What does it mean to be an Asian or an Asian-American today, especially on Long Island?
“It’s almost always true that the presence of Asian and Asian-Americans is somehow … I want to say ignored or maybe not recognized in the mainstream,” said professor Peg Christoff, Ph.D., a lecturer in the Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies at Stony Brook University.
Over the past year, that perception was meticulously poked and prodded by Christoff and 15 of her students in a capstone senior seminar research methods course.
Thanks to President Samuel L. Stanley Jr.’s Presidential Mini-Grant for Departmental Diversity Initiative, they were able to extensively research Asian and Asian-American groups on Long Island that are affected by stereotyping, immigration challenges, pop culture and film, multiculturalism and Asian and Asian-American identities — topics that frequently cross the minds of many Asians and Asian-Americans.
And Tuesday, the fruit of their labor — digital project proposals printed in the form of glossy posters — was presented at Stony Brook’s Charles B. Wang Center.
Guests were able to examine the projects and also listen to Christoff explain how her students’ work reveals the “presence of the past” to an audience of about 60, a population dominated by young Asians and Asian-Americans.
“Everyone has a personal obligation to protect and preserve their heritage,” Christoff said.
But why else do these projects matter?
Asians and Asian-Americans represent a significant chunk of Stony Brook University’s student population.
“About 35 percent of our combined undergraduate and graduate students self-identify as Asian, which is about 9,000 out of 25,000 students at the university,” said Christoff, who received the statistics from colleague Nerissa Balce.
Elements of Asian and Asian-American culture that are familiar to this population were found in the work of Christoff’s students.
One project topic explored how Asian cultures assimilate into American public spaces, specifically Manhattan’s Chinatown and Koreatown, and another investigated to what extent mixed-race people are accepted in Japan.
Shenna Weisz, who was adopted from China at the age of eight, researched under what conditions adoptees from China seek to learn about Chinese culture and customs, and whether or not they self-identify as Chinese.
This topic hit home for Weisz, but it also relates to thousands of Chinese-born American adoptees in the United States, including some who reside in Long Island.
American families have adopted more than 55,000 abandoned Chinese children, most of them girls, since 1991, according to a New York Times article from 2006.
Hye Sun Hwang, a senior Asian and Asian-American Studies major, picked a growing hot topic for her project — Korean pop, more commonly known as K-pop.
“What does this have to do with Long Island?” Christoff asked. “Well, how many of you know anyone between 14 and 17 years old that lives on Long Island? Just about everyone knows about K-pop.”
Even Stanley and his daughter know about K-pop, Christoff said.
“President Stanley came to visit our department at one point, and we had the posters arranged nicely. And the only one he found and the only one he looked at was this one,” she said. “He was like, ‘Oh, my daughter, she loves K-pop!’”
Hwang specifically researched how K-pop star training reflects the values and priorities in modern-day South Korea, an aspect of K-pop that many Americans are completely unaware of.
Three special guests also reacted to the students’ work and shared their experiences as Asian/Asian-Americans or people who have interacted with them: Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University; Molly Higgins, the librarian for Asian-American Studies at Stony Brook who aided the students with their projects; and Dr. Frank Shih, a member of the Asian American/Asian Research Institute of CUNY and the Organization of Chinese Americans, Long Island Chapter.
Levy’s parents moved to Long Island in 1955, back when “everything was white” and there was only “middle-class Jewish people mostly buying their first homes and trying to take their first step up the economic ladder.”
“One of the most dramatic changes is the explosion of Asian populations — East Asian, South Asian,” Levy said, referencing the 2010 census. “The increase in Asian population now raises the question of the ability of Asians to exercise political power.”
A student in the audience asked the trio on stage about how to communicate the importance of politics to first-generation Asian-American parents, who may be reluctant to embrace the topic. Higgins, a fifth-generation Chinese-American whose family has been in the Western Hemisphere since the mid-1800s, had an answer for him — or rather, more questions that he could ask.
“Ask them why them why they don’t want to be involved in politics, and then listen to their answer,” she suggested. “Ask them what politics is like in the country that they’re more used to, whether it’s something that they were allowed to do.”
Like Higgins, Shih also possesses Asian heritage. Part of the Long Island migration, he was a 1995 immigrant who lived in what is now Chinatown.
“There were no Koreans, no Vietnamese, no Fujianese, no Taiwanese,” Shih said. “It was just Chinese-Americans.”
Yet today on Long Island, he has a greater idea of what it means to be Asian or Asian-American. Seeing Christoff’s students’ work further reminds him of his culture.
“I see every poster as a snapshot, and some of it’s part of my life,” he said.