A packed room at the Lunar New Year celebration Saturday made students and faculty hopeful that the University of Richmond might soon have a stronger campus community and a better understanding of Asia.
Junior Didi Deng, president of UR’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said he had never expected such a high turnout to the celebration as there was this year.
In previous years, around 100 people had attended the CSSA’s annual celebration, Deng said, but this year the plates upon plates of dumplings hardly lasted the first half-hour with the crowd pouring into the Alice Haynes room.
The food and traditional games like Chinese Mahjong at the celebration were similar to those that Chinese families would be celebrating on this day, sophomore Yanran Li said.
“It’s like Christmas for us,” Li said.
Monti Datta, an associate professor of political science, and first-year Ying Zhu viewed the high turnout and celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year as promising signs of making campus a safe place to have conversations about Asia and creating a greater community between international students and the rest of the student body.
The campus lacks an understanding of Asia, and there is little space to share narratives about the histories, cultures and peoples from the vast continent, Datta said.
“Asia week was a very sobering moment,” Datta said. “We need to admit what we know and what we don’t know.”
Student reactions and discussions surrounding UR’s Asia week in the fall of 2019 furthered Datta’s desire to find a way to include stories and learn from one another in a way that’s empowering and inclusive, Datta said. These ambitions led him to discussing possible solutions with his student, Zhu. Patrice Rankine, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, came up with the idea of "Asia Connect," and invited Datta to be its organizer.
Asia Connect, Datta said, would be a network of faculty and students who come together to learn from one another and celebrate the history and cultures of the many Asian countries that are left out of the dominant narratives and conversations taking place on the campus.
Even more than learning from one another, the goal of Asia Connect is also to build ties and friendships between members of various organizations on campus like CSSA, the Korean American Student Association and the Asian American Students Union, Zhu said. The hope is to break down any barriers between the international students from Asia and the rest of the student body, she said.
“People always say international students only want to hang out with international students,” Zhu said. “But there’s no wall — we want to connect with one another.”
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Zhu said the first step would be to connect the Asian student organizations, then to spread cultural awareness of the many backgrounds of these organizations to the rest of campus.
While Asia Connect is an idea that is still being developed, Datta and Zhu plan to have informal dinners with faculty and students this spring to start having these conversations in a safe space, Datta said.
Datta said these conversations are coming at a critical time for the university after racist graffiti had been left on students’ doors over the weekend.
“We need to learn from one another and celebrate one another, not other-ize one another,” Datta said.
Contact news writer Cate Bonner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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