Trying to See Myself: The Struggle for Asian Representation

Judy Wang ’23 examines the Asian experience in the American education system.


Original Artwork by the Author

Judy Wang, Contributor

My name is not Judy. And this is where it starts. 

I was born near the beaches of Qingdao, a booming city on the waist of my nation, where my mother worked for another two years before reuniting with my dad in Beijing. I was naive, with tools and crafts in hand, when I babbled out the syllables of my name Wang Hexuan. “He” is the crane, neck stretched, head high, and “Xuan” the ancient carriage for venerable scholars who would be taken by cranes to see “Xitian,” the western paradise. Yet from when Wang Hexuan became only my “legal name,” pronounced with twisted tongues and foreign accents that morphed it into something I no longer know. “Judy,” so I began. I reassured others, just call me “Judy.” 

When the awkward “Hecksons” finally subsided, I began to re-examine the role in which the American education system reshaped my identity and my culture. Recalling those moments when the word “Asian” failed to appear in my world history books, the white-washed U.S. curriculum erases people who look like me from its contents. Moreover, the underrepresentation of Asian faculty on campus facilitates widespread ignorance towards the Asian student population. Last, the education system’s willful ignorance of the difference in the experience of Asian students in comparison to their black and white peers overlooks our special needs that are crucial to our mental wellbeing. In sum, there is a lack of meaningful representation of Asian voices in the American education system in its curriculum, community, and support. 

Although the American education system claims to present a diverse perspective of various cultures, in both history and literature there remains a noticeable absence of accurate Asian depictions. Despite the variety of courses that are offered in American schools, the subjects and viewpoints are mostly eurocentric. With a few mentions of Black and Indigenous populations, the Asian experience is largely erased. The ignorance of Asian cultures is reflected in my own experience. On the first day of seventh grade, my world history teacher asked the class to draw a world map from memory. So I began. Starting from the large crown of the rooster, I delineated the map of Asia quickly from memory and moved on to the Americas. Yet, when I looked up to see the progress of my peers, I was confronted by an array of maps I couldn’t recognize. The rooster shaped China, the gold mountain-shaped India were all erased and simplified to indistinguishable circles and spheres, in stark contrast to the carefully illustrated Americas and Europe. 

Soon after that first day, when I sat through a whole year of “World History” without ever hearing the mention of “Asia,” did I realize that the lack of knowledge of Asian countries was not without cause. Though some may argue that my personal experience is only a singular example, what is more telling is the purposeful exclusion of Asian representation in textbooks and readings. Examining our school curriculum, courses like African History, Women’s Studies, and “the Irish in Americas” decorated the page, but the void of Asian History is still waiting to be filled. As an Asian American student on campus behold “our history deserves more than just honorable mentions.”

In addition to the lack of Asian representation in history books, the absence of Asian faculty members fuels the ignorance of Asian culture in school communities. Taking a closer look at the number of Asian faculty on Gov’s campus, the number of Asian teachers (or teacher to be exact) does not mirror the nearly 20% of the Asian student population at all. The underrepresentation of Asian students in the school’s staffing causes things to fall by the wayside. For instance, Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is hardly celebrated on campus, despite our substantial Indian population. An Indian American student reports that “[they] scramble to finish homework,” on Diwali because the school does not observe that holiday. Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and other Asian holidays experienced the same treatment. Furthermore, the ignorance towards Asian cultures can be extended to the mispronunciation of names. Since many students from Asian cultures have ethnic names, their non-Asian peers often struggle to pronounce them correctly and even intentionally mispronounce them to isolate or make fun of their cultural differences. Many second or third-generation students expressed that their families wrestled with whether or not to give their children ethnic names due to their troubling experiences with their own names. Other students, like myself, opted to anglicize their names to avoid the frequent mispronunciation and even willful overlook of their ethnic names. For instance, the heated incident this summer where a professor at Laney College demanded his Vitamnese student “anglicize” her name and asked her to “understand [her] name is an offensive sound in my language.” The white supremacist assumption and the blatant erasure of another’s culture instead of trying to learn the student’s ethnic name is problematic, to say the least. In short, the lack of diversity in the faculty encourages the misconception and deliberate disregard of Asian cultures in the school community.  

Finally, the American school system generally neglects Asian student’s mental wellbeing. Along with the seemingly petty, “all Asians are smart” stereotype, there comes a real pressure on Asian students to “own up to” these racial prejudices. Asian American students across the country have reported a “higher frequency of academic- and family-related worries” in comparison to their white peers, according to a study by acclaimed scholars at NYU. The study also found that the cause of the worry for Asian American college students is rooted in the ethnic and cultural context. That worry, however, has deeper consequences. According to the American Psychological Association, Asian students are, in fact, three times less likely to see a mental health professional compared to any other American. To make the matter worse, the school system often implicitly discourages such behaviors. Because of the fundamental differences of the Asian experience, the lack of Asian faculty members and counseling staff makes seeking help inaccessible for Asian students. Students often express that non-Asian counseling staff members are unable to sympathize with their experience and their internal pressure to succeed. One student on campus put it this way: “[They] can only sympathize but never empathize.” Even when there are designated “mental health days,” some Asian students claim that “I will never take one myself, and many others would feel the same.” When asked why, family pressures and the need to not go home as “failures” are the most common answers. In addition to the major source of worry (school work), the normalizations of microaggressions towards Asian students add extra weight to the mental well beings of Asian students. Ever since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, racial jokes like the “Chinese Virus” have been heard on and off-campus. Admittedly, though some may argue that the onus should be on the student when professional emotional support is needed rather than on the system, it is made clear that such emotional support couldn’t be found even when the help is asked for.

The school system needs to be reformed, and this time Asian representation should be included. In our textbooks, authors, activists, and historical figures who look like me deserve more than a few lines in a chapter. My holidays, my culture, should be put on equal footing as my White, Black, and Latinx peers. Learn to say my name. Provide us with more emotional support. We are human too.