Asian American studies at UCLA, born out of the struggles for civil rights and ethnic studies in the 1960s and 70s, continues to grow and evolve.
Professors like Jolie Chea and Loubna Qutami, who have joined the Asian American studies department and center in recent years, better reflect the diverse communities under the field’s expansive umbrella. Chea, whose family came to the United States from Cambodia as refugees, and Qutami, who is Palestinian and Arab American bring histories, research and perspectives that are not often brought to the forefront.
To help honor AANHPI Heritage Month, the professors shared their thoughts about the meaning and importance of Asian American studies and pushing back against invisibility.
What does Asian American studies mean to you? What should more people know about it?
Jolie Chea: I have gotten the question, “What can I do with an Asian American Studies major?” from students enough times to understand there is genuine gratitude and curiosity behind it. Some students struggle with seeing the value and utility of the major even as they acknowledge that these courses were one of few places in their academic experience where they felt seen and heard and where the things they do and say can have real social and political impact on the world.
That’s what the broader field of ethnic studies has been for me. I don’t believe it’s my job to persuade anyone to take the major or to provide a list of possible careers with the major. I always say: “You can do anything you want with it — as long as you do it. I did.”
Loubna Qutami: Asian American studies as a field has offered me and many other Arab and Arab American studies scholars an institutional home in the absence of Arab American studies departments. I think of that inclusion as an act of providing refuge to Palestinian and Arab American studies and scholars when our narratives are constantly under attack or erased.
Concepts of refuge have long appeared in the Asian American studies intellectual tradition, in large part caused by a long history of war that has displaced many Asian communities and the estrangement and alienation they have endured while making new homes here.
Accounting for those histories and how they continue to inform not only Asian American intellectual production but academic praxis, I think of the department here as an intellectual, political and familial form of home as well.
As you’ve grown as scholars and teachers, how have you helped your students navigate the classroom and the university? Do you ever see yourself in your students?
Qutami: Arab American students usually arrive with a deep thirst to learn about their histories, countries, societies and heritage. This is in part because they are denied the right to engage these topics in other classrooms that constantly treat Arab Americans as a footnote to U.S. foreign policy. Even as their desires place pressure to give as much access and space to these histories in the span of 10 weeks, I don’t find the challenge of teaching difficult.
I follow a cultural wealth philosophy in my teaching pedagogy where their lived experiences are treated as relevant knowledge. The classroom is about providing context, background and a vocabulary to what many of my Arab students already know but that they struggle to articulate in a way compelling enough to their peers.
They make sense of gaps and absences in their own lives, their family histories, feelings they have long held, and the sorrow and anger that they have growing up in a post-9/11 United States. Their learning journeys become very personal and sometimes emotional. The lessons learned, however, are usually things they have always known to be true.
Chea: My parents worked 12-to-15-hour days, and my sister and I spent a lot of time outside in the city. The circumstances of my life meant I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on my studies, extracurricular activities or building my high school resume. As a young person I got into my share of trouble and if anything, those experiences have turned into wisdoms and provided invaluable perspectives.
It is not unusual to meet students who are understandably concerned with maintaining the highest grade point possible and stacking their resumes with accolades. It is also not unusual to learn this is not something they would have chosen for themselves.
While I admittedly have thought about all the versions of myself I could have become if circumstances had been a bit different, I quickly remember that my path brought me into higher education after all — from a first-generation and working-class college student to faculty member — because I eventually found my passion and a sense of purpose in the research and teaching that I do, and I have pursued it in a way that felt good, right and true to me. And in that case, I wonder if students see themselves in me.
The experiences of different communities can often be obscured under the larger banner of “Asian American” and even within Asian American studies. How do communities push back against structural invisibility or when they are left out of the conversation regarding certain issues?
Qutami: Arab Americans have learned how to use even the most unsuspecting of tools and spaces to address structural invisibility and their criminalization. But we have also relied on important values in our tradition, including oral history, to maintain our identities, cultural practices and political practices of freedom and justice — even in diaspora.
Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have also extended a lot of support to us to fight back against structural exclusion and invisibility. For instance, while my being hired in Asian American studies represents new trajectories of how the field configures its geography and diasporas, it also represents a commitment to offering refuge to communities and scholars who are constantly under attack and denied an institutional home in the academy.
Chea: The reality of the banner is that it is politically expedient and useful. I would be remiss if I said Southeast Asian refugee communities were the only group whose experiences are obscured. We all take shelter here in different ways and to varying degrees. Without being dismissive of the isolation and the psychological wage of not seeing your experiences and heritage reflected or taken seriously, one of the things people can do when they’re left out of the conversation is to speak up, talk back, or start “conversations” of their own.
I don’t have concrete or prescriptive answers for how communities can push back, and perhaps we won’t know until we put our heads together, but I do think we have to be creative and consistent, fierce if we must and flamboyant as we want.
There are endless lessons to draw on from history if we look for them — and numerous connections to be made, bridges to be built and directions to take — so long as we are open to them.