Voices of Asian Americans at the UCLA International Institute
From left, top row: Cindy Fan, Warren Berkey, Min Zhou, Hyung-Wook Kim; bottom row: Ron Sugano, Jennifer Jung-Kim, Eric Min and Nguyet Tong.

Voices of Asian Americans at the UCLA International Institute

A few of the two dozen Asian Americans who work at the UCLA International Institute shared their reflections on being Asian American and working at the institute.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 28, 2021 — The UCLA International Institute hosts eight centers that deal with Asia, together with academic programs that focus on Asia and global studies more broadly.

The institute is a place where “Asian” and “Asian American” frequently intersect — often in the same person. Institute centers, degree programs and public events attract students and scholars from East, Southeast and South Asia, as well as Asian American students and scholars and people of diverse heritages.

About two dozen Asian Americans also work at the Institute — in leadership and as staff, center directors and teaching faculty. Among this group are individuals who emigrated from Asia and are now U.S. citizens and people who are second- or third-generation Americans. We asked some of these colleagues for their thoughts about being Asian American and working at the International Institute.

First, a word from sociologist Min Zhou — director of the Asia Pacific Center, professor of sociology and Asian American studies. and the Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations & Communications — on the immigrant-to-Asian American trajectory.

“Taking on the Asian American identity is an experience of becoming American, as the pan-ethnic identity is a political identity and an identity that emerges from shared lived experiences of anti-Asian racism and the struggle for racial equality,” said Zhou, whose scholarly career has been devoted to the study of immigrant Asian communities in the U.S. and other countries.

“Immigrants from Asia don’t usually use the pan-ethnic label to describe themselves, rather they use their country of origin, like Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino and so forth,” she continued. “But in the process of adapting to their new homeland, and as they live in the U.S. longer, they tend to use the hyphenated identity label, like Chinese American, Taiwanese American, Filipino American, to assert their American identity. For those who are more politically conscious, they would call themselves Asian American.”

Jennifer Jung-Kim (UCLA Ph.D., 2005), an historian of modern Korea who regularly teaches for the UCLA International Institute and the department of Asian Languages and Cultures and is assistant director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, emphasized that “Asian American” is an umbrella term that obscures many nuances. “Asian Americans are a very diverse group of at least 20 ethnicities, as well as combinations accounting for multiple migrations and multiethnic backgrounds. Asian Americans are also diverse in their religious beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational levels, political views, cultures and foods,” she said.

Hyung-Wook Kim, assistant director of the Center for Korean Studies (UCLA Ph.D. 2012) and an historian of the Koguryo empire (1st century BC through 7th century AD), made a similar point about “Asian” identities. “As you may be aware, many people in East Asia (Korea, Japan and China specifically) tend to have more of a ‘national’ identity than ‘regional’ identity, such as East Asians, to be honest. Most of this is due to the complexity of their entangled history,” he said.

Cindy Fan, vice provost for international studies and global engagement, finds her multiple identities beneficial. “As an immigrant to this country,” she shared, “I feel very fortunate to have both an Asian heritage and an Asian American identity, which has helped me connect with Asian American and Pacific Islander students of all generations and backgrounds.”

Some colleagues shared that their work aligns with their values and interests. Nguyet Tong (UCLA B.A. 2011), assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), reflected, “Being Vietnamese American directly informs the work that I do for CSEAS. I am committed to implementing initiatives that showcase Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian American voices. I conduct my work with this intention and purpose to ensure that CSEAS is making a contribution in shaping the narratives about the Southeast Asian community on campus and within other academic spaces and platforms.”

Ron Sugano, assistant vice provost and chief financial and administrative officer of the International Institute, concurred. “As an Asian American, working at UCLA and the International Institute provides me with a strong sense of purpose and belonging,” he said. “What we do across campus fulfills the three tenets of UCLA’s mission (education, research and service) on a daily basis. It is rewarding to be a small part of these successes.”

Some people valued the diverse atmosphere and opportunities for learning offered by the Institute. “Working in an institution with many people who look like you makes you feel more comfortable and normal,” said Min Zhou. “In a culturally diverse setting, people learn to find common ground and respect differences.”

Added Hyung-Wook Kim, “I feel very fortunate to be with many people who have open minds and a willingness to engage with others. It has been a very difficult last four plus years.”

Warren Berkey, coordinator, special projects and learning management system, reflected, “I began my time at the International Institute with Asia Pacific Arts, an online magazine that covered Asian and Asian American arts and entertainment. Since then, working at the Institute and getting to be a part its unique community of scholars and staff from around the world has really broadened my understanding of what it means to be Asian American.”

Several colleagues mentioned the process of “othering” to which Asian Americans are frequently subjected. As Jennifer Jung-Kim remarked, “Whether an Asian American is a recent immigrant or their ancestors crossed the Pacific Ocean many generations ago, we often share one common experience: we all probably have been treated as outsiders who are not really American. We have all been asked, ‘Where are you from? Where are you REALLY from?’"

Ron Sugano noted, “I’ve had these common experiences, too. It seems to happen less on campus than off, though. I’ve not had the ‘Where are you from?’ query in a long time. I always used to respond ‘Chicago’ whenever I got that question!”

Commenting on the “forever foreigner” syndrome, Cindy Fan pointed out that “the failure to recognize and acknowledge that Asian Americans are as American as any other American has contributed to their lack of representation among senior leaders in many fields, and even to anti-Asian hate.” She added, “For persons of color as a whole, the struggle for social justice has a long history, and the AAPI community is part of that struggle, which involves all peoples that have historically been marginalized, disadvantaged and victimized.”

Some faculty and staff stressed that despite gains in representation at UCLA, much work remains to achieve institutional equity for Asian Americans. “The numbers regarding Asian American representation within the International Institute are heartening, but certainly should not lead to complacency,” remarked Eric Min, assistant professor, political science and UCLA International Institute, who teaches in the Global Studies program.

“Our student population has far greater Asian American representation than our faculty and staff, and we should strive to close that gap. I have had multiple Asian American undergraduate students attend my office hours simply to tell me that they were excited to see someone like them as a professor. Looking back, I realize that I never had the same experience until I entered graduate school,” he continued.

“We should therefore continue to increase Asian and Asian American visibility on campus and particularly on both sides of the classroom. I am continuously grateful and eager to play my own part, however small it may be, in advancing that goal.”

Nguyet Tong shared a similar view. “Representation alone is not enough,” she said. “I believe that the people doing the work of elevating Asian American stories should have more of a stake in determining new directions and would urge the International Institute to work with AAPI staff to identify critical needs and priorities that have long been sidelined so as to institutionalize AAPI experiences and concerns in Institute programs and resources.”