Asian American Heritage Month event challenges stereotypes within community


Melody Song/Daily Senior Staffer

AJ Aguado (Weinberg ‘10) delivers a spoken-word poem Tuesday evening at an Asian American studies event. The event, held at Norris University Center, featured AASP faculty and alumni who spoke about the perceptions of Asian-Americans in American society.

Amy Whyte, Reporter

Speakers challenged the meaning of the phrase “fresh off the boat” at an event Tuesday hosted by the Asian American studies program.

“Fresh Off the Boat: Reflections on an Asian American Life Beyond Northwestern” was organized in celebration of Asian American Heritage Month. Carolyn Chen, director of Asian American studies, said the goal of the event was to subvert the meaning of the off-color phrase and give what she characterized as a “derogatory, offensive term” a positive spin.

“It’s a term that’s been really divisive within the Asian-American community,” Chen said. “American-born Asians don’t want to be confused with being FOB. There’s an experience of being perceived as being an outsider and I think it’s one that we all face.”

University President Morton Schapiro also attended the event, and Chen and some students joined him for dinner at his home afterward. Chen gave Schapiro honorary Asian-American status for the day, joking that his original name was “Shu-pih Roh.” In December, when The New York Times published an op-ed written by Chen, Schapiro met with her to discuss the disadvantages Asian-Americans face during the selective college admissions process.

“I don’t think that there’s a real worry that we have higher standards,” Schapiro told The Daily in February. “I think the worry is whether Asian-Americans enjoy this place and avail this place the way non-Asians do.”

Tuesday’s event featured speeches by two of the program’s former students, AJ Aguado (Communication ’10) and Joseph Lee (Weinberg ’09), and Nitasha Sharma, an Asian American studies and African American studies professor. A brief Q-and-A session followed.

“We wanted to have fun and celebrate who we are as Asian-Americans in a way that was more critically engaging than just having an ethnic dance or eating ethnic food,” Chen said.

Aguado, who was an ad hoc Asian American studies major at NU, emphasized the importance of remembering history and staying true to one’s heritage. He told anecdotes of growing up as an Asian-American and making fun of his cousin, a first-generation immigrant, for his broken English. He said he always considered himself an American, and he did not think about his Asian heritage until later in life.

“We become so Americanized as we try to assimilate into society that we forget our roots,” Aguado said.

Aguado was followed by Sharma, who broke down what the Asian American studies program is and why it is important into three main points: Asian American studies is not just the study of Asian-Americans, Asian-Americans “do not have small d–k complex” and Asian-Americans do not follow the stereotype of the “model minority.”

“People stereotype Asian-Americans as having a dogged focus on getting good grades, getting into a good college and having a good career,” Sharma said. “Asian-Americans have never lived within the restrictions of the model minority. …We have to stop holding ourselves to such unrealistic standards.”

The final speaker, Lee, was an Asian American studies minor at NU who is now attending medical school after participating in Teach for America. He talked about his struggles as an Asian-American and the turning points that led him to accept his culture.

“It took me a really, really long time to figure out who I was,” Lee said. “I remember I’d wake up wishing I wasn’t Asian, wishing I wasn’t Korean, wishing I was white.”

He finished his speech by emphasizing the importance of fighting for all minority rights and encouraging students to dream big.

Weinberg freshman Kevin Luong is enrolled in his first Asian American Studies class this quarter and decided to attend Tuesday’s event.

“I really liked seeing the different perspectives of those three people,” he said. “It’s really interesting because I’m from California, I consider myself an American, so I haven’t felt a lot of the same forces that people are always talking about.”