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an open letter to UIUC’s incoming Chinese international students (part 2)

Hello again!  I hope you’ve been well in our time apart.  When we left off yesterday, I mentioned that I’d share a few of the race-related experiences I’ve had as an Asian American student at UIUC.  Now, I don’t want to lead you to any conclusions at this point, and I’m not trying to scare you away from our school.  In fact, Chinese international students generally return to our campus at a rate of 97%, which is actually better than our in-state average, so clearly things aren’t downright unbearable for East Asian international students here.

My goal in writing you this letter is not to extrapolate, sensationalize, or editorialize – just to share my personal experiences relating to the ugly things I’ve seen on campus over the past few years, and how racism might affect you.

Sound alright?

Let me start by saying that I’m Japanese American, one of just a smattering of such students at our school.  I’m also multiracial, which means that I can sometimes get away with “passing” for another race.  But even I, in my ethnic ambiguity, have been harassed by anti-Asian slurs as I’ve walked around campus.  While such overt displays of bigotry are not daily visitors in my life, they certainly make semi-regular appearances around town.  For instance, if I’m walking along late at night with my sister or white girlfriend or other Asian American friends, and I see a group of drunk, white fraternity brothers stumbling my way, I can be reasonably sure that unkind comments or leers will be directed towards us.  Most of the time I’m right – “Asian persuasion!” they’ll yell.  “Ching chong!

I also work as a Resident Advisor, which means that I serve as a paraprofessional advocate and resource for a diverse community of students each year.  (Come to think of it, you might even end up on my floor!)  In the 2+ years I’ve been doing this job, inevitably I always hear from some of my East Asian residents, who reluctantly relay to me that they’ve been subjected to random hostility.  “Stupid orientals!” Ignorant students mutter at them in the hallways.  “Fucking fobs.”  “Go back to North Korea.”

a meme from a popular UIUC student Facebook group

a meme from a popular UIUC student Facebook group

In my experience, xenophobia and prejudice are persistent attitudes here, present in many spheres of campus life – I’ve walked into my white residents’ rooms to see them playing video games with characters labeled “chink” and “fag;” during a meeting I held earlier this month in which I spoke to summer residents about racism at our institution, one of my coworkers openly complained to the group that there were “too many Asians” here anyway.

Just this morning, I read comments from UIUC students who belittled the Chinese international student who was tricked into paying almost $4,000 for a “cab ride” from O’Hare to Champaign.  Last winter I witnessed “a handful” of our students take to social media with racist comments to denigrate and harass our Chinese American Chancellor for not canceling school when it was particularly cold outside.

Microaggressions and racist language cut deep, and more severe incidents happen as well.

Last year, one of my kindest residents – a Taiwanese-born international student named Jackie* – was walking across our university’s main quad on a Friday evening, on his way home from the library and a friend’s place, when he heard footsteps running behind him.  He turned to glimpse a group of white students who quickly pushed him to the ground and beat him senseless, grabbing at his clothes and backpack, shouting insults and yelling about their and his fraternity.  By the time it was finished, Jackie was left lying on the sidewalk next to Greg Hall, barely conscious, covered in his own blood.  He eventually made it home and spoke with the police, who couldn’t offer much.  When his parents gaped at his busted face over Skype the next day, Jackie told them he’d fallen.  He’s still unsure how much of what happened to him had to do with his race.

Now, I am not saying these things will happen to you when you arrive on campus.  I don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable for choosing this university, and it’s not my intention to single you out and suggest you are in danger here.  These personal experiences are merely meant to illustrate that I have reasons to make the claim that our campus culture is, at times, highly racist.

But how might this culture affect you, as a Chinese international student at the University of Illinois?  Probably in a few big ways and in hundreds of little ones.  If you’ll allow me just a bit more of your time, I’ve compiled a few of the concrete ways in which you might experience xenophobia and racism at UIUC.

orange and blue orange and blue

The Greek system is one notable example of this – though there are exceptions, you will not be welcome in the wide majority of popular sororities or fraternities at our school.  These organizations will, for the most part, go out of their way to wholesale dismiss you (and American-born people of color), instead opting to recruit U.S.-born white students.  You may notice similar trends replicated throughout campus and you may be looked upon with derision or suspicion if you try and enter social spaces that are not traditionally inhabited by Chinese students.

You may also notice this weird phenomenon where apartment complexes and car dealerships desperately vie for your business, even as the rest of our institution doesn’t go about making the appropriate changes to welcome you into our classrooms, social clubs, and living communities.  You may find that while our student body is largely infatuated with white international students from Europe and Australia, few domestic students will fawn over your beauty, your accent, or your culture in a similar way.

My expectation is that you may feel our students have the tendency to see you as just another number, rather than as an equally valuable, unique contribution to our student body.  You may feel like this if people make comments about your English skills, if you are religiously proselytized to, or otherwise treated as a tally mark by a recruiter or student organization.  You may feel like this if our students mock your birth names, or when you’re asked what your “real name” is if you’ve just introduced yourself with an English one.

Though our university is taking some steps to help welcome you to campus, we’re also neglecting to make some embarrassingly basic cultural changes that would help welcome you to our school.  For instance, when in just two weeks you arrive in your residence halls (your dormitories), if you happen to go by an “American name,” you probably will not see it on any of your materials – even if you’ve been using that name for years.  Though our university has had a plethora of opportunities to ask if, like thousands of other Chinese students, you prefer to go by a chosen English name, the question will never be asked of you.  Your Resident Advisor may ignorantly craft door decorations that feature a name you don’t like going by.

You’re also going to see incredibly casual racist imagery here – Confederate flags and horrifying misrepresentations of Native culture – much of it hung proudly from dormitory windows, pinned to the backpacks of your classmates and Resident Advisors.  On Halloween, you may see people dressing up in costumes that openly disrespect your culture.

Finally, even though you are taking this brave step to move halfway across the world to a strange and violent country, our students will have the audacity to complain that you’ve “refused to assimilate.”  This is one of the primary charges I’ve heard leveled at Asian international students over the past few years – our students and collegiate structures will socially segregate you, implicitly and explicitly excluding you from our personal lives and professional organizations, and then we will actually complain that you “tend to stay in your own cliques.”  Although we won’t question the outstanding social and racial hegemony in, say, the Greek system, our students will judge you for trying to survive a strange place by hanging out with folks who look, eat, and talk in a familiar way.

* * * * *

I know that was kind of a lot.  I should say that you don’t have to agree with what I’ve written here at all.  My observations are, after all, just those of an outsider.  I’m not Sino-American (or an international student) so you should probably take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.  In fact, when you get to campus later this month, you may find that I’ve been completely off – you may feel fully welcomed and validated and readily incorporated into classroom discussions, living spaces, and social clubs and organizations.

But I want you to know that even if your experience here is perfect, not everyone’s is.  One 2010 report from the recently shut-down Center of Democracy in a Multiracial Society (closed due to budget cuts) compiled clinical research from several university professors and administrators who set about examining the lingering presence of racism on our campus.

Their findings were indicting:

“[many students of color] used the following words to describe their feelings: fear, anger, frustration, disbelief, awkward, uncomfortable, isolated, and invisible. One student almost dropped out after his freshman year because he felt so unwelcome…[Our] focus groups revealed that racial microaggressions occur in university housing, as well as in many different spatial contexts across campus and throughout the greater Champaign–Urbana community.”

My point?  Even if you do not personally feel the ugly threads of racism here on our campus, many of us do.  Just talk to some of your peers about the challenges they’ve faced as non-white students at the University of Illinois: ask your classmates how it feels to be black at UIUC.  Talk to my friend Clara*, who had to have police officers escort her to her classes for a full semester because of death threats she was receiving after she started doing activism with our Native American House.

This campus is beautiful, and it’s still full of wonderful opportunities for students like you.  You already know this.  I’m writing this letter because I also want you to be aware of some of the struggles you may face here.

To end on a lighter note: I just learned that the Chinese transliteration of the characters U I U C means something like “there is love and there is happiness.”  That’s so cool.  This is truly my hope and prayer for each of you: that your years at UIUC may be filled with love, happiness, joy, and learning, as you continue to find yourselves and your futures.

At the same time, my fear is that many of the “racial tensions” felt on our campus will continue to increase until our community visibly mobilizes itself in concrete ways to welcome diverse communities of scholars like you, and to create authentic opportunities to learn from new perspectives.  Until this happens – no matter how many study abroad trips we hold and no matter how many international students we bring here – we will never be a truly global institution.

(I want to end this open letter with an open invitation to let me show you around campus when you get here.  Seriously, please, let’s go out for some hot squid, or Chipotle, or anything else.  Email me and we’ll set it up.  I’ll be around.  Look out for an upcoming post containing tricks and tips from current Asian international students at UIUC.)

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great blog entry!

    August 6, 2014
  2. Ann #

    Wonderful writing about very important information. Thank you, Ryan. I have learned much from these posts.

    August 7, 2014

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