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Asian-Pacific American Students Celebrate Heritage - 2003-05-14

Twenty-five years ago, the first week in May was established as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. It was later expanded to a month and now, many communities and universities hold special events, including guest speakers, panel discussions and arts programs. The main campus of University of Maryland in College Park offers an Asian-American studies program.
The sound of student tennis matches filter through the offices of the University of Maryland's Asian-American Studies offices. Chris Liang, a department graduate student and instructor, says it may be symbolic that Asian-American studies are relegated to a corner of the college's nearly abandoned and decaying Cole Field House basketball arena.

"We're not [located] in an academic unit," he says. "We're in a building on the outside of the campus."

Another graduate student in the program, Marie Ting, points out that the three-year-old unit is far behind such similar programs for black and women's studies at Maryland.

"Some Asian-American students you talk to feel marginalized on this campus," she says. "I don't know how students can feel totally integrated when there are clear inequities on campus."

There are dozens of Asian-American studies programs in the United States of varying size, many of which are in areas with large Asian communities. The University of California and California State University public systems, as well as private schools such as Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the Claremont Colleges have notable programs.

Several important Asian studies are also in New York City, and near Chicago, Illinois: including Northwestern University, Loyola University and the Universities of Wisconsin and Illinois.

The growth in such programs is a result of increasing numbers of Asian-American students in the United States as well as general interest in ethnic and cultural studies.

Like other Asian-American Studies Programs, the one at the University of Maryland includes courses about immigration and public policy, history, literature and film relating to Asian and Pacific Islanders. Sociology professor Dae Young Kim notes that these classes provide many students a chance to learn about their heritage in depth.

"Many of them did not have any history or anything [about Asian Americans] taught to them in high school: Very little about their parents' immigration history, very little about how Asian Americans came to this country much of this information is very new to them," he said. "They're now finding a sense of who they are and what their heritage is about."

According to graduate student and instructor Chris Liang, some non-Asians find the courses offered in the Asian-American studies program especially enlightening.

"Overwhelmingly, our students are Asian-American," he says. "But there are a few who aren't Asian American and take our classes and learn a great deal. I remember in one class, a white student said, 'When I first enrolled in this class, I thought I was going to learn about tea ceremonies and dances.' But he [added], 'I'm so glad I took this class because I learned so much: about the history, the stereotypes, the achievements and the challenges the community faces. And I'm better for it.'"

Julie Choe, of the Office of Campus Programs, says the University's Asian and Pacific heritage month programs also give the student body a chance to find out more about the diversity of Asian groups.

"It looks at Asian Americans as one monolithic kind of entity, when, in fact, there are dozens of ethnicities when you're talking about Asian Americans," she said. "The experiences of all those different groups has been different, in terms of their histories here in the U.S., why they immigrated, when they immigrated, and their experiences being here. It's been easily overlooked."

Although Maryland is not among the states with the largest concentration of Asian-Americans, nearly 14 percent of the undergraduates at the University of Maryland are Asian American. Instructor Chris Liang says various campus activities help bring together the diverse Asian ethnic groups.

"Sometimes it's hard for Korean students to find any type of identification or any bond with Japanese students - or Chinese students and Japanese students," he says. "There are challenges. But the more they talk and learn about the Asian 'American' experience, the more they understand, 'Wow, we've got a lot in common! Our ancestors here in the United States have a lot of common experiences.'"

In social settings on the Maryland campus, advisor Julie Choe says it's interesting to see trends in self-segregation among groups.

"That's something people talk about here: different groups sit together," she explains. "You see Asian American students sitting together, black students sitting together. But some students I talk [with, say] there are a lot of students who have a variety of friends [of different races] as well. The fact that students do sit with people who have a similar cultural background there's not necessarily a problem with that. It may be a perfectly valid, shared experience they have, just as you might sit with someone because you share a class."

And the idea of mixing among groups or assimilating draws contrasting responses. Student Amy Wong sees assimilation as losing her ethnic identity.

"I don't like the word assimilation because it's about conforming and changing to be a part of the dominant culture which I don't think is healthy - the assimilation where you kind of lose yourself," she says.

However, other students at the University of Maryland see mixed racial and ethnic gatherings as a sign of "progress." They say they can maintain their unique cultural identity, while at the same time, have friends who belong to other groups.

Every year during Asian-Pacific Heritage month, Asian-American students take time to assess their achievements. And at the University of Maryland, while they see some success they also hope its Asian-American studies program will gain parity one day with those of other groups.