Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Students Reflect On ECAASU 2018

Students at East Coast Asian-American Student Union Conference on March 3rd, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Wang '21

Students at East Coast Asian-American Student Union Conference on March 3rd, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Wang '21

On March 3rd, 2018, a nor’easter tore through Swarthmore, rendering students without power and knocking down trees all around campus. One hundred miles away, two vans of Asian American students from the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO) and Bryn Mawr were headed to ECAASU, the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference at Cornell University. The conference itself was making changes to its schedule, cancelling the opening ceremony when few students could make it on time and working with speakers unable to reach Cornell.

ECAASU began as the Intercollegiate Liaison Committee at Yale University in 1977 and became the East Coast Asian Student Union in 1978. Twenty-seven years later, in 2004, the conference was renamed to what it is today. Since then, it has continued to grow, forming a National Board and engaging in various outreach programs beyond the annual conference.

Joy Li,  Living as an Asian Girl , 2016, one of the pieces discussed at the workshop “Critical Nostalgia: Heritage and Asian Artists in the North American Diaspora.”

Joy Li, Living as an Asian Girl, 2016, one of the pieces discussed at the workshop “Critical Nostalgia: Heritage and Asian Artists in the North American Diaspora.”

SAO most recently attended ECAASU two years ago, which was hosted at Rutgers University. For many of the upperclassmen, this was their second time at the conference, but that did not diminish their experience. On the contrary, for Lesia Liao ‘18, her involvement with Asian American issues since their first time at ECAASU only made the conference more meaningful.

“This is the second time I've been to ECAASU, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to explore and learn more about my Asian American identity in various contexts. Reflecting back on where I was a few years ago, I've learned so much about AAPI history from SAO and personal researching. Going to ECAASU energizes me and gives me hope for the organization of an Asian American Studies program and Ethnic Studies program at Swarthmore.”

This year, students arrived around 10:00 PM, nearly seven hours after they left Swarthmore. They settled in for the night, prepared to have a busy day of workshops and networking before they headed back to Swarthmore. Though a dinner and closing ceremony would be later that night, due to hotel costs, they were unable to stay another night and drive home on Sunday.

Even with these constraints, ECAASU allowed students to reflect on their Asian American identities and learn about the issues facing students at other schools. “This conference made me aware of how Asian Americans are in this limbo of privilege and oppression. Instead of being ashamed of my culture in order to become Americanized, I want to embrace it and become more immersed in it,” said Elena Do ‘20.

The day began with a conference kick-off, where Yamatai, Cornell’s taiko drumming group performed two energizing pieces. Raymond Partolan, a Filipino-American immigration paralegal and activist, then shared his own story about growing up Asian in America. Partolan was brought to the United States illegally as a child and is now one of the many people affected by the U.S. government’s actions on DACA.

“I think the [morning kick off] was the most memorable part of the conference. It really impacted me and made me realize my privilege in a regard to my citizenship,” remarked Do. After the kick off, workshops looked to expand attendees’ understanding of their privileges, identities, and expressions of these identities. The conferences included dozens of workshops such as “Yolk Inside an Eggshell: Asian Imagery in Western Media,” “Anti-Blackness in a Blasian Context,” and “LGBTQQIA+ Healing Space,” all centered around the way Asian Americans interact with their daily environment.

One workshop discussing Asian artists in the context of the North American diaspora especially resonated with many participants. In the workshop, Florence Yee, a Cantonese-Canadian artist discussed various works by Asian artists and shared a few pieces of her own. “I have never really engaged with art from the North American Asian diaspora before so it was really neat when the artist uplifted various pieces of work by others and shared her own experiences in both the production and display of art,” said Sonya Chen ‘18.

Liao had an even deeper connection to the topic of the workshop. “I'm currently doing ethnographic research with Professor [Lei Ouyang] Bryant on how music shapes and is shaped by the Asian American identity, so it was amazing to talk to another Asian North American artist about how she sees herself in her work and how her art affects her identity.”

In the afternoon, ECAASU held a networking fair for attendees to engage with various Asian American organizations in addition to a caucusing session for students to share experiences and knowledge. In one caucus of leaders of Asian American affinity groups on college campuses, students discussed the challenges of implementing Asian American Studies programs, something SAO has also struggled with for many years.

Right after caucusing, the Tri-Co students headed back towards home, this time with much less snow and much less traffic. Still, many wished they had been able to experience the conference in its entirety. “I wish they could have dug deeper into the discussions and we could have stayed for the whole conference instead of leaving early,” lamented Do. Nevertheless, she felt the trip was worthwhile, and as a sophomore, she hopes to be able to attend another ECAASU in the future.

“I think the conference was also a good bonding experience amongst the Swarthmore attendees who went, especially with the long drives there and back through the storm!” Chen quipped. “This was my second ECAASU conference and I do think it's valuable to go. ECAASU provides the space to engage with various aspects of the Asian-American experience—and there are not many spaces like that.”