Orange box reading:
History Forum: Stories (Yet) to be told

Archival Matters: The History of Asians and Asian Studies at Davidson
Image courtesy Stories (Yet) to Be Told Instagram.

Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer

“Oral history gives us a different perspective of looking at [the past]; it relies on remembering and then narrating memory as an active process,” said Yashita Kandhari ‘22 in her presentation with Ashley Ip ‘22 and Dr. Sarah Waheed, Assistant Professor of History. On Thursday, April 22nd, they presented at a History Forum, showcasing their research funded by a  Stories (Yet) To Be Told grant. Their project, entitled Archival Matters: The History of Asians and Asian Americans at Davidson, works to expand student voices within the Davidson Archives by conducting oral histories with alumni and faculty in order to construct an oral narrative of Asian and Asian American experiences over the course of Davidson’s history.

Their presentation began with Dr. Waheed defining “Asia” and “Asian.” She also discussed what it meant to build an archive. She referred to a quote by David Ludden in “Nameless Asia and Territorial Angst” (2003) which states that America’s Asia often refers to China and Japan, while European Asian studies focus more on South Asia. She concludes by stating that while being Asian encompasses a broad range of experiences, it is important to not lump everyone into a monolithic category, as historical research especially demands that we consider time and place specifics.

Ip and Kandhari’s motivation to begin this project was borne out of their experiences as Asians on Davidson’s campus along with a desire to learn about who came before them. Kandhari says that although she came to Davidson because it was recommended to her by another Asian international student from her city, she “didn’t have any vocabulary or understanding of what it has meant to be South Asian, or Asian, or international, or Asian American at Davidson over the years.” Kandhari had also worked on the Justice, Equality, and Community Archives Advisory Council with Jessica Cottle, who has focused on bringing in different perspectives into the Archives, particularly student viewpoints. 

With the belief that the way in which people remember events and experiences provides an important but often forgotten perspective that enriches historical narratives, Ip and Kandhari set out to interview Asian and Asian American alumni. They began in the Archives, which gave them a list of names but did not provide further information. They emphasized how useful the Alumni Office was in providing contact information, particularly Yolanda Gilliam. 

After coming into contact with alumni, Ip and Kandhari began forming their questions. When talking about the process, Ip remembers, “Yashita and I sat down and really thought about what we wanted to hear from them, what would invoke memories, and most of all, we just want to hear their experiences on Davidson’s campus as Asian or as Asian American students.” In total, the pair collected 26 oral histories spanning over 60 years. 

While the American historical curricula have typically focused on China and Japan, Davidson has historically concentrated on South Asian studies. According to Dr. Bill Mahony, a professor of religion with a concentration in Hinduism, the first non-Western focused department at Davidson was South Asian Studies, because they did not have the resources to include everything. In the late 70s, faculty changed the graduation requirement “so that all students had to take something in non-Western culture, and India was the focus of that.” 

The historical oral narrative that Ip and Kandhari have constructed begins in the 1940s with the story of Dr. Jimmy Jung ‘49, who described his Davidson experience as being a great one. He was very prominent on the wrestling team, rarely losing a match. He was nicknamed “The Dragon,” which started in high school when a movie called Dragonseed came out; as Kandhari notes, “This is a prejudiced slur, because he was the only non-white person at his school.” The nickname carried onto Davidson’s campus as some of his classmates from high school attended Davidson with him. He graduated in 1949 with a major in physics, and went on to get both a Master’s in Education and PhD in Chemistry from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

They progress onto the 1980s, where they interviewed Cheryl O’Malley ‘87, who discussed a lack of Asian community on Davidson’s campus in his time on campus. O’Malley states, “It was almost like ‘we don’t do the Asian thing here’. And I just took that as okay, we […] want to assimilate.” They also contacted Dr. Beadsie Woo ‘86, who was the first woman to serve as SGA president and is currently on the Board of Trustees. She discussed how for “those of us who weren’t Black or white […] we had to just sort of pick where we would land and do the best we could.” South Asians were also prominent on campus, as 1989 there were 24 international students from India alone. Many participated in the staging of the Bengali drama The Procession, including Dipankar Mukherjee ‘89. 

In the 90’s, Kandhari says that she and Ip noticed that “people were becoming more aware of diversity and inclusion […] and their expectations of Davidson also changed in those stories.” One such example is the perspective of an anonymous interviewee from the early ‘90s, who felt that “Davidson dropped the ball on [offering Asian American Studies] classes at a liberal arts school.” Another anonymous interviewee from the late ‘90s spoke about having to challenge another student’s defense of Japanese internment because the professor failed to address it and experienced racism for not being Christian. In the ‘90s, there was also a huge growth in international studies with the addition of Asian studies as a concentration. 

The next expansion of Asian studies was during the presidency of Tom Ross (2007-2011), when separate East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Studies programs were created. However, Asian American studies was still missing from the formal curriculum, so Helen Mun ‘18 and Tian Yi ‘18 pushed for Asian American studies as part of the Expectasian group, a student group for Asian American studies. Although the group had a lot of momentum, Davidson decided not to hire any faculty for Asian American studies because they thought that there wasn’t enough student support. 

Kandhari emphasized the unfair burden on students of color to advocate for themselves and to constantly push for progress. She believes that although “everyone has said that they were able to find community at Davidson […] with everyone being grouped into this Asian bubble, there’s historically been tensions, because it’s impossible to have one specific resource or organization that can accommodate all the identities.” 

Ip discussed the ever-present question: where do we go from here? According to her, one place that we can start is acknowledging the invisible work that is done by students and faculty of color. She concludes with a wish for the Davidson community: “I think it’s more important than ever for the Davidson administration to start supporting the Asian American Initiative. I hope after today, people really know the importance of telling these stories and histories.”