical awareness of what’s happening there now,” Kumar-Banerjee wrote. “My thesis research, in addition to other work I’ve done, hopefully challenges that romanticizing urge.”
Transnational issues are widely researched, but Kumar-Banejee’s thesis stands out for its interdisciplinary nature, which they say is inspired by the support provided through the ER&M program, including global connections they received from program advisors.
Still, Kumar-Banerjee hopes more courses and funding will be directed towards this topic in the future at Yale.
“The real issue is that transnational issues and studies are not always given the money or attention they deserve at this University,” Kumar-Banerjee wrote.
Ohshue Gatanaga ’21
How do first-generation Japanese Americans conceptualize their experiences of discrimination? What role do internment camps play in their modern-day experiences?
These are the questions Gatanaga set out to answer in his thesis, which was inspired by his own experience as a first-generation Japanese American and child of post-World War II Japanese immigrants. A sociology major on the health and society track, Gatanaga used a mixed-methods approach, posing a set of priming questions to determine whether other first-generation Japanese Americans perceived the history of Japanese internment camps as traumatic in the context of their modern-day experience.
“We often label Japanese internment as a universal Japanese American experience,” Gatanaga said. “But people who are children of recent immigrants might not conceptualize what we would think of as universal trauma within their own experience.”
Though more research is needed to explain this phenomenon, Gatanaga hypothesizes that one’s access to Asian American history and community could be an important factor in influencing how they perceive Japanese internment. For example, while Southern California, which has a large Japanese American population, might have a wealth of community knowledge of Japanese American history, other areas might lack access to such shared backgrounds and therefore view generational trauma differently.
Still, many study participants described not just a lack of belonging in America but an active feeling of foreignness in their daily lives.
“While people did not identify with Japanese internment, what they did identify with is the sense of un-belonging,” Gatanaga said.
Furthermore, Gatanaga found that first-generation Japanese Americans do not tend to describe their everyday encounters with racism and microaggression as traumatic. This could be explained by a variety of factors, including current gaps in the psychiatric field in terms of what counts as trauma — namely, that the field does not have a good grasp on trauma as it pertains to lived, everyday experiences rather than singular traumatic events.
Gatanaga’s findings, he said, should cause scholars to reconsider current thinking on the Japanese American experience,and mental health treatment practices more broadly. Redefining what trauma looks like could be a big part of moving forward, he said.
“Current explanations of intergenerational trauma don’t do a good job of capturing trauma that occurs over an entire lifetime,” Gatanaga said. “Trauma theory focuses on an immediate shock that destroys a sense of belonging, but that doesn’t really describe what Americans go through in everyday life.”