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Conference probes Asian-American identities

E(RACE)D provides context to discuss different social perceptions and cultural experiences

“I came to Brown as a Hmong refugee and left as an Asian-American woman,” said former Minnesota State Sen. Mee Moua ’92 at a conference Saturday aimed at exploring Asian-American history and its cultural portrayal.

The conference, entitled “E(RACE)D But Not Forgotten,” was organized by the Asian American Student Association and featured a keynote address by Moua followed by panels and workshops addressing various facets of the Asian-American experience.

Before assuming her current post as president of the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Moua became the first Minnesota state senator to identify as part of the Hmong ethnic group from Southeast Asia. Addressing an audience of about 30 undergraduates, graduate students and community members, she recounted her story of growing up in Wisconsin as a Laotian immigrant who had fled the rise of communism in Southeast Asia.

Being an Asian-American “was a lot harder, in some ways, than being a refugee, because we were some of the first people of color” in the community, Moua said. Most other Asian-Americans in the area came from wealthy Filipino backgrounds and “kept saying they weren’t our type of Asian,” she said.

In an environment where white students spit on her on the way to school, Moua reached out to these other Asian-Americans.

“I assumed that because (they) were Asian-Americans, they must have had similar experiences,” she said. “I imposed this higher level of obligation on these other Asian kids, and when they didn’t fulfill those expectations, I was very disappointed in them.”

Society holds certain racial assumptions that can be hard to push back on, Moua said.

“There’s this artificial Asian-American identity imposed upon us, and you can either say, ‘No, no, no, that’s not us,’ or work with it,” she added.

Moua credited her time at Brown with giving her the words to express “the anger in my stomach.”

At the Third World Transition Program, Moua “met other people of color whose life experiences reflected my own,” she said. Words like racism, bigotry and pluralism allowed her to frame her experiences in terms that are “essential” to the civil rights work she does today, she said.

A frequent picketer during her college years, Moua brought the same mentality of fighting for the disenfranchised to her successful 2002 campaign for a seat in the Minnesota State Senate.

As president of AAJC, Moua advocates for the rights of Asian-Americans across the country from her office in Washington. When asked whether she believed Asian-Americans have a sense of solidarity, Moua said they are the most diverse minority group in the country, encompassing some of the most affluent and most impoverished individuals. The myth of the model minority creates “deep issues,” she added.

“Within the broader Asian-American umbrella, we are an alphabet soup,” Moua said. “There’s this spectrum of Asian-Americans. You could choose to distance yourself, or you could choose to embrace it.”

Following the keynote address, conference participants could attend different panels and workshops, including talks entitled  “Asian Americans in Higher Education” and “Perpetual Foreigner: Where Are We From?”

In a panel that sought to address Asian-American identity in the 20th century, Yoon Kyung Shim GS, who is studying anthropology, presented a paper chronicling the struggles of first-generation Japanese immigrants and the gradual assimilation of their children until the eve of Pearl Harbor. Yang Zheng GS, an American studies student, explored Asian-American representation in films and Broadway productions such as “Flower Drum Song.” Linking these two topics, Bee Vang ’15.5 discussed the difficulty of placing Asian-Americans on the traditional black-white binary, citing Richard Aoki, a third-generation Japanese-American and one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, as an example of someone who transcended racial expectations.

“At least here in Providence, we don’t really have the chance to have conversations with the Asian-American community,” said Sarah Day Dayon ’15, one of the conference’s main organizers. Dayon emailed many potential speakers and asked the Brown community to contribute topics for discussion through a survey, she said.

She said she hopes the conference “sparks a conversation.”

Several undergrads who attended the conference told The Herald they appreciated the opportunity to explore Asian-American history and issues.

“I really enjoyed being in a space where everyone felt comfortable talking about the things they’d been through,” said Hari Narayanan ’14. But he added that he would have preferred more emphasis on social justice.

“I’ve done a lot of introspective thinking, but I think it’s definitely useful to talk to other people and see how others view themselves,” said Marimo Shioda ’14.

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