On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian Americans in undergraduate admissions. Amid the ongoing debate around affirmative action in higher education — including a recent high-profile college admissions bribery scandal — the ruling was a definitive victory for the status quo on using race as a factor in the admissions process.
For Asian American students who attend Harvard, the admissions process is only the beginning of the story. Many are forced to reconcile their background twofold: both in their applications and once on campus.
Harvard students contend with a unique culture: The college’s housing system means that almost all students live on campus for all four years; extracurricular activities are notoriously intense and time-consuming; and single-gender social organizations, which have long been emblems of exclusivity and elitism, have recently been sanctioned by the university.
As the affirmative action debate rages on, The Lily asked current Harvard students to grapple with another question: How has their relationship to their Asian heritage changed throughout their time at college? Below, senior Kaylee Kim, junior Nina Pasquini, sophomore Elyse Pham and senior Caroline Tsai, who all write for the Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, share their stories.
When I got to campus, joining the Asian American Association (AAA) was an easy decision to make. It wasn’t because I necessarily felt more comfortable in an Asian community, but because without one, I knew I would feel a huge gap in my life.
I grew up in a Korean American church and went to a racially diverse high school, so being with other people of color was the norm for me. I was never embarrassed of my Korean heritage, nor did I ever wish to be white, in part because I had the privilege of having parents who spoke English fluently because they had immigrated at a young age. But for these same reasons, I never really had to grapple with my Asian identity.
I remember my first AAA retreat.
We started the night reading the history of AAA, from its inception in 1976. Next, each of us shared our experience growing up as an Asian American and how it has shaped our identity. Some of what I heard resonated with me: Many of us had crafted our identities for college applications so that we didn’t appear “stereotypically Asian,” which was a sort of competition among all the Asians at our high schools. But most of these deeply personal stories were beyond my own experiences and even knowledge — people spoke of their desire to be white like those around them, or the effect being Asian had on their body image and the people they chose to befriend.
Some board members were not Asian American but Canadian American or from Hong Kong or Singapore. Many were moved to tears, and many cried in empathy. This immediate trust and vulnerability quickly bonded us in a way I had never witnessed before, and it all stemmed from the fact that we had chosen to be part of this cultural organization.
When I became education policy chair of AAA, the conversation surrounding affirmative action at Harvard was at its peak. According to the media, the Asian American experience was uniform and universal — as was our stance against race-conscious admissions. But I thought about AAA’s retreats and the diversity of our experiences; I yearned for the Asian community at Harvard to speak more openly about how our race affected our high school and college experiences (or didn’t).
I launched a video project and interviewed dozens of students — people not only from East Asia but also Southeast Asia and South Asia. Everyone I spoke with was very conscious of the existence of affirmative action as they applied to college — but once we actually came to college, this conversation more or less came to a halt.
While I certainly don’t have a conclusive answer, I do know that these conversations matter, and I think that we are in a space to have them. This ongoing reflection on my identity is a process that doesn’t necessarily have a clear end goal. Maybe it doesn’t even need one — and I’ve come to accept that that’s okay.
Maybe “making it” isn’t the end, but just the start.
Kaylee Kim is a senior from Washington studying history and literature.
When I applied to Harvard, I checked only the “white” box on the race section of my application, even though I had the option to check both white and Asian. This was out of both insecurity and pride: I thought that I did not belong in the Asian box and that it did not belong on my application. I didn’t know many other Asian American people growing up, and Asian Americans in the media I consumed were either shallow stereotypes or completely absent. “Asian” as a label seemed like a broken lens that, when overlaid on my story, would skew and distort and oversimplify who I was.
But when I got to Harvard, I found that it wasn’t so easy to dismiss the allure of the community that grows from shared identity. I met one of my closest friends here because I saw her olive skin and dark hair and rounded eyes, and decided to ask: “Hey, sorry if this is super weird, but are you half Asian?” Her answer: “Yes, yes I am, I thought you might be too.” I complimented the design on her tote bag because I needed something to say. “Thanks,” she said. “I got it from a Japanese Breakfast concert. Do you know Japanese Breakfast? She’s a musician and she’s half Korean, like you.”
For the next few weeks, I walked around campus with Japanese Breakfast playing in my headphones, slowly making my way through her discography.
My fear, as it turns out, was unfounded. At Harvard, for the first time, I met multiracial Asian students, Asian students who were immigrants and Asian students who were sixth-generation, Asian students who could speak their immigrant parents’ tongue fluently and Asian students whose parents’ tongue was English. We talked about our differences, but also the sameness that pulsed beneath them. We couldn’t name that sameness, so it manifested in silly ways that we could perform — love for the Japanese-born singer Mitski and bubble tea and the Japanese reality show “Terrace House.” Trips to H Mart, the Korean grocery store 10 minutes from campus, where we would walk down the aisles together, crinkle bright candy wrappers, hear the din of K-pop and American pop and Mandarin and Bengali, and breathlessly tell each other, “Look at this, this is what I used to eat as a kid, what about you?”
Soon the two-dimensional understanding I had of that box on my application took on texture, depth. I ran my hands along these new contours, felt the space between them, the space for all these stories, and the space for mine.
Nina Pasquini is a Harvard junior from New York studying history and literature.
A package of tamarind candies and instant pho noodles appeared at my door two weeks into my freshman year.
The delivery wasn’t a surprise: The Harvard Vietnamese Association had sent me a welcome email earlier that day. They couldn’t wait to meet me, it said, accompanied by a smiling photo of several students.
I’d archived the email already. The package remained on my desk, unopened, gradually buried beneath unsolicited fliers and used makeup wipes until I finally threw the whole mess away.
High school had tricked me into thinking that my identity was long solidified. Everyone had known each other since our preteens; by senior year, I’d changed in all the ways except the most important ones. I still cared a lot about school and spent my summers at debate camp and didn’t have a boyfriend. This confluence of factors made me feel distinctly like a stereotype.
To combat that, I’d often try to downplay my race in other ways. “Look,” I’d feel like screaming. “Look at my extraordinarily basic Urban Outfitters wardrobe.” Or, “I know I’m Asian but I promise I’m not really Asian. I don’t even speak Vietnamese, and my mom makes pasta every night.”
College was different, though.
With this connection to my heritage severed, I had no desire to form any new ones. Here, what I wore and ate could actually — finally — define me. In other words, the only relationship I wanted to have to my Asianness was through transcending it.
This year, as I was putting together my class schedule, phrases like macroeconomics and social studies glared up at me. I was disappointed; I needed something more niche.
That’s why I enrolled in a class called “Asian/American Graphic Novels.”
Recently, we read GB Tran’s “Vietnamerica,” which traces a family history — from Tran’s grandpa, a communist doctor, to his parents, who fled Vietnam together right before the fall of Saigon. They were kind of like my parents, who left when they were toddlers.
Three days ago, I opened the book at midnight, primed to scan the monochromatic panels and speech bubbles for possible paper topics. A few pages in, though, during Tran’s first trip to Vietnam, a panel forced my eyes to a stop. It showed shrimps eaten with the tails still on and bubbling red soup and pork that was three-quarters fatty, bristly skin.
I’d encountered the meal often: It was Christmas Eve dinner with a dozen relatives, the dinner I’ve always had and resented. Flimsy plastic tablecloths instead of cotton; a whole, oily, silver-scaled fish instead of honey-glazed ham.
None of my friends ever had a Christmas Eve dinner like mine. In fact, I’d never seen the meal replicated by anyone besides my own family and the occasional restaurant. But here it was, suddenly, reflected back at me for the first time in this rented picture book.
And yet here I found myself wrestling with what was supposed to be the subject of a graded, academic paper.
I texted a picture to my parents, then. I knew they’d get a kick out of it.
Elyse Pham is a sophomore from California studying social studies and women and gender studies.
Last semester, as I watched my best friend perform in a South Asian dance show, I was surprised by how sad I felt, distanced from my own identity. Confused, I expressed this to one of my friends, who is Chinese American, at dinner. “It’s good that you’re on the Crimson,” he replied. “If all Asians only did AAA [Asian American Association], there would never be enough representation in other clubs.”
I’d never thought of my choice to join the Crimson as politically motivated — I was mainly thinking about my own interest in writing. In my conservative, predominantly white hometown in the Midwest, I often felt pressured to reconcile my interests with my race, as an Asian student who was passionate about the arts. In high school, I avoided activities that could make me feel out of place — clubs with no other Asians, where any failure would emblematize something bigger than me. I never played a sport or performed in a talent show. More than once, I auditioned for the school musical, only to quit a few days later, imagining myself onstage and on display in a way that felt viscerally uncomfortable.
But at Harvard, I felt like I could freely explore my extracurricular life without feeling defined primarily by my cultural identity, the way that I had at home.
So why did I still feel so conflicted?
It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable on account of my race at the Crimson, where Asian American students now make up a considerable portion of the staff. It was more that I was increasingly aware of its opportunity cost. Editing the Crimson came at the expense of embracing my Taiwanese heritage through membership in an affinity group, such as AAA. These two clubs are not technically mutually exclusive, but doing both, especially substantively, isn’t really an option. Expendable time at Harvard is intensely limited. Achieving a sense of membership in a club requires a degree of undivided attention.
So I chose the Crimson, thinking it was the option that allowed me to grow most as a writer. I thought that choice constituted a type of freedom — that my desire to write originated from within me — but maybe pursuing writing was not as apolitical as I imagined. Maybe I liked to write because it was unexpected, uncommon for an Asian student. Maybe I wanted to distance myself from the stereotype. It was entirely possible that my identity dictated my passions in subconscious ways.
Now, in my senior year, I realize that my writing isn’t divorced from my cultural identity at all — and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. I’ve synthesized the two in many ways, from the Asian characters who populate my fiction to the subject matter of my journalistic coverage.
In the end, the decision was not sacrificing one, but choosing both.
Caroline Tsai is a Harvard senior from Indiana studying English.