Asian student community evaluates diversity at USC


“No matter where you are on campus, if you listen really hard, you can always hear an Asian language,” Andrew Liu said. “That always makes me feel good — feel at home.”

A sophomore majoring in music industry, Liu came to USC in 2012 from his native Singapore and found a place within the university’s multiethnic Asian community.

Born in Chicago in 1994 to a Taiwanese family, Liu spent the majority of his life in Singapore, where he attended the United World College of South East Asia, a British international school where the curriculum was taught in English.

“The way to describe me is TCK — third culture kid,” Liu said. “My passport citizenship, my heritage and where I live now reside in completely different cultures.”

Liu is just one of the approximately 9,200 students who make up USC’s growing Asian community, which accounts for approximately 23 percent of the total undergraduate and graduate population. Of the 7,889 international students, a group that makes up 12 percent of the student population, over three-fourths are from Asian countries.

But for all the Asian community is, the diversity and complexity within the 23 percent is often overlooked — clouded by stereotypes and preconceptions that numbers alone often keep hidden.

What’s Beneath The Number 23

“Within the 23 percent, [the Asian community is] extremely diverse,” said Mary Ho, director of the Asian Pacific American Student Services, a division of USC Student Affairs. “USC categorizes students by breaking it down into 13 subgroups, but as a community we have over 40 ethnic subgroups.”

With all of the underrepresented minorities on campus, some advocates felt that the diversity of the Asian community is often overlooked.

“We forget about how diverse the Asian-American community is,” said Gloria Kim, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly. “When we think about Asian-Americans, we usually only think about Chinese-Americans or Korean-Americans.”

APASS aims to support the Asian-Pacific American student community through leadership and empowerment programs, catering to a multitude of backgrounds including Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Filipino and Pacific Islander.

“We have a space for students to come through and learn about themselves specifically through the lens of their racial and ethnic identity,” Ho said. “We have opportunities for them to find their own space, to find their own meaning and their own narratives.”

Serving the university’s Asian-American community since 1982, APASS was established in order to address the needs of the growing Asian-Pacific American student population and connect them with alumni. Pauline Ng Lee, who graduated in 1986, said that APASS was a source of guidance and cultural familiarity during her time at USC.

“It was the fact that there were Asian students and the commonality of being Asian-American and experiencing the same cultural background,” Lee said. “The cultural values were the same — the idea of honoring and respecting your values, work ethic and responsibility.”

The diversity of the Asian community on campus, however, isn’t entirely new. Catalina Camia, who also graduated in 1986, said the Asian-American community was growing exponentially during her time at USC more than 20 years ago.

But this isn’t unique to USC. Even within the professional world, Camia, a reporter for USA Today, said the community’s divisions largely go unnoticed. She recalled a time when a colleague asked her how she celebrated Chinese New Year. She had to explain that, as a Filipino-American, she does not observe the holiday.

“Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the country and they’re much more diverse than people realize,” Camia said. “We’re not all alike.”

As diverse as the Asian community is, some students said the greater campus does not perceive the diversity, particularly when it comes to the perception of South Asian students.

Sayuli Bhide, an Indian-American sophomore majoring in neuroscience, said the application of Asian as a broad term often results in a divide within the Asian community itself.

“When I hear the word ‘Asian’ thrown around, most of the time I don’t feel like I identify,” Bhide said. “Technically my race is Asian, but if I were to describe myself as Asian I think most people would raise some eyebrows.”

Ho said this stems from the fact that the community is so intrinsically diverse.

“It does go back to the fact that we are a very diverse community,” Ho said. “There’s no singular event that defines us.”

A Shocking Tragedy

In the spring of 2012, however, the death of two Chinese international students shook many students within the Asian community.

When graduate students Ming Qu and Ying Wu left China to study in the United States, they planned to  earn masters’ degrees in electrical engineering at USC. But in the early hours of April 11, 2012, the two students’ plans were tragically cut short. At 1 a.m. that morning, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to the scene on the 2700 block of Raymond Avenue where Qu and Wu were found shot and killed.

Police discovered that a gunman opened fire on Qu’s car in a robbery attempt gone awry, according to the Daily Trojan. Though Wu was found in the car, the location where Qu’s body was found suggests that he attempted to run for help before collapsing on a porch.

The attack prompted a gathering of hundreds of students and faculty members in front of Tommy Trojan that Wednesday evening as part of a vigil to honor the lives of the two students. Students who attended the vigil said the majority of those in attendance were members of the Asian international community.

Sarah Leung, a junior from Hong Kong majoring in history and choral music, said being with students of similar backgrounds made her feel connected to Qu and Wu.

“I definitely can relate to [the shooting] more because even though I don’t know the two people, I identify them as people from my own country, so I think there’s more connection between me and the two people,” Leung said. “There’s a string that connects everyone from the same place.”

With 38.5 percent of the university’s international students coming from China, the news of the shooting made headlines across the globe.

“My mom heard about it on the Chinese news,” said Amy Yee, a senior majoring in business administration and computer science. “A lot of international families were questioning the security of USC.”

Beyond The Sea

Despite sharing similar ethnic and cultural values, Anh Cao, a junior majoring in business administration and cinematic arts, said the international and domestic students on campus rarely intermingle.

“There are two populations,” Cao said. “There’s the international population and there’s the Asian-American population from the States.”

As a Chinese-American alumna, Lee said these differences ultimately stem from different upbringings.

“There’s a cultural difference between being an Asian-American and a foreign national,” Lee said. “We weren’t immigrants — we were full-blown Americans raised in the American culture.”

According to Stan Rosen, a professor of political science who specializes in Chinese politics and culture, the divisions within the international Asian community are not particularly surprising.

“We have over 2,500 students from mainland China, so they already have a community amongst themselves,” Rosen said. “And it’s increasing.”

Cao said the growing disparity between the two communities, particularly within the distinct student organizations, has led to a sense of exclusivity.

“I have definitely heard stories of many students who want to join ISA who aren’t international but don’t feel as welcome, or vice versa,” Cao said.

As a member of both Asian-American and international organizations, Liu said the communities often feel separated.

“I am a part of the Taiwanese Student Association and the Taiwanese American Organization,” Liu said. “TSA is a lot more internationally focused. And though it’s great for someone like me, it’s very exclusive.”

Though events are occasionally sponsored by ISA and APASA, Cao said the inherent separation between the two organizations makes it difficult to foster lasting bonds.

“I know a lot of organizations do try to do that,” Cao said. “It’s just really hard to break barriers.”

Shirley Chu, an undeclared freshman born and raised in Seattle, said the disparity within the Asians in the greater campus communities can often leave students feeling out of place.

“Being an Asian-American means you’re not really accepted by the international students because you grew up here,” Chu said. “But you’re also not completely recognized by the domestic students either because you’re Asian, so they tend to assume you’re international.”

‘Oh, you speak English so well!’

Preconceived assumptions and stereotypes of the Asian student population serve as a primary impediment for the university to truly understand the Asian community.

“The biggest ones that I’ve encountered are being really good in school, especially with science and math,” Cao said. “There’s being not so good at English, being a bad driver, being very quiet and submissive.”

For many students, these stereotypes often cast those in the Asian community as perpetual foreigners.

“I get the ‘Oh, you speak English so well!’ comment all the time,” said Liu, an international student from Singapore. “It never occurs to people that I can speak both languages really well.”

Domestic students also deal with the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Chu said some classmates often assume she is an international student.

“Some people are surprised that I can speak English,” Chu said, “and I grew up in Seattle.”

Yee, who serves as Asian Greek Council President, said one of the hardest stereotypes to battle is the belief that Asian students are antisocial. AGC, which is composed of three sororities and two fraternities, aims to develop both the social and professional networks of the university’s Asian community.

“The biggest stereotype I’ve heard is that Asian-Americans are very quiet and studious and keep to themselves,” Yee said. “But being in Asian Greek, we have a very social culture.”

Despite this, however, Yee said the stereotype of being anti-social often elicits surprise when her classmates realize she is in a sorority.

“Sometimes I’ll be wearing my letters in classes, and people say ‘Whoa, you’re in a sorority?’” Yee said. “I think since we get hit so hard with the stereotype, people sometimes get surprised when they hear you’re in a sorority or fraternity.”

There is still a sense of awareness of the differences between the AGC houses and the Interfraternity Council houses, Yee said, citing how students have taken to calling AGC fraternity Beta Omega Phi “Asian Beta” so as not to be confused with IFC fraternity Beta Theta Pi.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate name for them,” Yee said. “It’s stereotyping the fraternity — it’s not even 100 percent Asian.”

Lee said many of the stereotypes that existed on campus while she was a student in the ’80s still persist today.

“The stereotypes that we had in ’86 are probably the same that exist in 2013,” Lee said. “You always have the stereotype that they tend to be hardworking and not outspoken; that they’re not leaders.”

A former Student Government president, Lee said she was able to combat the stereotype with the support of those within the Asian community.

“People always think Asian-Americans don’t have the capacity to lead,” Lee said, “and that’s false.”

Cao acknowledged there are certainly some who express certain aspects of the stereotypes associated with the larger community, but feels it’s unfair to assume that the stereotypes apply to everyone.

“I’m very outspoken and I like to speak my mind,” Cao said. “I’m not that quiet, submissive person. But I think within all demographics, there’s always someone who falls within any category. People see what they want to see, and that’s been the trend for a while.”

Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers 

As a former campus leader, Lee encouraged the Asian student community to combat the preconceived stereotypes and strengthen the diverse population through leadership.

“Watch the leaders you admire and respect,” Lee said. “Undertake leadership positions and do something different — break that barrier.”

The increased unity between international and Asian-American groups could not only benefit the Asian community as a whole, but could also allow the rest of the student body to understand the Asian community better.

“I think having more Asian cultural events would be nice,” Chu said. “We could attract more people and they can start to see the difference between, for example, Chinese and Korean holidays.”

With a continually expanding and diverse population, Yee said that more intermingling between Asian domestic and international students could strengthen the community.

“A lot of international students come to study in America to be integrated in the culture and learn more about American culture, and Asian-Americans can help with that,” Yee said. “I think we all can learn a lot from each other.”

 

This is the second in a series about the demographics of USC. The next installment will run Monday, Nov. 4.

Follow Yasmeen on Twitter @YasmeenSerhan 

Follow Jessie on Twitter @howdyjessie 

  • Not the Stereotype

    Excellent article. I believe it would also be helpful for some more awareness from students of other races (i.e. the greater USC community, as well as the international and Asian-American communities) to the diversity of Asian students and the fact that not all Asians belong in a neat stereotype. These conversations have gained little traction in recent years, but hopefully that will change when people grow to appreciate diversity of all forms.