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Issues Facing the Faculty

Some American students have never had an Asian or Asian North American faculty teaching them before, and many find it a novelty to see one of them teaching Christianity, and not Asian religions. This indicates that students still assume Christianity as a western tradition, although Christianity was born in the western part of Asia and the majority of Christians are living in the South. Many white students think that faculty of Asian descent are best equipped to teach Asian and Asian North American theology, and not white male theologians. This is ironic since most of them were trained in American universities, where they were required to master the texts of white male theologians before they were allowed to do creative work in their specialties. While white faculty (especially men) can teach Asian religions and any other subjects or traditions, minority faculty are often consigned to be “spokespersons” for their own cultures because of complex identity politics in academia today.

Survival in academia in these days often impinges on the ability to discern and juggle with seemingly contradictory demands of the faculty’s time and energy. One such binary opposition is between teaching and researching. But many Asian and Asian North American women faculty experience the call to teach and to do research as two sides of the same coin, just as Parker Palmer calls the relationship between learning and teaching as a “paradox.”30 They feel that becoming a disciplined student is what is required of good teaching. Another binary opposite that is often constructed is between academic work and activism in the community. But many Asian and Asian North American women faculty are committed scholars as well as deeply connected with their communities and movements to end racism, domestic violence, and other forms of oppression. From their lived experience, the boundary between the inside and outside of academia is often blurred and the continuum between learning and teaching is highlighted.

For those teaching in large urban secular universities, classrooms are hardly places that are isolated from “real life,” but are expressions of the surrounding culture and society. The majority of the students work at least part-time, if not full time, while pursuing their own academic credentials. Contents and processes of what and how the faculty teach in class can hardly be devoid of issues related to socio-economic status. Discarding class-based experiences as invisible will make learning irrelevant to these students’ lives. Furthermore, the “feminization” of classes that pertains to studying religion is a documentable phenomenon at many secular universities. This feminization of classes in religious studies urges critical probing of whose interests are served by knowledge shared in academia. As the faculty struggles to share experiences and analysis of religion as an Asian and Asian North American woman, students can also experience the phrase “gender, race, and class” not as a mantra of postmodernity, but as a “litany in the attempt to transform Eurocentric patriarchal studies into multicultural, nonracist, non-sexist, nonelitist education.”31 This is not to say that the Asian or Asian North American women faculty in the classroom would automatically enable students to critically assess complex intersections of race, gender, and class, but that they are constantly reminded of how these three and other inseparable aspects of being who we are as humans.

Most Asian and Asian North American women faculty are lone voices in their departments. As pioneers in their schools, they have few role models to look up to and mentors to consult. Where racial politics are still largely defined by black and white, these women faculty often find their issues ignored while they are called upon to serve as mediators for black and white racial conflicts. In addition, they feel the pressure to work harder, to publish more, and to be highly visible and involved in school affairs to overcome their multiple discrimination by the dominant society. As a result, these women are overworked, overburdened, and overtaxed, with little time left for family, recreation, and renewal. When their scholarly work is undervalued by the white institutions, they do not have fruitful feedback from their colleagues. Since there are few networks and forums to discuss their theological issues, they often lack dialogical partners who understand their cultural background and perspectives. The lack of intellectual exchange hinders their professional development and circumscribes the contributions they can make to their respective disciplines. Shirley Hune discusses issues pertaining to Asian Pacific American women:

APA faculty women list the lack of mentoring, the absence of a sense of community with their colleagues, among their concerns. They feel APA women are generally devalued in their departments and evaluated differently. Their theoretical perspectives, publications, and creative work, especially those involving ethnic and women’s issues, are frequently disregarded by peers who consider APA women’s contributions lacking in academic merit . . .Their concerns may be doubted by whites and occasionally by other minorities, who do not see Asian Pacific Americans as racially disadvantaged.32

Differences between Asian and Asian North American Students

Although Asian and Asian North American students may look similar from outside, they have very different life experiences and national and cultural identities. Asian women identify themselves primarily with their country of origin, nationality, and cultural backgrounds. Asian North Americans have hyphenated identities and are often situated on the boundaries of different racial and ethnic groups. While many Asian North American women identify racism as a primary form of marginalization, many Asian women point to colonialism, militarism, struggle for democracy, and economic exploitation in global capitalism as causes of their oppression. Many do not want to be identified as “women of color” because they have not been defined according to color or race in their own countries.

Asian North American women are not encouraged by the mainstream culture to study their Asian cultural roots. The first, 1.5, second and third generation relate to Asian cultural heritage in significantly different ways. To counteract racism in America, some Asian North American women have cultivated a romantic sense of “belonging” to Asia, while others harbor opposite feelings because of the conservatism of Asian American communities. At the same time, Asian women often know little about the struggles of Asian North America women before coming to study here. They were exposed more to white culture because of the domination of CNN and other global news media.

Since English is their second language, many Asian women students experience difficulty in expressing themselves adequately both orally and in written form. For Asian North American women students, there is the difference of ability to communicate in Asian languages, depending on how many generations their families have been in America. In addition, Asian and Asian North American women have diverse body language and different understandings of silence.

Class is also a divisive issue among the Asian and Asian North American students. Because of the different pace of economic “development” in Asia, those students from the more industrialized countries such as Japan, Korea, and Singapore may have more resources than those coming from poorer countries. There are also significant class differences among different ethnic groups within the Asian North American communities. Many Asians think that Asian North Americans are Americans and Canadians, members of first world countries, and some Asian North Americans say the Asian students are leaders of their churches and communities before coming to study, and they are members of the elite, though they come from the Two-Thirds world.

As two marginalized groups, they are often treated differently by white faculty and students. It makes a difference if the answer to the often-asked question, “Where are your from?” is “California” or “Korea, China, and India.” Some white folks tend to be more hospitable to the Asian students because of their patronizing attitude toward Third World people. It is easier to deal with issues further away than with racism at home. Furthermore, Asian North Americans are here to stay and compete with white folks for resources and job opportunities.33

Although these two groups of students are different, they are also linked in many ways. For example, stereotypical images of Asian countries and Asian people affect the ways the mainstream culture looks at Asian North Americans. The rising economic power of the Pacific Rim affects social and political relations between the US, Canada, and Asian countries. Global capitalism has challenged the boundaries of national identity, and the issues of migration, diaspora, and transnationality have increasingly linked Asia and North America. More and more Asian and Asian North American women have to negotiate new identities in the midst of economic restructuring, change of political cultures, and emerging critique of national and cultural identification in a postcolonial and postmodern world.34

Issues Facing Asian North American Women Students

Although once considered the “yellow peril,”35 Asian North Americans are subjected nowadays to an insidious racial stereotype of the “model minority.”36 The stereotype is fueled by a perception of them as high achieving “whiz kids,” who overcame racism and succeeded in American society through a combination of discipline, hard work, quiet perseverance, tightly-knit family cohesion, and respect for and submission to authority. This stereotype belies the fact that not all of them are successful, and that there are significant socio-economic differences among their ethnic groups. Moreover, the stereotype has been used as an ideological weapon by the dominant white society to shame and discredit other racial/ethnic groups, and obscures the very real ways in which Asian North Americans suffer racial discrimination in this society.37

Asian North American women are adversely affected by the “model minority” stereotype in particular ways. Feeling pressured to succeed by parents and institutions, they suffer acutely from “achievement” stress while negotiating hurdles that do not usually afflict their male counterparts. Although their families support the education of daughters, in general, a greater portion of the family resources is usually apportioned to sons. Often, families finance a daughter’s education, not for her own intellectual development, but to enable her to secure a higher paying job to support the household. Asian North American parents regularly send mixed signals to their daughters. First generation Cambodian, Hmong, and Punjabi families would encourage education for females while conveying traditional beliefs that it could make girls too independent, or delay or prevent future marriages.38 Moreover, in some Filipino- and South Pacific-American homes, girls are socialized into traditional domestic roles such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for siblings, which regularly conflict with their educational responsibilities.39

Asian North American women suffer from the complex convergence of sexualized racial stereotypes and racialized gender stereotypes,40 in a particular twist on the madonna/whore image. On the one hand, they are exoticized as Dragon Ladies, ruthless, dangerous, and erotically-charged. On the other hand, as “the China Doll, Geisha Girl, and shy Polynesian beauty,”41 they are fantasized as the pliant, submissive, ever-loyal companion who gratifies every sexual whim of western male libido. These western male images of Asian North American women converge with colonial and neo-colonial history to construct the idealized “Oriental” woman, a Madame Butterfly, who is desired over the liberated western woman and her outspoken ways. This idealization takes an insidious materialist dimension when one considers the sex trade industry in Asian countries that cater to western male fantasies.42

Besides the implicit racism in the “model minority” stereotype and sexualized racial stereotypes, Asian North American females must contend with internalized oppression, what Osajima calls “the hidden injuries of racism.”43 One way in which internalized racism is expressed is through a distaste for one’s Asian identity and a desire to be white, or “more American.” This desire to be “more American” or “more Canadian” leads to uneasiness around foreign-born Asians, in particular. Furthermore, internalized racism is manifested in anxieties about how the Asian North American individual is perceived by the white majority. Asian North American students have coped with racial incidents primarily through deflection, non-confrontation, and blending into the mainstream,44 mechanisms which are exacerbated by their traditional reluctance to call attention to themselves.

Asian North American women must also negotiate divided multiple identities, in ways that white American women do not. They must deal with the complexities involved in their Asian American identity, along with their gender and sexual identities. Issues of inculturation and diversity that mark the Asian North American experience cannot be ignored.45 One cannot generalize about the construction of identity for Asian North American women and their personal inculturation into this society precisely because of the plurality of these women. This plurality is ethnically diverse, comprised of Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Korean, Filipina, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, Thai, East Indian, Burmese, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Malaysian nationalities, among others. Each of these nationalities has its own conflicted immigration history into this country.

This plurality is also regionally diverse, contributing to differing senses of being “American” and “Asian.” Those who live in California, with its high concentration of Asian Americans, or those who grow up in “Chinatowns” or “Little Saigons,” will have much different understandings of their Asian American identities than those who grow up isolated from each other in the deep South, Midwest, and East Coast. Different regions in the US will have particular ideas about what it means to be an American, which an Asian North American must reckon with in the construction of her own identity.

Finally, this plurality is culturally diverse. Some Asian North Americans are immigrants from Asian countries who have come to this country at various times, as infants, adolescents, or adults. Others are born in the US of dual Asian parentage, while a good number of them are products of Asian/white parentage. Others come into the US as adoptees for white childless couples, and are raised in white households.

In sum, Asian North American women encounter multiple issues in the development of self-identity in a white dominated culture. They are hampered by the prevalent stereotype of Asian North Americans as “the model minority,” which often clashes with the patriarchal roles of traditional Asian household. Moreover, they often fall victim to a complex interconnection of sexualized racial stereotypes and racialized gender stereotypes and internalized racial oppression. Finally, they must negotiate multiple identities that are simultaneously ethnically, regionally, and culturally diverse.

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