In an article in The Daily Princetonian back in November, Ben Dinovelli wrote about “forgetting” his Asian identity. As a person of Asian descent adopted by White parents in the US, Dinovelli talks about how integration into campus culture is difficult because he feels the need to either embrace his Asian heritage or be part of a larger White society at Princeton. He seems to feel as if he is an outsider to both cultures and is actively trying to decide in which culture he’d be more comfortable. Dinovelli is dealing with a question that Asian Americans on campus often have: how does being an active member of the Asian community at Princeton affect you?
A survey that the Asian American Students Association (AASA) sent out this past fall may answer this question. The five core questions of the survey solicited perspectives on the cohesion of the Asian American community while the last question asked respondents to define what ethnic groups they thought to be Asian American. In the end, we had 376 responses with 54 seniors, 74 juniors, 115 sophomores, and 131 freshmen participating.
We’ve published the results of our survey on our website and addressed our data’s implications regarding use of the term “Asian American” in a recent Daily Princetonianarticle. But our data, if analyzed, seem to suggest much more. In the graphics below we’ve displayed the results. Notably, in the second graphic, we decided to divide our respondents into two groups: Asians and non-Asians, with neither category including international students. The difference in perception of the Asian American community from within and from without becomes readily apparent.
In cases where Asians and non-Asians differed in their responses, Asian Americans consistently seemed to believe that they are a more cohesive group than non-Asians think. This difference is especially apparent with regard to Asian Americans’ cultural and political cohesion.
By why does such a gap emerge? I’d like to propose that this gap is related to the social structure at Princeton that troubles Dinovelli – that much of the Asian American community is insular from the rest of campus. In this way, many Asian Americans on campus exist within what I’ll term “the Asian bubble”.
The insularity of many Asian Americans on campus is readily apparent. Some Asian ethnic groups such as CSA, TASA, SASA, and KASA are huge and dominate the Asian bubble. Beyond these organizations, there are a myriad of smaller organizations, like JSA, VSA, and Thaigers. Of course, the emergence of all these groups is partially driven by how there are many international students from Asia, and internationals can use these organizations as ways to meet other Princeton students from the same country as them. But international students by no means make up the entirety of these organizations; indeed, TASA and KASA include the word “American” in their organizations’ names. Still, the size and number of these groups have made them pillars of the campus Asian community, thereby helping to create an insular culture formed along ethnic lines.
With this rather insular Asian community on campus, it’s understandable that our survey showed that many Asian Americans think that they have a good deal in common with other Asian Americans. At first, you may have joined one of these organizations at first just out of curiosity or for the food. But if you hang out with friends of a similar ethnic background all the time, you’d be more likely to think that your friends and you have similar cultural or ideological beliefs based on your common ethnic experience. Thinking in such a way helps to explain your friend group’s cohesion and validates its homogeneity. Asian Americans would seemingly have a great deal in common and would naturally form an Asian bubble.
Of course, Asian Americans are likely to join this insular society on campus in the first place because they think that they will find people who are similar to them. They are also subject to the prevalent paradigm that people of the same race have some inherent cohesion, and this belief feeds into the differences – in cultural and political cohesion – that we can see in the graphs above. But these beliefs are likely only reinforced once someone enters the Asian bubble. Those who decide to stay in the Asian bubble evidently enjoy that social atmosphere and must see people of a similar race around them all the time. They can then connect their positive social experience with the unifying factor of race that made them join this particular social group in the first place. A self-reinforcing cycle thus makes Asian Americans believe even more strongly that they have much in common with other Asian Americans.
In contrast, the results of our survey suggest that non-Asians perhaps see Asian countries as having a variety of different cultures and lifestyles, a variety that would be equally reflected in the Asian American community. Non-Asians are more likely to meet Asian Americans in a variety of other contexts that are not partially defined by ethnic and racial similarity, as are the groups mentioned above. The diverse contexts where Asians and non-Asians meet would thus reinforce a belief that Asian Americans are not particularly cohesive as a group. In these non-ethnic-focused contexts, the diverse interests and identities of Asian Americans are put on display and define each as a distinct individual. At the very minimum, being on the outside of this community might make non-Asians more hesitant to respond saying that Asians are similar. All together, these aspects would feed into a belief that Asian Americans aren’t more cohesive than any other group of people.
But the diverse interests of Asian Americans have not prevented an Asian bubble from developing on campus. This is not to say that there is some abnormal Asian clique developing at Princeton. Asian bubbles have emerged as a national trend. The Fung Brothers, a Youtube comedy team, in a funny, yet serious, video called this trend “The Asian College Bubble”. A headline from The Onion last year read “Asian Guy Has Separate Group of Just Asian Friends,” referring to a guy who’s out of college.
Still, I at least cannot stop myself from laughing a little nervously when I watch the Fung Brothers’ video or read The Onion’s piece. A common notion of ethnic enclaves and cliques are that they are exclusionary and they pose a direct challenge to the belief that we live in a post-racial society. But whether or not it is a good thing that Asian Americans believe they are similar is a question that cannot be answered. The Asian American community itself is divided on this question as well. There are people who embrace the Asian bubble, for example joining CSA or TASA readily, and there are also those like Dinovelli who approach the bubble skeptically. I also know people who say they don’t want to join Asian organizations because they think the Asian bubble is overly alienating to people who are outside of it. We don’t think that our survey will change the minds of these people and make them view the Asian bubble in a completely different light. But we do hope this helps argue that the Asian bubble does impact Asian Americans’ sense of unity on campus, whether for better or worse.
Click on the images below to view their full size.