On Friday, April 8, in celebration of Asian-American Month, faculty members participated in a panel discussion about their experiences as Asians and Asian-Americans in academia. Panelists included Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Long Bui; Associate Professor of American Studies Indira Karamcheti; Fisk Professor of Natural Science, of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and of Integrative Sciences Ishita Mukerji; Assistant Professor of Spanish Paula Park; and Assistant Professor of American Studies and of English Amy Tang. Megha Subramanian ’17 and Sarah Chen Small ’18 moderated the discussion.
After a round of introductions, Small asked the panelists to reflect on how they came to be at the University and how they feel their identities may or may not play into their professional roles.
“I began to see as I entered the job market that my body itself—my being Asian-American—had a great deal to do with how I could position myself in the marketplace,” Karamcheti said. “And that’s something that I think still has a great influence today within academia.”
Mukerji then spoke from the perspective of someone involved in STEM.
“I think one of the big stereotypes out there is that Asian-Americans are good at math and science,” Mukerji said. “One of the things that I always felt I had to define myself as, was [by saying], ‘Well, yes I’m Asian, but I’m Asian-American, I’m really first generation’…. So I think that there is always something that you carry with you because of your identity and where you come from.”
Park explained how she became interested in Spanish literature, particularly that of Latin America, having taken several literature classes in the language. She mentioned how she often raised the eyebrows of colleagues who were curious to know how she became interested in this particular field given her Asian heritage.
“First I was interested in Latin-American literature…and in academic circles, [people] would see me and be like, ‘Why are you interested in Cuban literature?’” Park said. “I just had to give them like, five different answers and they wouldn’t satisfy them. And all of sudden I started doing the Chinese in Cuba, and so I started making a little more sense.”
Long found it somewhat difficult to find his path, since he was unsure what to pursue and had no real source of professional inspiration.
“For me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up,” Long said. “I didn’t have any role models, no one in my family went to college…both my parents’ educations were interrupted because of the war, so they only had a high school diploma….but I knew I wanted to start in public service….I wanted to be a teacher to teach the education that I wish I had.”
Tang also spoke to these troubles.
“Even when I went into graduate school, I assumed that I would have to be sort of comparative in my thinking,” Tang said. “I wasn’t sure that Asian-American literature was enough of a field on its own. I think it’s definitely different now….but I think I always positioned my interests [in this field].”
Subramanian then asked the panelists to consider the status of Asian and Asian-American identity at the University.
“I think one of the things that happens with minority professor in general is the issue of authority,” Karamcheti said. “On what subjects and in what ways will you…be credible to others? This is a very big deal because one of the things that happens and one of the things I have thought about a lot during my working career is why am I credible about some things and not credible about other things? Why am I ‘credible’ about some things about which I may actually know nothing? That is, what it means to be Asian-American. Who am I to speak for all Asian-Americans?”
Building on her explanation of the complicated link between authenticity and believability, Karamcheti described how her physical appearance plays into the relationship.
“My experiences are not necessarily very typical, but the very fact of being in this kind of body means that I’m given a whole lot of unearned authority about all kinds of things,” she said. “[While some of it] may be earned…it’s not necessarily earned because of being what I am. Rather it’s because of what I have learned myself, the knowledge that I have, and experience. So this works in two different directions…authenticity is a sliding scale.”
After talking about the ways in which their Asian backgrounds have impacted their professional lives, students had the opportunity to ask the panelists more questions about their experiences. Questions involved a variety of subjects including whether or not the panelists had to compromise parts of their identity to advance professionally and whether or not the panelists believed it possible for people to look past physical features.
The panel discussion was organized as part of Asian American Heritage and Identity Month, which is running throughout April. The next event is Mabuhay, the annual Asian/Asian-American performance art show, that is taking place on Thursday, April 14 at 8 p.m.
The article has been updated to correct the name of the month-long program.