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A Group Observation of an Undergraduate Staff in Student Affairs

This is an (informal) report of observations I made of the staff that I supervise (most likely some inherent bias there). Because my staff consists of Asian Americans working at a predominantly white campus, I felt their words and actions resonate with me. I’ve given a (brief-ish) synopsis of what I inferred from their words and actions and the impact it had on me.

 ~*~

The group I chose to observe was the undergraduate staff of the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center (YKCC). There are three members of this group (whose names I have changed for the sake of anonymity): Ashley, Tina, and Mike. All three staff members self-identify as Asian Americans. Ashley is a senior who is studying public health and graduates this semester. She is the program coordinator of the YKCC. Tina is a sophomore double majoring in anthropology and psychology. She is the administrative assistant. Mike is also a sophomore, and he is an electrical engineer. He is the liaison between the YKCC and the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS).

To provide a little more context, the YKCC is part of four cultural centers at UMass Amherst. The other four centers are the Malcolm X Cultural Center, the Latin American Cultural Center, and the Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center. These cultural centers are part of CMASS, which falls under the Advocacy and Inclusion cluster of student affairs. All four cultural centers and CMASS are four years old. Before CMASS was created, each cultural center had a full-time professional staff member and an academic programming component. Each center is now staffed by a ten-hour graduate assistant and three undergraduates.

I chose this group because I also identify as Asian American, and I feel invested in this community and its development. I am the graduate assistant for the YKCC, so I felt that doing this observation (with the permission of the staff, for a period of three weeks) would be a good way to gain insight on what the staff members believe their role is, what they believe my role is, how much agency they feel they have, how I validate them, and how they validate one another.

While I observed this group, I noticed that in daily interactions, the students rarely go deeper than what Richard Francisco refers to as the surface level of communication (p. 33, 1999). For example, during weekly staff meetings, the two women would sometimes admit that they hoped the staff would have more time to meet in social settings outside of work instead of only within the office all the time. Sometimes the staff would talk about homework assignments that were taking up a lot of their time, or when they were going home to visit their families.

I believe there were many factors that kept the conversation at this level. First, all the staff members are Asian Americans. Their parents were immigrants to this country, and most likely raised their children outside of the monolingual, extraverted, and materialistic context in which a lot of American children are raised. In my experience, and as a person who identifies with the Asian experience, I find that Asian American students might not verbally express everything that goes on in their lives, unless they trust someone very deeply. However, this does not mean they do not feel deep emotions or do not connect to people on a deeper level. I found it interesting that even though she does not talk about her identity too often, Ashley hosted two events about identity this semester. One was called Breaking the Monolith, which was about how Asians are frequently represented as a homogeneous group of people that all have similar physical features, abilities, and backgrounds, instead of the diverse communities that actually make up the Asian community. The other was called The Model Minority, and it focused on how (in)accurate it is to describe Asian Americans as the minority that has “made it” in America. In the evaluations of both events, many participants wrote about how they appreciated the space to tell their stories authentically, and to learn from other people’s experience. Many of the participants were Asian Americans, though multiracial students and other people of color did attend as well. From this, I could infer that this space for expression was meaningful to Ashley. She believes in the importance of discussion and allowing people to form their own opinions.

When the group did go to the fourth and fifth levels of group development, it was often because of pressure from their jobs. For example, this semester, the staff was supposed to prepare events for Asian Heritage Month. Due to a lack of both communication and inclusivity from my supervisors, the undergraduate staff felt as though their work was being solicited but they were not given an equal chance to be part of the planning process. I began to hear a lot about how they felt our department was being run. For example, Tina had been going to the committee meetings for the heritage month in my place because they had been planned at a time when I had class. Tina was one of two undergraduates on a committee of six people. One day, she said, “I never hear this other undergraduate [sic.] talk at these meetings. If she’s never even been to the YKCC, why is she there?” To me, this conveyed a lot of frustration about how these committee meetings were being held. Tina felt that she was taking on a lot of responsibility as one of the few undergraduate representatives at these meetings. This other undergraduate, whom none of us had ever met and who seemed to be there only because my supervisor knew her, did not seem to understand that there was a community counting on her to represent their opinions, and was subsequently wasting the committee’s time. I could infer that Tina feels invested in her community and wants it to be represented fairly. She feels despondent and underappreciated when her input, to which she gives a lot of thought, is not validated.

Another moment when the group stumbled into level five was when I was asking them to evaluate how well the center had accomplished its goals this semester. When I asked the two women to give their input, they gave it very freely. When I asked Mike, however, we did not get past the first question because he refused to assign a number to the way he felt. When I inquired further about why, he said, “It seems pointless to be evaluating things right now when we have not been keeping track of this all year.” I thought that was a brave thing for Mike to say. He is referring to the fact that our cultural center is lacking the kind of structure that allows for people to keep track of goals in an adequate manner. This is partially my own fault for not doing a better job of revisiting our goals throughout the semester. I can infer that Mike wants a more authentic relationship with his work. He wants to feel as if he is actually making a difference. Though he may not be aware of it, his quote is indicative of huge structural flaws in the way our cultural center, and cultural centers at UMass in general, are run. All four centers are in the attics and basements of buildings, and there are problems with access in nearly all of them. The YKCC is right next to a bathroom. There is no custodial service available to the room, and the air circulation is terrible. Mike’s quote seems to point out the irony of how much these huge departments of student affairs ask of these students, and how little they give them to work with.

From what I observe, these group members enjoyed one another’s company and often found solace in being able to relate to one another. Ashley would frequently offer the other two staff members rides home. She also would offer to pick up bubble tea from Lime Red if any staff members were interested. When we wanted to create staff hoodies, Mike offered to find a store with good quality material so that we would not waste our money.

I think balancing the gender dynamics of this group was difficult. Mike was the only man on the staff of four individuals. He also worked with my supervisor, who is also a woman, and my supervisor’s supervisor, who is also a woman. The two women on staff tended to be more talkative than Mike. Mike also expressed himself very differently from the women. While Ashley and Tina were very open about their complaints and opinions, Mike was most likely to express how he was not concerned. His most frequent response if anyone asked for his input was to say, “I don’t really mind what you decide.” This tells me that somehow, the center is not talking about things that are relevant to Mike. He has disclosed to me that he is from Boston, and that his family is Chinese. My instincts tell me that his background is working class, and I am inferring that this has a lot to do with how he comunicates. Ashley and I are from upper-middle class backgrounds, and while Tina is from a single-parent family, she still relates to me and Ashley as a woman. I think Mike has difficulty in expressing what he needs because he does not relate to our narratives. The way this impacts me is that I feel I have not done a good enough job of including him in our conversations, but I am also not sure what to do because I do not want to seem condescending in my interactions with him. I wonder if just naming my observation to him would help.

My main take-aways from this observation are that this group is very close-knit, in spite of each individual’s differences. While they have faced significant challenges this semester, they have found comfort in being able to support one another through hard times. They seem to value even just having a space where they are allowed to complain about the institution, and their complaints are validated by others who have had similar experiences. My hope is that the group (including me) can find ways to either confront or circumvent our frustrations next year. I think it is a good thing that we have created a space where frustration can be acknowledged, but I also want to think of ways that we can overcome that frustration and thrive.

 

Barkakati, L. (May, 2015). Group Observation. Amherst, MA: UMass Amherst.

Francisco, R. (1999). Five Levels of Interpersonal Communication: A Model That Works Across Cultures. In Cooke et al. (1999) Reading Book for Human Relations Training. (pp. 31-39). NTL Institute.

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Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.

Remember Me

IMG456I just finished reading On a Wing and a Prayer, by Arun Sarma. It’s a tragic story, but fascinating because it’s about Assamese people like me. I had never read a piece of fiction about Assamese people before I came across this book. Obviously, there is other literature about Assamese people, and the literature has existed for a long time, but for some reason it took 22 years for me to find. The work is translated from Assamese into English, which makes it even more fascinating. The English text still has the residue of Assamese speech. I can hear the quaint interjections and greetings being said in the language they came from. I can picture the green hills, the village life, and the river that I have seen myself when I read this book. I never thought I would read about that place in an English text. I didn’t know it could exist in English prose.

I have recently learned a lot about the region of the world where my parents are from. It turns out people from northeast India, or the Northeast, are treated in India much like minority populations are treated in the United States. Their level of education is often questioned. They are taunted about their accents, their slanted eyes, and their way of life. They are often denied access to public spaces, or their citizenship is questioned. In essence, they are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. (Sound familiar?)

I didn’t know this until just this past year. Suddenly, many of the encounters I had with other Indian Americans as a child make more sense now. I grew up in the United States, where Indians are often lumped together as a group. Americans are hardly sensitive to the level of discrimination and in-group/out-group dynamics that occur within minority populations. I assumed, before ever having any Indian friends, that I would be fully accepted as Indian if I were to ever to find any because that’s what I assumed I was.

It became very clear to me, upon meeting other Indians (at the age of 5, nonetheless), that I was not like them, at least they didn’t think so. Most Indians I came across didn’t know that Assam is a state in India, let alone being familiar with where it is. They often questioned the authenticity of my “Indianness”, commenting on how I “look more Hispanic”, my eyes are “so Asian”, my features “are not Indian at all”. They thought that because I didn’t speak Hindi (which I can now), or one of the languages they’d heard of, like Gujurati or Marathi, I was not Indian. The people who did know what and where Assam is tended to exotify me even more than the non-believers. They said the sorts of things you’d expect white men at a bar to say to me: “Oh, that’s so diverse!” or my personal favorite, “Wow, you’re so exotic.” To no surprise, I never felt I belonged to the very people who were supposed to claim me as their own.

I ought to explain, it is no mistake that I look more Southeast Asian than South Asian. The region of Assam is a mix of several cultures of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Assam is located in the Brahmaputra valley, on the border between India and China. A number of tribes populate the region, and several different languages are spoken. The culture of the area often more closely resembles those of Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries than that of the rest of north India (Hazarika, 1994). Some of the languages spoken in the Northeast belong in the Mon-Khmer language family, an Austro-Asiatic language family, though it should be noted that Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language (the easternmost Indo-Aryan language, according to the 2001 Indian Census).

Growing up, I never once felt inferior for being Assamese. My mother taught me the significance of my culture since the day I was born. She made sure I learned to speak Assamese. She taught me about Assamese homes, how they worship, what they eat, and what they wear. She taught me their music, she told me their stories. I spend a lot of my time being angry with her. I always wondered why my parents moved our little branch (more like, twig) of the family over here to the United States, and why I had to watch everything over there from afar. I always wondered why my mother never knew what I wanted, why she never understood when I had a problem, and never yielded when I wanted my way.

I have never thanked her for what she gave me. She taught me where I am from and instilled a sense of pride in who I am. She has given me enough knowledge for me to be a vessel for my culture, to be able to transmit it to another generation if I choose to do so. She has filled me with a love for that place that claims me as its own. She gave me somewhere to belong on this lonely planet.

For those of you who know who I am, I have never admitted how important being Assamese is to me. I would go so far as to say I consider my Assamese identity more salient than my Indian one. People have always acted like it doesn’t matter. They have told me it is such a trifling difference, such a confusing distinction, can’t I just be happy being Indian? I always went along with the suggestion because I did not have the tools to explain why it matters, and even if I did, it would be too exhausting to explain. I will not let that be the case any more. In a perfect world, it would not matter. Being Indian would encompass being Assamese. But knowing what I know now, knowing that this small place that claims me already does not have a voice, and has even less of one if I never do anything about it, is not fair. It is more than unfair, it is unjust. At the University of Florida, where there are 50,000 students, there were 5 Assamese people when I was a freshman. That’s 1 for every 10,000 students. By now, two have graduated. That means there is 1 for every 16,667. After I graduate, there will be 2. That is 1 for every 25,000 students. That is staggering. We are exceptionally rare.

And fine, I will concede that resources would be difficult to provide. Frankly, in my experience as part of the Assamese diaspora in Florida, we can usually provide our tiny community enough support without any external aid. That does not excuse your ignorance of us. That does not excuse your exclusion of us. That does not excuse your persecution of us.

I only ask that you remember me. Remember where I am from. Remember what I have said here. You will search a long, long time before you meet another person like me.

A Letter to God

Dear God,

It is the thirty-seventh day of the new year, and I meant to write this letter to You on the first. Perhaps this year I can work on doing things on the day I plan to do them.

I thought I would spend this post taking stock of all of last year, but instead, I would like to talk about dreams. I will admit, God, I thought I had forgotten how to for a time, not because I don’t believe there is anything to look forward to anymore, but because I couldn’t recognize the dreams I have now as dreams. When I was younger, the quintessential quality of dreams seemed to be that they were intangible. Perhaps it was my own helplessness that made me feel that way. I had so little agency to keep the things I loved, and to eliminate the things in my life that harmed me. Thought becomes action in a matter of seconds for me now. I can fully grasp and appreciate how my thoughts shape my personality, how they become who I am.

I remember I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a child. I remember I loved doing many things–painting, writing, dancing–and I thought perhaps I would dedicate my life to one of those things, but then again maybe I wouldn’t. As I grew older, I think my dreams were molded somewhat by what people around me said and did. I remember I lied about liking a boy when I was nine years old so I would feel accepted. Everyone seemed to like someone. I thought that if people thought I liked someone, maybe they would like me.

In high school, I thought I knew what I wanted. I recall how much the word “married” got thrown around. My girl friends would speculate about who among our friends would get married first. My guy friends would whisper to me about other guys who claimed they wanted to marry me. They would talk about what kind of parents people would become, what kind of a parent I would become. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to be. Someone said accounting might be a good choice for me, so I thought that was decided. I thought I would be rich and successful, that I would live in a swanky apartment in the city and wear Donna Karan dresses. Then when I turned thirty, maybe I’d find a nice guy and buy a house somewhere where there would be a lot of grass. I hoped I would have a daughter, continuing the tradition of having the oldest child be female, as did all my female ancestors. I thought at that point, I would quit my job and take care of my child, make sure she knows how to speak Assamese, teach her to read and write in English, play with her toys, paint with her, play outside with her, teach her to ride a bike. And maybe that would be it for 18 years after that.

That is what I dreamed, God. I honestly did.

I don’t remember when I stopped thinking that. I don’t remember a specific point when I thought to myself, “I’m not going to think that way any more”. But Sean asked me one day what I dream about, and I realized I could not answer him. I have forgotten the last time I had a dream like that, with marriage and children.

I don’t want a child any more, God. I couldn’t bring one into this world without it preying on my conscience. How could I do that when I know that child is going to suffer? They will either suffer for the same identity-based reasons that I suffered, or they will suffer from identity-based experiences that I have never had. They will suffer because every new age tortures its youth in its own way. They will suffer for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine. I can do everything in my power to make them happy: keep them healthy, give them toys, teach them so they are smart, take them to all the wonderful places in the world, tell them I love them every day, but it doesn’t matter. They will suffer merely because they are alive.

How do I know this to be true? My parents gave me everything. They fed me well. They gave me nice clothes. They gave me toys and books. They taught me to read and write. They taught me to swim, to bike, to garden. They loved me so much; they still do. I still suffered. I suffered from loneliness, alone among Indians and non-Indians alike. I suffered from an abusive relationship. I suffered from depression. I suffered from the sort of identity crisis that Camus only wishes he could write about. I have one of the better lives, and I suffered.

And I am not the only one. I know there are those who don’t even believe they are suffering while they suffer.

Do all parents know this, God? Are they comfortable knowing their children will suffer, and they can do nothing to stop it? Would they bring children into the world if they knew that all of them suffer?

No. No children for me.

But I still dream, God. I can see them now. Here, in the decade of my twenties, I can reach out and touch the things I dream about. I dream of figuring out what I want to be. I have, and I even found graduate programs that will prepare me for that endeavor. I dream of making real connections with other human beings. Every day, I talk to lively, vivacious, articulate people who celebrate me as a person and who have given back to me my faith in human beings. Every day, I am reminded of how many incredible people I met in the last four years. I dream of being a person who I can admire. I love myself. I have found the words that I want to use to describe me, not what others see me as. I have found the strength to overcome fears I didn’t even know I had. I have contributed something to my community that no one else could have given. I will no longer be the exotified, sexualized creature I was. I will not be the person to whom someone else’s dream is pinned. I will not be some voiceless fantasy. I am compassionate, introspective, and fierce. I am even better than what I dreamed I would be at this age.

And I will have a hand in creating a better world. Nothing else seems to matter, not where I live or what I wear. Not who I spend forever with. Maybe I am a child; maybe this is the age when you dream of impossible things. I don’t care. That’s what I want, God. That is what I dedicate my life to. It fills me with pride to finally have found what I was born to do.

As always, I appreciate all that You have made possible for me.

Faithfully,

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