My name is Benjamin Fang and I identify as Asian American. That is a political identity more than anything else. If you asked me what I am, that would be a complicated answer. But I can tell you that my ethnicity is Chinese. I can say that I am a son of immigrants, a second-generation American but a first-generation college student. I can tell you that I am lucky to be here.
I was born and raised in New York City. Although I have lived in Queens my entire life, in a predominately Greek neighborhood called Astoria, I consider Chinatown my home. Both of my parents work there; my father is waiter at a dim sum restaurant and my mother is a bookkeeper. They buy groceries, run errands and celebrate family events in Chinatown. When I was younger, I attended Chinese school there, although I have failed to retain any reading or writing skills. I have spent my entire young adult life in the community, teaching immigrants English on weekends, organizing for affordable housing and police accountability and occasionally indulging in late-night karaoke sessions with old friends.
In a city of nearly 8.5 million people, almost one in seven New Yorkers is Asian, representing the fastest growing demographic in the city. That means on a crowded train, I can find someone who looks somewhat like me in the same car. Census data show that New York is home to the largest Chinese population outside of China, with more than half a million Chinese folks spread throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Asian Americans made up nearly two-thirds of my high school student body, so I was constantly around people who racially or ethnically identified with me.
Then I came to Syracuse University. Asians make up a little more than six percent of our campus. In the Newhouse School specifically, because I am a journalism major, that number shrinks down to just about five percent. That means in every class I have taken, I was always one of two or three students of color in the room. That becomes problematic because when I speak out about issues of race or diversity, I inevitable become the “angry minority” in the class. In my freshman news writing class, I was the only student who said Trayvon Martin’s death was a result of racial profiling. All I got were some blank stares and confused faces.
I knew I needed a support system on campus, so the first thing I did was join student organizations. I was eager to join ASIA, write for ALINE Magazine and take Asian/Asian American Studies classes. Eventually, I was invited to join the APA Heritage Month planning committee and be a student representative on the AAA minor committee. It got me thinking about how Asian or Asian American students create communities for themselves within this mostly White, privileged institution. I thought about why student organizations like Korean American Student Association (KASA), Hong Kong Cultural Organization (HKCO) and Asian Students in America (ASIA) are necessary staples in Syracuse. I think about the power we have and the potential for solidarity with other organizations of color on campus.
We talk about Syracuse as a racially “self-segregated” community. Student leaders have proposed “cultural fairs” in which students can learn more about another group’s food, music and traditions. I’m not sure if I buy that. I think there’s a bigger institutional responsibility to ensure that we not only admit people from diverse backgrounds and create some sense of community, but also strengthen our means of supporting them throughout the college experience. If we are truly an institution that is committed to embracing diversity in every sense of the word, then the university needs to put more emphasis on retention programs and resources that can create a home for underrepresented students.
This is where cultural and political programming like APA Heritage Month and academic offerings like the Asian/Asian American studies minor come into play. We’re not just celebrating Asians because we want to pat ourselves on the back. We’re acknowledging decades of struggle for racial equality, which is still ongoing. We’re fighting against stereotypes and model minority myths that have left whole communities invisible. We’re showcasing the talent that has been kept along the margins and out of mainstream media for far too long. We’re claiming a seat at the table and making sure our previously silenced voices are heard. By honoring the contributions of Asian Americans, examining the community’s struggles and extending the discussion to the rest of the student body, we are making progress, one step at a time.
I say I’m lucky to be here because I have directly benefitted from Asian American activism and political action. Without the efforts of people like Yuri Kochiyama, the unity of the Asian American community after the death of Vincent Chin and the continuing fight for civil rights, I would not be here. It is our duty to pay homage to these movement builders and continue their legacy of building coalition and growing together. That is why I think everyone should appreciate APA Heritage Month and its message for the entire Syracuse University community.