"Cherry Blossoms Among Magnolias?": A History of the Asian American Experience at Duke

2010s and Onwards

“Looking back my time at a top-ten university [DukeI have realized I was not prepared for the hidden university curriculum that is left out of the admissions pamphlets. Coming to college, I was not prepared to deal with a white male student asking, ‘Why are there so many f-cking Asians in the library?’ I was not prepared to walk down the street and have a male shout, ‘Ni hao, baby.’ I was not prepared to have my friends shrug off these racialized experiences as me being ‘too sensitive,’ or ‘crazy.’

I had let my guard down with my mantra, with the myth that racism goes away as one climbs the ivory tower. I was not prepared for the pervasive, overt, and subtle racism that colored my university experiences. Drawn in by the laudible backgrounds of my peers and the prestige that comes with an elite university, I was not adequately prepared for the racism that was very much part of university life.”[1]

-Kristen Lee,

 Duke University, Class of 2013

Asian cultural festivals and shows like the annual Lunar New Year (LNY) show have become a regular fixtures at Duke.[2]

Groups like ASA and Diya continue to address to the administration issues facing Duke's Asian Americans.[3]

In many ways, the Duke of the mid 2010s is an extremely different institution to the heavily white, provincial institution that Carol Fong, Harsha Murthy, and even to a certain extent Christina Hsu attended years ago. Looking back at their Duke years, a number of the alumni I interviewed even confided that they would be reluctant to send their own children to Duke given their personal experiences as Asian American students here.

The Duke of 2016 is by no means a place where Asian students, just like any other students of color, can feel completely comfortable at what has traditionally been a historically white university, an institution that in many ways grapples with the remnants of institutionalized racism to this day.

However, hearing Mandarin being casually spoken in the Bryan Center, or seeing flyers being handed out for Duke’s annual Awaaz (the South Asian themed dance show), it is difficult to imagine a past Duke where Asian students were merely viewed as exotic creatures from “the land of the cherry blossoms” or a Duke where Asian students felt uncomfortable and unsafe expressing their own heritage and culture among their peers.

Yet, it is critical for the future of Duke as a leading research institution to continue to examine its past and all its complexities, a history that has always included students and faculty of Asian descent. Many times during my research, I came across entire subjects and sub-fields within the topic of Asian American history at Duke that I could not pursue given the brevity of my project. These pockets of history still remained buried in the proverbial deposits of time underneath the Duke Chapel, ancient relics entombed in the catacombs of the Gothic Wonderland waiting for some wayward Dukie to find them.

The creation of a formal Asian American Studies program and department at Duke would facilitate much needed research and dialogue by Duke undergraduates of all ethnicities on the past, present, and future issues facing the Asian American community, including Duke's.

-Alan Ko

 Duke University, Class of 2019

"A crucial question is whether the current group of advantaged minority students, faculty, and administrators at Duke and elsewhere will shoulder the leadership responsibility and the commitment to assist the struggles of their racial brethren who constitute the majority of the socioeconomic underclass in this country. This would have to be done in a backlash of conservatism and retrenchment which seems to be increasing nationwide. The jury is still out on that challenge."[6]

-Jack J. Preiss,

 Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Duke from 1959-1988

  1. Rosalind S. Chou, Kristen Lee, and Simon Ho, Asian Americans on Campus: Racialized Space and White Power (New York: Routledge, 2016), 3.
  2. Flyer, “LNY, 2002: Year of the Horse,” [2002], Box 2, Asian Student Association Records, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
  3. Duke ASA, Duke Diya, Duke AAA, Duke Asian Student Association, Duke Diya, Duke Asian American Alliance Student Demands: A Revised Call to Action Issued to the Duke Administration on January 21, 2016, (Duke University, Durham, 2016).
  4. Bridget Booher, "The Changing Face of Duke," Duke Magazine, February 11, 2014, accessed June 11, 2016, http://dukemagazine.duke.edu/article/changing-face-duke.
  5. Elizabeth Kim, "Open Letter to President Brodhead," The Chronicle, November 17, 2015, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2015/11/open-letter-to-president-brodhead.
  6. Duke University Office of the University Vice President & Vice Provost, Legacy, 1963-1993: Thirty Years of African American Students at Duke University (Durham: Duke University, 1995), 20.


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