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Class of 2021 senior theses highlight important issues in Asian, Asian American communities

Three seniors researched Malay history, immigrant perceptions of mental health, resistance movements in Palestine, Kashmir

This spring, several Brown seniors focused their senior theses on exploring pertinent issues faced by Asian and Asian-American communities around the world. The Herald interviewed three recent graduates — Nicole Yow Wei ’21, Anchita Dasgupta ’21 and Jenny Lee ’21 — on centering their culminating papers around Asian American topics and the historical and cultural significance of their research. 

Defining history: impacts of transcription on Malay oral text

Yow, a history concentrator, focused her thesis on Malay historical tradition through an in-depth study of a Malay text, the Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal. Initially performed as an oral folktale, the text was recorded and printed in the 1900s by a British colonial scholar in Malaya, present-day Western Malaysia.

“By publishing (the Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal) as a printed book, the scholar completely neutralized the historical potential of the folktale, and in print form, it became a work of fiction,” Yow said, describing the argument of her thesis. 

Prior research in traditional Malay historiography, the study of local methods of producing history, primarily focused on chronicles, such as court records produced by elites, with little study of folktales from rural areas of the Malay world, according to Yow. 

To analyze the text, Yow learned the written Malay language from tutors and translated 160 pages of the text from Malay to English. She followed an interdisciplinary approach to translation, employing several aspects of literary and performance theory. 

For instance, the text consisted of words that were typically alternated with colloquial filler words to create rhythm in an oral performance. Yow drew on past scholarship and developed her own methodologies to preserve the orality of the text when translating into English.

In her thesis, she highlights that how the text functions as a work of history differs from the perceptions of what history is in the contemporary West. “In Malay history, traditional historical methods focus on the text being able to change constantly” so the oral text could react to the political concerns of the moment, Yow said. 

When the British colonial officer printed it, “the text is no longer able to change, (and) that is when it becomes literature. It can no longer be considered history because it no longer functions by the rules of Malay historical tradition,” she said.

Working on her thesis spurred Yow to reflect on the lack of education in Malay histories she received while at home in Singapore and at Brown. Growing up as a Chinese Singaporean, Yow felt that her ethnic privilege has walled her off from the Malay world culture. 

While serving as leader of the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative at Brown, Yow advocated for the increased presence of Southeast Asian studies at the University and expressed the need for more tenured professors specializing in the region’s cultural issues. 

After graduating from Brown, she is heading to Chulalongkorn University in Thailand to pursue a master’s program in Southeast Asian Studies. Yow hopes that studying with Thai scholars will help her become a deeper and more intimate part of the Southeast Asian community. 

Finding agency in the law: power dynamics in Palestine and Kashmir

Dasgupta, a Middle East Studies concentrator, had been an activist and organizer around Palestine and Kashmir throughout her time attending the University. “Palestine became a very interesting topic to me because of how controversial it was in academic spaces,” Dasgupta said, spurring her to get involved in Palestinian politics outside of her courses. 

After working with a human rights organization in Kashmir the summer of her junior year, she became interested in the connection between the resistance movements of both Palestine and Kashmir. With a strong interest in law, she decided to use legal cases as a medium to explore these commonalities. 

In her senior thesis, Dasgupta researched two cases — one in Palestine and one in Kashmir — where resistors were able to use the legal system to fight against the state, in spite of the law’s intended purpose of protecting the state. This contrasts with common instances where resistors are “trapped into having to use the law to fight against their oppressors” who created those same laws, she said. 

In both legal cases, Dasgupta found that utilizing the law was “a form of exerting agency.” Even within a limited legal framework through which protests could be legitimized, resistors managed to demonstrate power, she added.

Instead of analyzing the legal cases through the lens of politics and law like prior scholarship, she chose to focus on how the resistance movements at the time interacted with the law. 

One of the findings Dasgupta found most intriguing was the range of political ideologies held by resistors about whether legal resistance should be used against the state and to what extent. 

She plans on researching resistance movements more broadly at law school. 

West meets East: mental health among Vietnamese immigrants

“How are the Western concepts of mindfulness, mental health and social justice perceived among low income Vietnamese immigrant women in the Bay Area? How has COVID-19 impacted their lives as well as their perceptions (of these matters)?” Lee posed these central questions and aimed to answer them in her senior thesis — an interdisciplinary paper that spanned research in religious studies, contemplative studies and public health.

“With COVID-19, there is a hype about mental health and mindfulness that is very important. But the access to it is not available for all communities,” she said. Those who are first-generation and low-income may encounter cultural, linguistic, financial, religious and social barriers, she said. 

For her research, Lee interviewed 11 low-income Vietnamese immigrant women about their experiences of racism and discrimination as Vietnamese Americans, perspectives on mental health and mindfulness and the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.

Lee was able to overcome linguistic barriers in the interview process by speaking to the women in Vietnamese and then transcribing and translating the interviews into English. She then began a thematic analysis by identifying recurring ideas in each transcript and mapping them onto the U.S. immigrant experience. She used these themes to come up with two models: an Immigrant Assimilation Model and the cumulative U.S. Immigrant Health Belief model, drawing on intersectional feminism, intersectionality and assimilation theory. 

Though she did not intentionally select participants by religion, Lee found that all of the women identified religiously as Buddhist. Her findings highlighted the lack of awareness in these communities about Buddhist-adapted practices, such as mindfulness, despite the contributions of some Vietnamese monks, like Thích Nhất Hạnh, to conceptualize mindfulness within the religion, according to Lee. 

Lee’s own cultural background as a Buddhist and member of the Vietnamese immigrant community in the U.S. has also exposed her to a multitude of overlooked issues faced by Asian Americans, one of them being inaccessibility of mental care. She recalled an instance during a Buddhist retreat where she faced discrimination by retreat leaders for practicing mindfulness, causing her to doubt her religious integrity. 

Likewise, almost all of the women Lee interviewed had experienced anxiety adapting to a new life in the United States, and, for some, the effects of forced migration and living in refugee camps as well. Yet cultural stigma surrounding mental health and financial barriers limited their access to mental health resources and contributes to discrimination in spheres of practicing mindfulness.

Professor of Public health Don Operario, Lee’s thesis advisor, noted the relevance of Lee’s research during the COVID-19 pandemic, when anti-racism movements and hate crimes against members of Asian communities were an essential part of the social context of the U.S. 


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Yow taught herself the written Malay language. In fact, Yow learned the written language from tutors. The Herald regrets the error.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to “Malaya historical tradition” instead of “Malay historical tradition” due to a transcription error. The Herald regrets the error.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Yow felt walled off from the cultural experiences of her family. In fact, she specifically felt walled off from the experiences of her Malay siblings.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Yow hoped “living” in Thailand will help her become a deeper and more intimate part of the Southeast Asian community. In fact, Yow hopes that studying with Thai scholars will have this effect.

Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative. The Herald regrets the error.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Nicole Yow Wei’s last name and referred to her by her full Chinese name following the first mention. The article now refers to her by her last name for references after the first mention. The Herald regrets the error.

Clarification: A previous version of the article referenced prior research in Malay history. In fact, Yow referenced historiography, which refers to local methods of producing history.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to “rural areas of Malaya” instead of “rural areas of the Malay world.” The Herald regrets the error.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Yow felt walled off specifically from the cultural experiences of “Malay siblings” and co-nationals. More accurately, Yow felt walled off from the broader Malay world culture.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Yow developed new techniques to logically connect sentence fragments in translation. In fact Yow developed methodologies to preserve the orality of the text in translation.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Yow reflected on the lack of education she received in Malay “issues.” More specifically, Yow noted the lack of education she received in Malay histories.


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