Art by Leah Bae
Throughout the United States, there has been a rise in reported anti-Asian hate incidents. Between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate recorded 6,603 hate incident reports, according to the center’s national report.
In response to the March 17 shootings in Atlanta, when a white gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, the Graphic wrote a staff editorial in solidarity with the AAPI community.
At Pepperdine, about 10% of the undergraduate student population identifies as Asian, according to Seaver College’s preliminary fall 2019 enrollment figures.
On a more personal note, we, as staff writers for the Graphic, are both Korean American female students at Pepperdine. During this past year, we have been impacted by these events in different ways, and we wanted to hear and amplify the stories of members in our community.
The rise in incidents of AAPI hate sparked new conversations worldwide, recognizing the dangerous and appalling treatment of our fellow human beings.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States. In honor of this month and the Graphic’s commitment to solidarity with the AAPI community, the Graphic welcomed AAPI students to share their personal experiences through a survey.
These stories are a handful of voices from Pepperdine’s vast AAPI community. Seven voices cannot speak to all experiences, but they do provide a glimpse into the reality of many. In recognition of this month, take the time to intentionally listen to and celebrate the stories, cultures and heritages of AAPI members in your community.
Responses have been edited for clarity, length and grammar.
I grew up in a predominantly white area in Northern Virginia. I remember being regularly made fun of in middle school where kids my age would stretch their eyes and poke fun at my appearance. They made the typical assumptions about my intelligence and questioned whether I could do certain areas of studies well, like math or physics. The model minority myth didn’t help and made me feel as though I had to live up to the “expectations” of my race, or risk being deemed innately inferior. Stereotypes were made apparent, and my race often became the subject of humor and ridicule to my classmates. I remember feeling ashamed of my culture and heritage, ashamed of speaking Korean in front of others and ashamed of eating Korean food. I inadvertently silenced the cultural part of my identity meant to be celebrated.
I later realized the scope of the issue when I started attending high school. During freshman year, I attended Battlefield High School where a small number of students would fly Confederate flags on the back of their trucks and constantly make minorities feel silenced, with policy to ban this behavior coming from Prince William County only about a year ago. I didn’t realize how diverse it was in other parts of the country until I moved to Atlanta a year later. It was in Georgia where I learned to be proud of my heritage and pay homage to my roots.
During my time at Pepperdine, I didn’t have many problems with racist rhetoric. I assumed this was due to a huge Asian presence in Los Angeles and in California in general. There were Asian groups and cultural clubs on campus, which helped foster a sense of belonging and made the transition to college easier.
The recent movement of support for the AAPI community means a great deal to me as someone who has dealt with microaggressions from an early age. It’s helped make me feel seen and more accepted because of the outreach; it makes me feel more acknowledged and valid, knowing that people are recognizing these issues as real and prevalent in our socio-political climate.
—Dahn Hugh, Class of 2023
For Songfest in 2016, each musical was required to focus on a holiday selected from a predetermined list. Chinese New Year was selected as an option, and that was the first mistake. The fact that the holiday was called Chinese New Year rather than Lunar New Year in sensitivity to other cultures who celebrate the holiday but are not Chinese was the second mistake.
I was afraid when I first bought my ticket to watch the show, worried when I heard an Asian student had walked out, and as they dimmed the lights for the performance my body grew tense and I clutched my seat, hoping that everything I heard was a lie. What looked like geishas dawned the stage with chopsticks intertwined in blonde hair; students not realizing the history of sexualization experienced by Asians and the fact that geishas were historically Japanese. A revised version of the historical Chinese story of how the new year holiday was established played out and was poorly represented. Students dressed like animals walked in, acting like Mushu from Mulan. Props made of cheap red trinkets sprinkled throughout the performance, seeming to suggest that these were what make Chinese culture. But really, they screamed an inaccurate understanding of Chinese culture.
I sat through the entire performance and wanted to cry: for the sake of my ancestors, my family, my Asian American friends, for myself. How awful is it that this is what people understand of Chinese culture? That from now on, when they think of Chinese culture, this is what they think of? And not just students, but every single community member that came and watched Songfest that year? It’s appalling to think of the hundreds of people that who now live life thinking that Chinese culture amounts to sexualized women, spirit animals, mythical creatures and cheap red trinkets, is downright appalling.
Using my position as an SLA at the time, my faith and everything that I have as an involved member of Pepperdine’s community, I wrote a strongly worded, firm, level-headed letter to the dean of Student Affairs with the help of Asian American friends who reviewed my writing. I called for simply the proper education of the community about Chinese culture. I insisted that this was necessary and thought this was a very easily accomplished demand out of many others I could have chosen to include. The dean kindly responded and asked to share my letter with his team. I obliged and offered my support to ensure this effort could come to fruition. I never heard back again.
This is only one of many racist experiences while I was a student at Pepperdine, but the most memorable because it felt like an attack from the entire community. I had to settle by educating those around me at the time, and as a freshman SLA I had a lot of reach, but at the end of the day, that shouldn’t have been my job. To think that people in leadership at Pepperdine wouldn’t take a stand for students of all colors is wrong in so many ways and needs to change.
These experiences (along with several others) prompted me to increasingly engage in racial justice advocacy and also helped propel my current passion and work in racial health equity for Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities in Chicago.
—Naomi Louie, Class of 2017
I experienced racism growing up as the sole Asian in elementary school in England, being called names and even being pushed over, but coming to America in middle school, this was not the case. Even though I attended a school that was two percent Asian, I was able to find a welcoming community and my own identity. This continued when I came to college, and I found that my identity as an Asian did not detract from my experience but added to it. I experienced a welcoming community and was also able to have pride in my identity as an Asian.
My freshman dorm experience was great — it was a mix of all kinds of guys of different backgrounds and races, and the dorm ethos was really inclusive. We formed a real sense of belonging and identity that was not exclusive and encouraged you to explore, but my dorm always was like a home base. I also tried different fellowships and eventually committed to KCM [Koinonia Campus Mission] which is predominantly (but not exclusively) Asian, but not because I felt alienated in any way.
—Josh Park, Class of 2023
This school year, my senior year, is the first time a professor has not asked me “Where are you really from?” I get the question so often that my response about my family’s heritage sounds automated. I went an entire semester in COM 180 with my professor still thinking I was an international student, despite giving my last speech on a tribute to Orange County. My professor in Great Books told me I was brave for choosing the course and that it was fine if I struggled with the English text. My roommate during one summer session had to leave the room every time I prepared a meal because she “couldn’t stand the smell of my weird Asian food.” My Pepperdine friends and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant and the entire time they were making fun of the pronunciations of the menu items and kept asking me to translate them, even though the items were also in English. I am not Vietnamese, and I do not speak the language. I shouldn’t have to be the one to tell college students that there are different Asian languages and once you know one of them, you don’t know them all.
I think it says a lot when your freshman year dorm has only four people of color (specifically Asian American). That’s half a suite. It really makes it feel like you have to make an extra effort to “fit in” because you look different or your family life/culture is different, and that shouldn’t have to happen.
When the Caf had the stir fry option, one of the sauces was called “Asian Brown Sauce.” To this day, I still have no idea what they were trying to describe.
—Katie Yau, Class of 2021
I’m half Japanese, but I look very Caucasian and have countless stories of people saying racist things about me or my mom (she’s Japanese) or people discrediting my Japanese heritage by saying “Yeah, but you’re not really Japanese.” My freshman year I was working at Waves On Call and a woman was honestly just going off about Pepperdine and her horrible experience. I tried to connect with her experience and explain that what happened to her was horrible but not a normal occurrence, at least in my experiences. She then said that of course I thought Pepperdine was great because I’m white and that I couldn’t understand. I calmly told [her] that I am actually half Japanese and have experienced my fair share of racially charged hate, and so she brushed me off. This was the first time someone had attacked me for my white half and I realized that to most people most places, I look and talk and come off as another privileged Pepperdine girl, when I am far from that.
—Alisha Harris, Class of 2023
I am currently a graduate student at SPP [School of Public Policy]. This incident occurred on March 23, 2021. Someone in my class was wearing a MAGA hat. I didn’t really mind that much because I think people can believe whatever they want to, and their opinions are valid even though I disagree with them. I knew that this classmate was a supporter of Trump, but I still had respectful interactions with him. A classmate asked the guy with the MAGA hat why he was wearing the hat to class, in a sarcastic and joking tone. The same guy (he is Caucasian) proceeded to say “Yeah, I was just out back from harassing Asians Americans,” in the same sarcastic and joking way to answer the question. At first, I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe someone would say such a thing, especially after a week since the Atlanta shooting and the increase in hate crimes against Asians. My friend texted me if I heard what he said, and while I was texting him, I became so mad. I told my friend that I don’t think I can just stay silent because I am offended and what he said was not OK I immediately called [the student who said the offensive comment] out on his insensitive and crude comment. I said that with everything that the Asian American community has gone through in the past week that comment was insensitive. He then responded by saying that he’s not going to apologize for it. I repeated that there is a time and place for sarcasm and jokes to be made, but he still refused to apologize for the comment.
—Esther Chung, Class of 2020, School of Public Policy student
I’m grateful that there is a prevalent Asian community on campus and for the popularized aspects of Asian culture that make their way onto campus — such as through boba fundraisers, or even that one poke food truck that came on campus for different events. Little things like that helped so much in the transition to a college in Malibu, which is a bit lacking in terms of good, affordable Asian food. And personally, food is so important to feeling at home. I don’t speak Korean, and I think I overall come across as pretty Americanized, so the way I most connect to my culture is through food. Any time I came home during my freshman year, my family would make sure to have Korean for dinner that night because they knew how much I missed it while at school. My friend’s mom (who is Korean) is a Pepperdine professor, and she invited us over a few times to cook Korean food for us. I think the first time she did that, I almost cried.
Overall, I’ve had a mix of experiences on campus from the lens of my identity as an Asian American. I can’t think of any experiences I’ve had here with blatant anti-Asian racism, but I’m also not hyper-aware of microaggressions or underlying racist tones. Just visibly, I am always a little unsettled by the lack of POC in my classes, since Pepperdine’s diversity rankings are supposedly high, but I also recognize that there are more Asians compared to other races represented on campus. To be honest, I didn’t come to Pepperdine with expectations of a really vibrant Asian community, so the community I did find was more of a happy surprise.
—Faith Oak, Class of 2023
The Asian American Pacific Islander community — encompassing heritages from all of the Asian continent and Pacific Islands — is rich in diverse stories, cultures, backgrounds and experiences. As second-generation Asian Americans, this past year of racial tension has made us personally turn to our own parents by asking them honestly about their experiences as first-generation immigrants. We hope that these stories will spark deeper, raw conversations within your own community as well.
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