In 2017, the University of Richmond's Office of International Education (OIE) hosted Denmark Week. In 2018, it highlighted South Africa. What country is it spotlighting in 2019?
The annual International Education Week is a campus-wide celebration hosted by the OIE. The week highlights a specific country through speakers, a themed walk and a dinner at the Heilman Dining Center.
If you are wondering what the OIE considers to be Asia, review the SpiderBytes announcement it sent to students on Sept. 3. The call for campus engagement reads, “If you dance, sing, do calligraphy, practice martial arts, are interested in manga or anime, fold origami, or have interest in other Asian-inspired topics, please contact us.”
What does it mean to be Asian or Asian American? What do “Asian-inspired topics” even mean? As a Chinese American, I went through a three-second identity crisis, wondering whether my so-called Asian identity is directly proportional to my (lack of) dancing, singing and martial arts abilities. I can’t help but feel that the OIE expected students with whatever Asian ethnicity to show up with calligraphy pen in hand, ready to paint the word for love in whatever Asian language they write in.
Following criticism, the OIE renamed the "Wok Walk" the "Wish Walk" and narrowed the scope of Asia Week from 48 countries to eight. Its amendment of Asia Week to focus on East Asia is fitting, as the programming already predominantly featured Japan and China.
But has anything really changed? At its best, Asia Week reduces Asian culture, if such a thing even exists, to a litany of tired stereotypes, a hazy blend of Marie Kondo, anime and spring rolls. At its worst, it perpetuates the dominance of a white gaze over Asia, reflecting the limits of Asian and Asia-America representation in U.S. American media.
Whatever UR’s original intentions were, Asia Week is orientalism dressed in different clothes.
For centuries, the narrative about Asia in the U.S. has been written by white people. Western fascination with and reduction of the East (read: the Orient) to fractured stereotypes of exotic silk-clad ladies and kung-fu masters is not new. Historically, U.S. media has presented Asia as homogeneous, a trope that trickles down to the elementary school playground with the taunt that “All you Asians look the same!”
Assuming that a single week could cover Asia reinforces this view. Perpetuating a superficial vision of Asia as anime, calligraphy and kung-fu, U.S. media, and now Asia Week, have watered down the thorniness and beauty of the history, culture and social issues of Asia and Asian Americans in favor of something light, palatable and easily consumed by Western audiences.
Especially as new media challenge the historic invisibility of Asians in U.S. American media -- such as "Crazy Rich Asians" (2018), the Pixar short "Bao" (2018), "Always Be My Maybe" (2019) and the music collective "88rising" -- Asia Week sticks out as regressive and disappointing.
Voices insisting that Asia is complex are gaining traction, from "Crazy Rich Asians" revealing the classism of Singapore to "Always Be My Maybe" portraying Sasha and Marcus not as walking symbols of Asia, but instead as richly developed individuals who are also Asian American. From the rapping of Rich Brian to the stand-up of Hasan Minhaj, there are no two-dimensional characters running around folding origami, reading manga or writing calligraphy. Instead, these emerging voices engage in the complex art of telling real and difficult stories.
Some of these stories do include dancing, singing and martial arts, but they never end with the easy conclusions that Asia is homogenous, unknowable or diametrically opposed to the West.
As much as Asia Week makes me want to simultaneously laugh, cry and fold 1,000 origami cranes to wish away the specter of orientalism, I urge everyone to participate actively. Engage with a critical eye and ask questions such as: What kind of image are they portraying of Asia? Who organized the event? What are Asian and non-Asian students talking about? When you go to the “Pan-Asian Dinner” on Nov. 13, look at the kind of food they are serving. Ask the dining hall workers, many of whom have Asian heritage, what they think.
Engage with Asian and Asian American classmates, friends and professors (yes, there are very few tenured Asian and Asian American faculty members), and ask them about their experience at UR. Join the faculty panel on "Being Asian During UR's Asia Week" on Nov. 12 and the Brown Bag discussion on "Asian Student Voice" on Nov. 15, which were added after student and faculty activism.
Asia Week stings and disappoints me as a Chinese American. Yet, it has also provided Asian and Asian American students an opportunity to reflect, gather and mobilize in community. I remain inspired by how diverse students and student organizations have united to express their concerns.
Although Asia Week fails to spark joy, I encourage everyone to actively engage with the programming. As Marie Kondo reminds us, tidying is the act of confronting ourselves.
By embracing the problems and opportunities Asia Week presents, we will confront our vision of Asia and Asia-America together as a campus community.
Contact contributor Virginia Sun at firstname.lastname@example.org.