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Students reflect on personal experiences as Asian Americans

The Asian Student Union advocates for leadership, education

Kentwood —  In response to the national increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, members of East Kentwood High School’s Asian Student Union collected over 300 signatures asking Kentwood Public Schools to take a stand and acknowledge public support for the Asian American community.

The effort is just one way the group is working to support each other, said ASU Co-President and senior Thang Lian “Standing in solidarity is the first step. The next step is to take action by providing resources and education in support of Asian American students,” Thang said.  

Since the start of the pandemic, The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found hate crimes against Asian Americans spiked 149% between 2019 and 2020 in the United States. Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff issued a letter to the Kentwood community in response to the national events, calling for KPS to lead as an example of diversity and equality.

“Our differences are not something to be ashamed of but to be celebrated. Inclusion is a huge thing to work towards and it cannot come with disclaimers. That includes LGBTQ Asians, disabled Asians, all people. Community has to be for everyone.”

— ASU Co-President and East Kentwood senior Thang Lian

SNN spoke with ASU members to hear their thoughts on the issue. Students spoke of educating others about Asian identities and ending racism and violence against marginalized communities. 

“There are so many layers to the struggles of Asian Americans,” Thang said. The model minority myth builds on white supremacy models and the history of hatred Asian people face in America. Asian Americans are humans and we need to let go of stereotypes.” (The University of Southern California Pacific Asia Museum explains the model minority myth as “a damaging stereotype that pits people of color against each other.”)

Being of Indian descent, senior and ASU Public Relations Officer Naomi Philip addressed the importance of having empathy. “Because the majority of these hate crimes have been towards East Asians, some people do not see the extremity of the situation because it is not affecting them.” Naomi said. “It’s so important to be able to empathize with people. Education through social media or talking to Asian people allows you to hear personal stories and connect with what is happening on a human level.”

Cultivating Leaders

As a student-run organization, ASU’s mission is to cultivate young Asian leaders through community service and education, amplify underrepresented voices and serve the school body. The ASU is “vital for students of Asian descent to come together in a safe space and talk about their emotions in response to what is happening around the world,” Thang said.

In response to current events, ASU officers gave a presentation on the rise in Asian American hate crimes to other club members. “Presenting this information during our ASU meeting created an environment for people to feel real and raw emotions and talk about them,” Thang said.

Students reflected on their personal experiences as Asian Americans. “Growing up, I was blessed with a community, despite Kentwood not having a large Indian population,” Naomi said. “I am really grateful to have a place to celebrate and learn more about my culture. Having a large East Asian population gave me the opportunity to learn from others and teach people about my background.” 

As a refugee from Myanmar, finding community and connection was very important for Thang. “There is shame that comes with the label of ‘refugee’ and negative connotation given the political climate,” Thang said. “When my family moved to Kentwood, we were one of four or five Chin families in the area at the time.” 

Senior and Asian Student Union officer Anh Dương-Trần has become more aware of global issues over the past year and is learning and encouraging others to be uncomfortable.  “As a young Vietnamese student, I was made fun of for not speaking English well, so I started to hide away parts of myself. I’d keep my mom from packing certain cultural foods or wearing certain clothes,” Anh said. “Now, I’ve learned to embrace my culture but still experience microaggressions from my classmates.”   

Attending a recent Asian Student Union meeting were, from left, Sylkia Lemus-Gomez, Britney Doan (in back); Angeline Tran and Jennie Huynh (third row); Vinh Tran, Danny Nguyen, Kamal Rizal, Anh Duong-Tran and Naomi Philip (second row); and Whitney Tran and Lah Moo (front left)

Moving Forward

Thang believes there is a lot of work to be done. “As a community, we are diverse but we should never be content with the status quo,” Thang said. “Learning advocacy takes time, but it’s a rewarding process.”

He added, “Our differences are not something to be ashamed of but to be celebrated,” Thang said. Inclusion is a huge thing to work towards and it cannot come with disclaimers. That includes LGBTQ Asians, disabled Asians, all people. Community has to be for everyone.”

Anh added, “If people are seeking out more information, that is huge in itself because they acknowledge the problem and want to solve them. Be patient with people who are seeking education.” 

Students recognize advocacy work is difficult and are learning how to balance their self-improvement with self-care. 

“Asian Americans are often stereotyped as studious, successful, smart — a model minority who excel in education and accomplish the ‘American Dream.’ Despite its positive overtones this stereotype is damaging for Asian Americans and other students of color.”

— USC Pacific Asia Museum

Thang acknowledged that processing emotional responses to events in the news, even with friends, can be taxing. 

“I have a very emotional response to what is going on,” Thang said. “I understand my mental capacity and know when to take breaks from social media. I also know this comes from a place of privilege because I have trigger warnings. For a lot of people who experience things first-hand, the antagonizers don’t give trigger warnings. Doing advocacy work is a marathon and not a sprint.”

Anh appreciates having a group of friends who understand her experience “We’re all really close and discuss topics like this regularly. It’s nice to be able to discuss how we feel without censoring ourselves.” 

Naomi is learning to allow herself to rest and practice daily gratitude. “Your mental health is so important. This topic has a history of being taboo in the Asian American community, but our generation is bringing those conversations to life.”

Thang echoed the importance of being open about mental health in Asian American community. 

“We’re so used to living in subservient ways and experiencing microaggressions from people in power. Gaslighting makes me second guess myself, which normalizes social constructs and the cycle we can’t get out of,” he said. “I want people to understand their feelings are valid. If you think the space you are in is unsafe to share your feelings, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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