‘Untold Stories’ Exhibit Documents the Varied Nature of Identity

In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Boston College, the Untold Stories: Diversity Within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community exhibit in O’Neill Library seeks to raise awareness for the cultural diversity within this community on campus and society at large. Sponsored by the Thea Bowman AHANA Intercultural Center, Vice President for Student Affairs, and the BC Libraries and featuring headshots taken by Joon Park, MCAS ’18, the exhibit shared 10 students’ experiences as members of the AAPI community, and provided a valuable perspective toward developing a more supportive environment within the BC community.

One common thread in these stories centered around the students’ journey toward understanding and accepting their cultural identity. For some students that immigrated to the U.S., their heritage made them feel ashamed or out-of-place, and some mentioned either glazing over their cultural identities or growing to embrace what their identities meant to them as individuals.

One student spoke of their experience as a first generation Asian American college student, which added additional challenges to what is already a stressful transition for most students.

“I had no experience in my family of college and how to be successful in college,” he said. “While being a first generation Asian American college student was not the easiest path, it’s made me into the person I am today.”

The exhibit also noted the frustrations of students when people categorized their individual identities into incomplete understandings of AAPI heritage. One student talked about her experience in public school, where the other students asked if she was Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, none of which accounted for the fact the student is Vietnamese.

“Now, I’ve learned to appreciate and embrace the vibrant culture I come from,” she said, a triumph she performed at the South East Asian Student Association culture show with her Vietnamese rendition of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana.

Another student spoke of the counterproductive nature of trying to conform her Indian American identity into the stereotypically East-Asian American identity that permeates societal discussion of the culture.

“I’m just happy being myself and defying all of the stereotypes,” she said. “I’m loud, talkative, political, and Indian, and I love all of these things about myself.”

Racial stereotypes that constrain or marginalize their identities are also a source of concern for AAPI students. Oftentimes, AAPI students are confronted with the stereotype that their heritage makes them smarter or better equipped to handle life, which can place additional stress on them due to society’s tendency to apply sweeping narratives to individuals with diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, one student spoke of her struggle to overcome the stereotype that those with Asian heritage should be subservient.

“I have been taught to accommodate and filter while others are told to emit and express,” she said. “I’m tired of having to suppress my feelings because of this idea that Asians haven’t struggled as harshly as other minorities.”

With regard to life at BC, several stories spoke of both the challenging and encouraging environment AAPI students find on campus toward embracing their individual identities. A couple students talked about their experiences attending secondary schools with a more diverse student body, and how at those schools, they weren’t as conscious of their AAPI identity. Upon arriving on campus, however, some students faced a significant adjustment period, as one student experienced after coming to a “predominately white college.”

Other students, however, noted that they have taken time at BC to explore their heritage. One student, Yechan Na, MCAS ’20, spoke of their immigration to the U.S. after sixth grade, and found the opportunity to “explore [their] cultural identity through various clubs and discussions” on campus, which was not a set of resources available to them before college. While everyone’s experience with cultural diversity is different, stories like Na’s demonstrate the necessity for a welcoming and nurturing environment on campus for AAPI students, which exhibits like this one hope to deepen.

Most of all, many of these students stressed that their cultural differences are what make them special and should be celebrated—not stifled. A couple students spoke of spending half their lives in Korea and half in the U.S., which demonstrated both that their Korean-American identities could not easily be deconstructed, and that no two identities are the same.

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor