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Some 800 miles away from where eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed in spas in the Atlanta, Georgia, area on March 16, 2021, Jin Chang observed the statements of solidarity coming from the University of Iowa regarding anti-Asian hate.
There was an open letter addressed to the university community published on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion webpage the next day. There was a statement on the Carver College of Medicine’s website.
Chang, who uses they/them pronouns, is a doctorate student at the university.
They appreciated those sentiments, Chang told the Press-Citizen.
Yet it seemed at contrast with the one folder in the archives relevant to Asians and Asian Americans at the university at the time. Chang would soon discover that one folder had only one sheet of paper inside.
Chang wanted to do a project on Asians and Asian Americans at UI as part of a history class.
“For me, there was this really large disconnect. Here I am trying to figure out a way to do this project and at the same time the university is saying, ‘Hey, we support you,’ but when I go to the place that had the university’s history, (Asians and Asian Americans) just weren’t there, and I think that this is a really telling thing,” Chang said.
About a year later, Chang has worked extensively to literally and metaphorically fill that folder.
The result is 57 interviews with Asians and Asian Americans who have ties to the university, revealing an active, robust history of Asian students organizing and encounters with racism.
‘People don’t want to hear the stories of Asian American folks in Iowa’: Connecting with past and present students
Aiden Bettine, community and student life archivist at the UI Special Collections & Archives, is very familiar with the process of conducting oral histories.
He is the director of the LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library.
Bettine was tapped to help Chang with his project. Chang worked as an intern under Bettine.
Chang quickly realized gathering physical materials related to Asian and Asian American student organizing at UI may present some challenges.
Those materials may not have survived. Their owners may not want to let them go, possibly concerned their belongings would not be cared for properly.
So Chang would have to find people.
“They have just this incredible tenacity for finding people and making connections,” Bettine said.
Twenty-four years ago, then counselor in the University Counseling Center Dau-shen Ju organized a talk titled, “Asian Americans: Am I Invisible?”
“It was the same conversation back then that it is today,” Chang said.
They determined that Asian student organizing really began around 1998, the same year as the “Am I Invisible?” presentation.
Chang researched to see who was attached to these organizations in those early years, finding them on social media and hoping they’d respond to them.
“We were actually really nervous about that at first because I didn’t frame this project as something about the Atlanta shootings or COVID, or the rise of Asian hate. I didn’t frame it as that. I thought that people wouldn’t want to talk about these things because a lot of these traumatic events have been happening back to back to back,” Chang said.
“But actually, it ended up being the opposite thing where almost everyone wanted to talk.”
Within the first three months, Chang had 30 interviews. They would have been happy with 12.
Kimberly Long was a student at UI from 2000-03.
Long was adopted in 1983 from South Korea when she was 2½ years old. She grew up in Solon.
Her first year of college, Long attended the University of Wisconsin.
College would be the first time Long would make friends who were Asian Americans. It was also when she discovered her best friend from Solon, who was white, would not always be able to understand Long’s experiences.
“I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this Asian American group here. Let’s go.’ And she went with me and she left in tears, saying, ‘Can you imagine what it was like for me being the only (non-Asian student)?’” Long recalled.
When Chang reached out to Long, she was happy to have her story be told.
She also thought no one would care, that her story would be shoved away in a corner at the university.
“It’s really been my experience that people don’t want to hear the stories of Asian American folks in Iowa,” she said.
In 2020, Long was interviewed by her then-neighbor in Seattle on the topic of transracial adoption.
Long discussed her history, from how her adoptive parents are white and how she came from a small, majority white town.
“All that I said was there was no talk of race or racism. I didn’t even know the term microaggression until college … and the vitriol from that (interview) was insane,” she said.
The experience “wrecked” Long for weeks. It was the first time she’d ever talked publicly about her experience.
Among the things she and Chang talked about were transracial adoption. Long is glad for her oral history, not only for other transracial adoptees but for their parents who may not know how to navigate the feelings and experiences children have as they come into adulthood and explore their racial identities.
“I think there are countless people who want to tell their stories, and there’s never an opportunity,” she said.
‘This isn’t the first time this has happened’: Oral history interviews reveal accounts of racism
Chang soon became a keeper of people’s stories. After connecting with alumni who went to the school around the same time, they also were able to update interviewees on whatever happened with their classmates.
Such as the president and vice president of the first Asian American Coalition — which was the first major Asian American student group at UI — who were dating at the time.
Chang was able to update people that they did get married.
As for current students in Asian organizations, Chang became a walking history book, filling in the gaps of their organizations’ history.
“In the cultural center, there’s this beautiful mural in the kitchen. And none of them knew where this mural came from. But I had talked to the people who have painted it,” Chang said. “So I was able to tell them the story of where the mural came from, and they were just like, ‘What else can you tell me about this?’”
Some of the themes Chang explored with interviewees included language spoken at home, if their family discussed race, or — for participants who came to the university from other states — what was it like coming to Iowa.
Chang found that some of the older alumni who lived in Iowa were adoptees from Korea or children of refugees from Vietnam. They had shared experiences of being called racist terms, which were still “fresh” in people’s minds from the Vietnam War.
“That kind of theme of their experiences being tied with this kind of racialization that happened because of war and imperialism was a really common thread,” Chang said.
In early April, Chang led an hourlong presentation titled “No Longer Invisible: Asian and Pacific Islander Students at the University of Iowa.”
Chang recounted some of the history of Asian student organizing on campus: Ju’s “Am I Invisible?” presentation, the creation of the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center, and a 2004 assault and hate crime involving UI students that led to a rally.
Chang included snippets of interviewees discussing their experiences: being denied service because of their race or Asian women being stalked on campus.
Chang, at the end of the presentation, and later to the Press-Citizen, shared a time they were attacked due to race.
In May 2021, a man spat on Chang’s face and threatened them. While Chang had experienced microaggressions and “smaller” forms of racism while in Iowa City, they’d never experienced something like this.
“It was, one, a reminder that this does happen here in Iowa City. But also this moment of being like, well, let’s stop for a moment and think,” Chang said. “This isn’t the first time this has happened.”
What’s next for the oral history project
Physical materials that Chang was able to gather as part of their project is being housed at the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center.
It’s through an initiative formed by Bettine called SOAR, or Student Organizations Archiving their Records. Part of Bettine’s work is to collect student organization materials.
For student organizations affiliated with an office on campus or a center like APACC, they can host their archival materials there, making it accessible to the students it concerns the most.
All oral histories, with consent from the interviewees, will be hosted online, where people can listen to them and see transcripts of the conversation. The website is being developed.
Currently, the University of Iowa Libraries website, under “news and announcements,” hosts snippets of oral history interviews and research conducted by Chang. Interview snippets include Ju, the UI counselor who created the presentation in 1998; an alumnus who attended that meeting; and a brief history on the origins of the Asian American Coalition at the university.
Links to this information are below:
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.