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Panels talk Southeast Asian representation in academia

Professors, students, advocates speak on importance of study of Southeast Asia in U.S.

“Our community is being marginalized,” said Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, associate professor in the college of education and co-director of the center for Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, during her keynote address on the experiences of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the United States at the Southeast Asian Studies Symposium Saturday.

The day-long symposium was “the first major event regarding Southeast Asian Studies at Brown,” according to a written statement by Co-Presidents of the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative Taing Nandi Aung ’19 and Andrew Ton ’20. SEASI organized the event with the Brown University Singaporean Society, Vietnamese Students Association and Filipino Alliance. The event had been in the works since June and has garnered sponsorship from numerous centers within the University.

The symposium convened students and faculty to discuss the current state of Southeast Asian representation within academia and the community at large, the need for coursework dedicated to Southeast Asia and how such a program could be implemented at Brown.

SEASI wanted to “connect students … who want to study Southeast Asia, but don’t have the resources here at Brown to people in the area who are knowledgeable,” Aung told The Herald. Professors, doctoral candidates and student and community activists all spoke during several panels covering a wide range of topics, including issues in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and the Philippines, as well as the United States’ current relationship to its own Southeast Asian population.

Another panel focused on the activism and advocacy work of the Providence Youth Student Movement and Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education. Engaging with Rhode Island’s Southeast Asian community was of particular importance to SEASI. “We need to make sure that local communities can benefit from what we’re doing up here (at Brown),” Ton said.

“Our history is very traumatizing, … and it gets passed on to the youth,” said panelist Brian Aun, a junior facilitator at ARISE.

Beyond formal panels, the symposium concluded with a community conversation and dinner event. “We wanted to open up the floor” and hear from as many interested students and faculty as possible, Aung said.

Uy opened the conference by citing statistics on “current community issues,” specifically poverty, low educational support and legislation that puts Southeast Asian immigrants at a high risk for deportation. Southeast Asians get “lost in the aggregate” of East Asian and South Asian immigrants’ economic and educational successes, according to Uy, who recalled how an anthropology professor once told her that Southeast Asian Americans were “statistically insignificant.” Uy also spoke about the geopolitical significance of studying Southeast Asia and referenced the United States’ Secret War bombing campaign on Laos during the 1960s and 1970s.

Uy concluded her talk with her thoughts Brown’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. “Without Southeast Asian studies, Brown cannot meet their mission statement,” she said, stressing the importance of “finding (oneself) in the curriculum.” To meet this goal, students “need to make demands.”

One panel in the symposium, “Building and Engaging Southeast Asian (American) Studies,” invited a number of academics and students to speak on the practice of studying Southeast Asia.

Elsa Clavé, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, spoke on the importance of studying cultures “in relation, and not in domination”  through a modern and holistic lens.

“It was in (college) that I realized that political change can be made when we have knowledge about our communities,” said Quan Tran, lecturer in the ethnicity, race and migration studies program at Yale, during her talk on Vietnamese refugees in the United States.

Student panelists Christy Bae and Rebecca Tsaiyo Leu related their experiences successfully advocating for tenure-track positions in Asian American Studies at Wellesley College and advised Brown students on how to better advocate for Southeast Asian Studies. “Meeting with (administrators) regularly is really important” in putting a face to the movement, Bae said. “Utilize all the networks, … all the technology you can, because it helps you leave a record, … and reach out to your audience.”

“Make yourselves known, sign your name, don’t be afraid to be proud,” Leu said. Leu is an international student but said “I realized as long as I’m an Asian body in America, people are going to racialize me, … so I should study this.”

Reflecting on the purpose of the symposium, Aung said that “our primary goal is to get Southeast Asian Studies at Brown with institutional support.” Currently, there are no tenure-track positions dedicated to Southeast Asian Studies, and the Critical Review only lists five reviews for courses on Southeast Asia. History courses were offered in 2005, 2006 and 2011, each for a different class on the Vietnam War, and an English course on Southeast Asian literature was offered in 2003 and 2005.

SEASI is currently working on a proposal to be presented to the University’s Academic Priorities Committee by the end of the spring semester. Students are advocating for “a top-down, institutionally-supported” initiative to bring Southeast Asian studies to Brown, Ton said.

In the meantime, Ton and Aung are excited for “Southeast Asia’s Entangled Pasts: Excavated, Curated, and Contested,” a seminar taught by Postdoctoral Fellow Lauren Yapp, which will take place next semester. It is the first non-GISP course on Southeast Asia to be offered in both co-presidents’ time at Brown.


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