This weekend, Duke will host the annual Triangle Area Asian American Student Conference. The conference, called TAASCON, is a platform meant to bring individuals together from all over North Carolina to address issues surrounding the Asian American community through a series of keynote speakers and workshops. It is also an open educational space for people to explore and learn more about their identity, history and the politics behind Asian American advocacy.
Founded in 2011, TAASCON is a joint effort between Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University to raise awareness of Asian American issues, create a space for Asian American students to comfortably discuss their experiences and concerns and cultivate a supportive community. Platforms like TAASCON are especially important in the South, where there is sometimes a great disparity between the Asian American population and the amount of resources available for them to self-explore and self-reconcile.
“I think the fact that TAASCON focuses specifically within the localized area, the Triangle area, is super important because that’s even more important than just focusing on the Asian American experience,” said junior Helen Yang, co-director of TAASCON 2018. “The Asian American experience isn’t this giant umbrella that applies to everybody, but once you start to narrow it down and think about from a local level, you’re able to explore issues with more nuance.”
Born in South Carolina, Yang moved back to China when she was nine months old and lived there for six years before moving back to the United States and living in Georgia. Torn between her Chinese and American identities, she said she used to constantly feel the pressure to have to choose one of the two labels while navigating an environment where she encountered few people of color.
“Because I was the one Asian person in a lot of the spaces that I occupied, I always just thought of myself as, like, ‘Chinese.’ I never thought of myself as American,” Yang said. “And it wasn’t really until high school, and very late in high school, that I started to think about [how] I’m actually not Chinese. ... So for me, it was just this idea of, ‘How can I give myself an identity to follow?’”
By meeting new people at Duke and figuring out how to introduce and present herself, she was prompted to delve deeper into her own history and think more critically about what aspects of her identity were most important to her. She also stumbled upon useful vocabulary — such as “Asian American,” “diaspora” and “intergenerational trauma” — to verbalize the unique experience of being an Asian American, as well as connecting her personal story to and differentiating it from the greater Asian American narrative.
However, when discussing Asian American activism, Yang noted it was important to recognize that the discourse should encompass more than just East Asians like Chinese, Korean and Japanese people. Besides examining the oppression imposed upon the Asian American community, the conference will also talk about the privileges Asian Americans enjoy and the oppression they impose upon other groups.
“Because [of] how people think about the Asian American movement as only for East Asians, you have this perception that Asian Americans are doing very well in the United States. So then you don’t think to disaggregate the data and think about, ‘Oh, let’s talk about how Hmong Americans are one of the poorest ethnic groups living in America,’’’ Yang said. “Once you start to break down the layers, then you realize these things aren’t getting paid attention to at all.”
This year’s TAASCON will center around the theme of “Resisting, Reclaiming, Reconciling,” which stresses the Asian American experience as non-linear and ever-evolving. The use of the gerund versions of these verbs was intentional, emphasizing that these are ongoing processes. The absence of “and” between the second and the last words also suggests that these self-exploring processes are intertwined and repeated instead of following a strict chronology.
Even within the Asian American community itself, everyone comes from diverse pathways and stand in different phases in crafting a unique identity. Some resist their “Asian-ness” by avoiding speaking their ethnic language in public; some experience difficulty coming to terms with their family, background or heritage; others decide to enter the “Reclaiming” stage by cultivating a sense of pride and appreciation of their culture.
“We’re trying to make it as inclusive as possible,” Yang said. “Because we want to validate the fact that everybody who feels that they’re part of the Asian American community is part of the Asian American community.”
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