Arts magazine review

Forgotten no more: the Asian Americans of MIT

The Asian American experience is the sum of all Asian American experiences.

Rooted: Solitude and Solidarity
By MIT Asian American Initiative
Released Sept. 7, 2021

Overlooked. Whitewashed. Abused. Asian Americans have often been forgotten in the American fabric. With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, however, they were suddenly thrust into the national spotlight: “Coughing while Asian: living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic.” “2 New York City doormen fired after failing to intervene during brutal assault on Asian American woman.” “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias.

It is no coincidence that the onset of the pandemic marked an increasing prevalence of Asian Americans in national media. Nor should it be surprising that the term “Asian American” is frequently accompanied by the word “violence.” Asian Americans have historically been victims of imperialism, their culture subject to appropriation, and their features the object of fetishization.

At MIT, 19.7% of the student body identifies as Asian. In what way have these national events affected nearly 1 in every 5 students at MIT? MIT Asian American Initiative (AAI), a cultural club founded in 2020, asked students to respond to this question. Built around the theme of solitude and solidarity, the second volume of AAI’s 2021 zine, Rooted, features student-submitted writing, art, and photography. Though the entries “reflect our fear, anger, and grief stemming from anti-Asian racism,” many also explore the confusion of cultures the contributors grapple with today.

The zine begins with an uplifting poem, “Ascending” by Teresa Gao. A fallen bird, whom passersby take pity on, lifts its wings and flies, singing a song for itself and its victory. The bird could represent the Asian American community, forgotten but resilient, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Personally, I believe “Ascending” would have better served as the ending of the zine, but opening the collection with an optimistic passage also has its merits.

The poems “My parents visit the grocery store on their first Halloween in America” by Cindy Xie and “A Statement for the Confused” by Afeefah Khazi-Syed highlight the struggles of first and second-generation immigrants and their dual identities — the native with the new and the native with the native itself. On the other end of the spectrum, “Fermented Soybeans: the gateway to cultural acceptance” by Alisa Hathaway celebrates the writer’s reconciliation of her identity later in her life.

The joys of memory are explored in “As Thin as Smoke” by Fiona Duong, a short story about the author’s first memory of Vietnam. The ever-burning incense in her grandparents’ house will always remind her of the country. “The Walls I Knew” by Emily Huang and “Resonant When Struck” by Felix Li also center on childhood objects. The walls of a childhood room and the porcelain of family dinners are celebrated for their silent strength.

In addition to cultural identity, some of the pieces in Rooted highlight the mental struggles during quarantine. Interwoven in the zine are anonymous journal entries reflecting on a long-distance relationship begun right before MIT kicked its students off campus in March 2020 (“quaranTEEN love story”). Throughout quarantine, the author realizes that perhaps their feelings towards the other person in the relationship were not what they originally imagined were. This theme of gaining clarity through time and separation is prominent throughout the zine as many contributors cogitated on the nature of their lives and their surroundings during the virtual semesters.

My personal favorite is a series of illustrations, “Reverie of a Drink of Three” by Yiou Wang. The first two images depict two shadows running towards each other. When the shadows meet, a man stands between them. The shadows, then, belong to a single man. It then becomes clear that the shadows themselves were not running — the man was. As he ran to chase his shadows, representations of who he was, the intersecting walls ahead of him forced him to stop and recognize both sides of himself. The work ends with the line, “two who crave to meet, finally meet.” The message of this piece can be interpreted as follows: everyone is the sum of all their identities. I also appreciated the title’s clever reference to an eighth-century Chinese poem, “月下獨酌” (“Drinking Alone Under the Moon”), which includes the lines, “舉杯邀明月,對影成三人。” (“Raising my cup, I invite the bright moon / and turn to my shadow. We are now three.”)

Rooted: Solitude and Solitary is a thought-provoking look into the lives of my peers who have grown up sideways, Asian at home but American outside. The scars and joys of language (“Do You Speak English?” and “Bastardized Tamil” by Neosha Narayanan), the duality of identity (“Between the Shores” by Kathryn Tso and “Learn How to Use Procreate for only $9.99” by Alana Chandler), and the immigrant experience are only a fraction of the themes explored in Rooted. The only constant between the works is that there is no constant. The Asian American experience is the sum of Asian American experiences.