Asian, Asian-American cultural groups balance interest, identity

Jia Wen Goh, president of the Singapore Students Association, poses for a photo on March 1. Quinn Pham / The Tufts Daily

There are currently 10 Asian and Asian-American culture and interest groups on campus that are recognized by the Tufts Community Union, a number of which meet regularly as part of the Pan Asian Council, according to the Asian American Center’s website. These groups strive to provide communities for students of different backgrounds who identify as Asian or Asian-American, but vary in how far-reaching they hope to be in their influence on the greater Tufts community, according to several organization leaders.

For instance, both Singapore Students Association (SSA) and Vietnamese Students Club (VSC) prioritize building a stronger community within their membership, especially in light of the recent change to a TCU bylaw reported in an Oct. 20 Daily articleWhile culture clubs previously had to host three events for the entire Tufts community, they are now only required to hold one open event.

“I think our focus for this year under this leadership is to focus more on the Singapore community rather than spreading the culture, and that is in line with why we decided to cut down on the fall [semester’s] big event, because by cutting down, we then have more time and effort to have a lot more community events,” sophomore Jia Wen Goh, president of SSA, said.

Goh said that SSA holds community events approximately once a month, such as an end-of-semester dinner, Deepavali celebration and Lunar New Year celebration. Unlike these community events, the culture show towards the end of the spring semester is more geared near spreading Singaporean culture.

“For the entire Tufts community, [while in the past] we’ve had one big event per semester because of the cultural club rule, this year we are changing it to one big event, which we are going to host in April, and it’s like the [event in which] we introduce the culture to the Tufts population,” he said.

Senior Tony Nguyen, president of VSC, shared that VSC is also placing a greater focus on its own community, especially after the removal of the three-event requirement.

“We do a lot more internal events now. So we do more community bonding, dinners — we went to the Loj, for example,” he said.

Nguyen explained that this is in line with the ultimate goal of the club.

“[The goal is] to create a space for Vietnamese people on campus, where we can feel understood and safe and not have to explain stuff,” he said.

According to Nguyen, the club consists of a diversity of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian-identifying students.

“People who tend to join VSC are people who [are] Southeast Asian and view themselves as part of that history of war-torn country, first-gen — [their] parents probably came to America because they were running away from war,” he said.

Nguyen added that he believes the purpose of VSC is to focus more internally on the students in the club, rather than working to spread Vietnamese culture to the entire Tufts community.

“I would say it’s more internal. I personally believe that,” he said. “Not every culture club is like that, and I totally understand that, and not all [Vietnamese student organizations] are like that, but I personally stand for ‘this is a space for Vietnamese people.’”

Other organizations, such as Japanese Culture Club (JCC*), Korean Students Association (KSA) and Tufts Association of South Asians (TASA), share this goal of providing a space for students who identify with their respective communities but also emphasize spreading their culture to the greater Tufts community. JCC* co-presidents Miriam Weiss and Hiroto Watanabe, both juniors, outlined the two major goals of the group.

“Build community is one. Two is [to] enrich the Tufts community with Japanese culture,” Weiss said.

Echoing this sentiment, sophomore Vedant Kothari, TASA’s culture show director, elaborated on TASA’s ultimate goals of providing a community for South Asian students and giving the greater Tufts community a peek into the meaningful parts of their culture.

“It’s kind of like a gateway into our South Asian festivities,” he said. “We really enjoy sharing that with friends that you make here, because your life here is mixed between people who are sometimes from where you’re from, and then people who are definitely more diverse and part of a bigger Tufts community. It makes you feel really good when someone who isn’t typically a part of these festivities or celebrations really enjoys the idea or the actual event itself.”

According to Kothari, TASA’s typical calendar consists of executive board meetings as well as larger, annual events that are organized with other groups on and off campus for the South Asian community.

“Usually Diwali and Holi are in conjunction with the [Hindu Students Council],” he said. “There’s the culture show, and then there are more specific cultural bonding sessions, like last year the South Asian association at Wellesley came to Tufts.”

TASA’s biggest event is their annual culture show held during the spring semester, which includes dance and music performances showcasing South Asian culture. Kothari added that participation in the show is open to the entire Tufts community.

“The culture show is probably where the most non-South Asian people get involved,” he said. “They definitely do get involved a decent amount.”

Members of TASA extend beyond South Asian-identifying students to include anyone who wants to be involved in the community, according to Kothari.

“Anyone who wants to be a part of TASA is really a part of TASA,” he said. “You just have to be interested in South Asian culture.”

Similarly, Weiss explained that membership in JCC* is open to anyone with a strong connection to Japanese culture or a desire to learn about it, such as people who are studying the Japanese language.

“I think we make an effort to include people who we would consider to identify with the culture,” Weiss said. “If you’re interested, we put you on our email list, and we have events that you can come to, but we try to create a club that has people that are more than just interested, whether that means they’re Japanese or not.”

Watanabe described the diversity of backgrounds within JCC*.

“It’s a very mixed bag in terms of who’s from Japan, who’s from the States, who has Japanese parents, did you keep up with a lot of traditional things that you would do in Japan, versus ‘I grew up in the middle of Kansas and I was very involved in a more American culture instead,'” Watanabe said.

Weiss added that people of different backgrounds find meaningful connections through the club’s diversity of events.

“Just being Japanese because you grew up in Japan versus [being] JapaneseAmerican is two really different things. Like I grew up in Japan, my mom is Japanese, and for me, the 3/11 [event] affects me a lot more, whereas for a lot of other people, the Day of Remembrance will affect them more because they’re Japanese-American and that’s their family’s history,” Weiss said.

According to senior and KSA president Gill Eun Kang, KSA also has a diverse group of members, including members of the group’s executive board who are not Korean.

“On our [executive] board, two people are non-Korean, one person is not Asian at all and we have quite a few members who aren’t Korean,” she said. “But I think, [in] KSA, what we strive for is to be friends with each other and just have fun and do things together, before putting Korean culture into everything we do.”

A big shift for KSA this year has been to open up the club’s membership to more than just the executive board, as well as to focus on strengthening the club’s community in general, as Kang shared.

“The past two years before this academic year, I think there was some concern about people who weren’t part of the culture club’s [executive] board, how their opinions aren’t being reflected when they have just as much of a right to represent the Korean population at Tufts,” she said.

One way that the KSA has promoted this shift has been through the implementation of a gajok system.

“We have this thing called the gajok system — it means family in Korean. So it’s like a peer group system where everyone is part of a gajok, it’s kind of like a Fo-fam,” she said. “I guess it’s just a way for people who want to get together and eat Korean food, or cook Korean food, or watch a Korean movie … We’ve had a lot of interest from non-Koreans to join too.”

Kang explained that the next step after building the community within KSA is to spread a greater awareness of Korean culture, beyond Korean pop culture, to the greater Tufts community.

“I think moving forward, [our goal is] definitely showcasing more aspects of Korean culture that aren’t necessarily known to as many people,” she said. “I feel like we try to put things like K-pop out there just because it’s more familiar, but I think the goal for the future would be to kind of get more people learning and familiarizing [themselves] with other aspects of Korean culture that might not be recognized as much.”