A rat trap lies right in front of me as I walk into the office. The space is small – perhaps smaller than the size of a Huntsman bathroom. “Hi, come sit down,” says the woman in the office, guiding me to a chair. I sit meekly. “Thank you for coming in,” she warmly says. She introduces herself as Dr. Fariha Khan, associate director of Penn’s Asian American Studies Program. I scan the large bookshelves in her office, wondering who reads these books. Folklore. Racial Formation. Asian American cinema. I do not feel anything beyond mild interest nearing to boredom. Little do I know that this tiny office will soon become a home, that these seemingly uninteresting books will open a door I would never imagine to knock.
That sophomore spring semester, I became a work-study for the Asian American Studies Program. I actively involved myself in the Program’s extracurricular programming and planning as an employee, which soon sparked an interest in the academic study itself. To call Asian American Studies as a passion would be an understatement. I found my intellectual and emotional home here. I found poetic tidbits of my life and other lives who came before me – the people who dared to speak on what it means to be an “other” in this country while deciding what that identity meant for them. I became “Asian American” here, after long years of just being labeled as “Asian.”
The Asian American Studies Program gave me the representational belonging I had not experienced during my twelve years of American public school. To learn how my own community came to be in this country felt like an awakening, a moment to feel how my race inherits histories and legacies of oppression. ASAM gave me access to professors and mentors who consistently validated my stories and introduced me to the resistant capacities of knowledge-making. I had grown up being silent toward the subtle and blatant forms of racism and discrimination I’ve experienced throughout my life; this Program, for the first time, offered the intellectual and emotional space to finally speak on those experiences and discover my own voice in relation to the larger histories overlooked within the mainstream American narrative.
Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies in general are crucial to correcting the public narratives that fail to engage the realities of white supremacy, structural inequality, and racial discrimination. Asian American Studies has not only given me the ability to diagnose the social, cultural, and political facets of racialized identities, but also imagine recuperative spaces for storytelling and activism. I know that I’ve become conscious of what has been always unconscious thanks to ASAM. The Program has developed my capacity to care for vulnerable communities and to fundamentally question the inequalities pervading our history, culture, and the current political moment.
Asian American Studies is of course not just for Asian Americans; it’s for students who wish to know the unwritten histories we often don’t read in high school textbooks and the narratives that re-imagine what is possible in our increasingly diverse and global society. Home takes time to build and grow; even ASAM had to be fought for by students and activists to find its place here at Penn. I hope that future students also find home in ASAM and to not take for granted what home is and could be. Penn is a place of both uncertainty and belonging, a time to discover ourselves through spaces we would’ve imagined to be in. ASAM was a space I never knew would become a home. I’m glad it is now.