My Life as an Asian Tourist
Friday, March 28, 2014
By Joyce Guo - Staff Reporter
Web design by Jason Kim, Qingyang Chen and Soham Sankaran

en Dao, a middle-aged man from the southern part of China, has been complaining to me about America for the last half hour of our eight-hour bus ride. “It’s too cold” he says. “It’s too expensive, and the trees all look the same.”

This is Dao’s first time in America, and far from the glittering allure the country once held for Chinese immigrants like my own parents in the 1990s, Wen is quite jaded with the whole thing. As one of only three American citizens on the bus, I listened to his complaints and felt an inexplicable need to assure him that America was better than his impression, which led to such promises on my part as, “Oh that’s true, but it’s definitely something we’re working on.”

This is how I spent my spring break: on a tour bus filled with 50 other people, most of whom were from East Asia, visiting America’s elite universities.

I went on this tour bus to see for myself whether the stories and comments that I hear about Asian tourists on campus are true. And I went because as an Asian American student at Yale, I felt that the campus expressed an attitude towards this group of people that was disproportionately negative. We seem to have a disdain towards Asian tourists that, on a deeper level, resonated with a cookie-cutter image of what it means to be an Asian American within these institutions. In the era of Tiger Mom, we feel qualified to disapprove of immigrant parents who bring their barely-school-aged children onto a college campus. This style of tourism is always preceded by a modifier — we are almost never referring to tourists alone. They must be “Asian” tourists.

“Asian tourists were clogging up the sidewalks,” I’ve heard students remark.

Or, as someone commented on a walk up Science Hill: “Asian tourists don’t understand how to open the gates in Branford — when one of them gets confused, they all amass into a confused crowd.“

When are these comments harmless observations, and when do they start to negatively affect Asian Americans within the Ivy League as a whole? For some students, seemingly innocuous claims about “Asian tourists” can spill over into perpetuating a stereotype about any Asian, even Asian-Americans, who want to be a part of elite institutions like Yale.

Kimberly Guo ’17, a board member of the Chinese American Students Association of Yale, spoke about her fear of being grouped with the Asian tours her peers often made plans to “troll.”

“There’s the stereotype that all Asians look alike,” Guo said. “Sometimes I have a fear of being mistaken for a tourist if I’m not carrying my backpack.”

Four other Asian American students interviewed agreed: They dread that the culture of disdain towards Asian tourists might be linked to their own identity struggles as Asian Americans in the Ivy League.

“There’s the stereotype that all Asians look alike. Sometimes I have a fear of being mistaken for a tourist if I’m not carrying my backpack.”

Kimberly Guo '17

Eyes on ivy. Taken at Princeton.

The Anti-Hook

hat first comes to mind when we think of Asian tourists? Ashley Greaves ’16 described them as “usually in a large group.” Jordan Lee ’17 added that “they take a lot of pictures.”

Having travelled more than 200 miles and across five states with such a group, I must admit that despite all the misconceptions, these characterizations were the two that seemed to hold true.

The tourists in my group took a lot of pictures. At Princeton, I noticed an elderly Cantonese women, about 5’4” in height, using a pink iPad to take selfies of herself in front of different buildings. Still, there was a method behind this madness: In a way, the structure of these tours makes copious photo-taking inevitable. With less than 15 minutes at some notable sites, even I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of a slew of buildings along the way, even when they were of questionable renown. And with all this to think about, I still had to find time for a bathroom break before the next eight-hour stretch.

The size of the tour — 50 people in my case — has more interesting implications. According to our tour guide Lingling Hu, companies keep the groups relatively large in order to maximize profits. From the look of it, business is booming: Every seat on our charter bus was filled. While the bus also made stops at other East Coast landmarks, an undeniable reason for this interest is the visitors’ fascination for the American higher education system.

The demand among East Asians for an American education has grown increasingly over the years. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese international students studying in America grew from roughly 60,000 in 2006 to 200,000 in 2012. But the reasons behind the popularity of tours like the one I was on are more complicated than simply the reputation of elite American schools.

I met Beijing native Lilly Wang as we were departing from the Lincoln Memorial. She was on the bus with her daughter Nelly, a high school sophomore. While Wang acknowledged that she was attracted to the schools because “American colleges are world-famous,” her desire for her daughter to enroll in one of them extends beyond an attraction to their prestige. For Wang, who attended Peking University in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, an American education represents freedom.

During Wang’s time studying at China’s number one-ranked college, fear of unrest had caused the capital to be placed under martial law, and the university’s administration enforced a complete shut-down of free speech amongst the student body.

Wang remembers being scared to speak. She listened to her professors and did not dare to argue against their teachings. There was little dialogue between her and her classmates, and any discussion of politics was completely off limits.

“In China,” Wang recalled, “you learned, did your research and did your homework. In America, you get to do so much more.”

Wang is not alone in wanting this sort of education for her daughter. On the trip were two other families with their kids, both of whom told me they were on this tour to look at schools for similar reasons. Even a retired couple, Baoming Wu and Li Chen, were on the tour because they were interested in learning about American universities “so the next generation can benefit from [their] knowledge.”

This interest is mirrored in America’s Asian population. In the New York Times Opinion Pages last December, writer Ron Unz estimated that America’s college-age Asian population has roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011. Yet numbers among the Asian population at elite institutions have remained relatively stagnant, inciting media speculation about “Asian quotas” at Yale and its peer institutions.

Unz noted that while “top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of ‘Asian quotas,’” the numbers suggest that admissions for Asian students (both domestic and international) has been capped at around 16.5 percent of the overall undergraduate population since around 1993. For this reason, Asian ethnicity is often referred to as an ‘anti-hook’ (whereas a ‘hook’ is a marked asset to an applicant’s profile).

The potential existence of these quotas has been likened to the Ivy League Jewish quotas of the 1920s, which were also denied at the time. According to research conducted by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade GRD ’66, Asian applicants experience a disadvantage of roughly 140 SAT points in the admissions process. From a statistical standpoint, on average Asian American applicants would have to have SAT scores 140 points higher than white students (everything else being equal) to have the same chance of being admitted, he told the News.

Espenshade added the caveat that he does not have access to all the variables to which an admissions dean has access. As a result, his research is unable to account for softer variables like teacher recommendations or student personal statements.

“So we stopped short of saying that this is evidence of discrimination against Asian students and refer to it as a disadvantage or penalty,” he elaborated.

He said one way Yale could eliminate current speculation is through releasing its applicant pool data, which have not been available to the public for the last 20 years.

But this is a tricky topic that is hard to parse out fairly. When I spoke to Yale Admissions Officer Jonathan Martin ’12 on the matter, he reassured me that “There has been a lot in the media about a perception of an anti-Asian bias, but we do not have a bias here. All of our admission practices are in line with Supreme Court decisions that have been made.”

And it seems like a lot of students believe him, or at least believe that the complexity of the process makes it difficult to determine whether discrimination occurs, especially since if it’s important for Yale to be a diverse community.

Guo, who was part of a small Asian minority in her high school, said she never felt that her ethnicity negatively affected her application.

But others, such as Asian American Studies Task Force coordinator Austin Long ’15, think that there are still discussions to be had, especially if the numbers indicate a bias.

“I think it’s necessary for institutions to have diversity, but then it’s also important to give people who have reached a level of success a chance to continue on that success,” he said, adding that the entire process should be more open and honest.

On the flip side, Hu pointed out that China has one of the most transparent college admissions processes in the world. For the most part, a student’s college acceptance is based entirely on a single test score. Yet the number of Chinese students coming to study in America is much greater — about 215,000 students greater, according to the Wall Street Journal — than the amount of American students studying in China.

Click on an image for more information.

Lilly Wang is a graduate of Peking University, the number one ranked college in China. She attended the University in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when martial law was enforced on the country’s capital in order to suppress the growing number of student protests. The nervous atmosphere in Beijing led the school’s administration to a total shut down of free speech among the student body. Lilly was forbidden from arguing against professors if she disagreed with their teachings, and she wasn’t allowed to discuss subjects such as politics with other students. Despite the prestige that Peking University carries, Lilly hopes that her daughter will attend an American college. She went on this tour because she wants her daughter to be educated in an environment that encourages free speech and creativity, something she never received in her own education. “In China” Lilly explained, “you learned, did your research, and did your homework. In America, you get to do so much more.”

Husband and wife, Baoming Wu and Li Chen, are from Tianjin, China. They came on this tour because they wanted to see America, a country they had never visited before. When I asked them about their impressions of America thus far, they told me, “it’s too cold and everything is too expensive.” When I asked them what they thought of Princeton, they described the school as “amazing.” No one in their family, themselves included, has ever gone to college, and after seeing Princeton University they were impressed with the school even though they were rather disappointed with America as a whole. What they loved about the college was the beautiful architecture and the students they saw on campus, who all seemed very polite and well-mannered. They were especially impressed when one of the students greeted them as they walked by. In China, they explained, students at top-tier universities don’t usually take the time to acknowledge tourists.

Li Tang is in America as a visiting scholar at Oakland University in Detroit. She came on this tour with her son because she hopes that seeing these great American Universities will inspire him to set goals for his future. She wants the trip to motivate him to study harder so that he has the chance to oneday study in America. “If a student can study at one of these schools and have access to these resources, I’m sure that they will be very lucky in life” she said after the visit to Princeton. Despite China’s rapid development, Li still believes that American universities offer more resources for students. The technology alone, she explained, is much more advanced on American campuses than it is on Chinese ones. Li will return to China with her son after her visa expires, but if she gets the chance, she will send her son back to the States for college.

Phoebe June, Lisa Ying, Julie Li and Sisi Zhang are studying abroad in America for their Master’s degree at Fordham University in New York. They all plan to return to China following graduation because of the greater job opportunities back home. The Ivy League, they tell me, is famous in China. They often hear it mentioned on television and in other news outlets. They view American universities as schools where students get to choose to study what they are interested in. In China, Phoebe said, most people select their majors based on prospective job opportunities or starting salaries. Even within their majors, students have little freedom in their course selection. While they enjoyed the tour, all the girls said they wished they could have gotten to see more of the student life. They wanted to know how students in the Ivy League felt, how they studied and not just what the buildings on campus looked like.

Lingling Hu is a tour guide with LL Travel, a tour company that caters mostly to Chinese clientele. A lot of the people in her tour groups, she said, are Chinese students looking at American colleges. These tours often act as a starting point for students to gauge their own interests and to begin the lengthy process of applying to schools abroad. During the summer months, the tour company’s busiest season, Lingling gives one of these tours every weekend. Lingling, who is originally from the northern part of China, studied abroad herself for her master’s degree in international relations. She hopes to run a tour company of her own one day.

Jiaojiao Tan is a college student originally from Shanghai who is currently studying English in New York. In her opinion, the main difference between American universities and Chinese universities is that students in America want to study —students in China are merely forced to do so. She plans to eventually go back to Shanghai to find a job, as she views the American job market as too competitive.

Husband and wife, Han Yi and Bi Ma, are on this tour because they wanted to become acquainted with American culture and the American college system. Though they are both from Beijing, Han received his Bachelor’s degree in New Zealand and Bi studied for her Master’s in finance in France. They have a young daughter back home in China, and looking at schools now is a way that they can familiarize themselves with the American education system before it’s time for their daughter to apply to schools. However, both Han and Bi said when the time comes, they will ultimately allow their daughter to decide where she wants to go to school. Though a lot of their friends have begun sending their young children to boarding schools in America, Bi said she wants her daughter to know her culture and her heritage before she begins to study abroad. “I want her to grow up in China because she’s Chinese,” Bi said.

Beijing native Wen Liang is here in America on a business trip for Citibank. She went to college in Shanghai, but she told me that she would have studied in America if she could have afforded the tuition. For her, American colleges are the setting of creative student exchanges and inventions. While on the Harvard’s campus, she pointed out the buildings that she recognized from the 2010 movie The Social Network.

Firdai Fernan, who is originally from Indonesia, is currently studying at Columbia University for a master’s in International Relations. For him, touring the colleges is an integral part of seeing and understanding America. In Indonesia, he said, the Ivy League is very famous. After visiting some of the campuses, he was especially impressed with the architecture of the schools and each college’s distinct style.

Yang Qin is originally from Beijing and is a graduate of Peking University. She is currently studying for a law degree at Fordham University, and plans to go back to China after earning her New York Bar Certification. She likes American colleges because unlike Peking University, she said, there isn’t a wall surrounding the campuses. Peking’s Wall is symbolic, she said, because the college is meant to be an enclosed and protected place, while American colleges are more open and free.

Everything can change in an MIT 15-minute.

No Entry

t Harvard, the tour bus parked for about half an hour while we looked at Harvard Yard and heard the story of John Harvard’s statue, known as the “statue of three lies.” As it turns out, there is a fourth lie about how pristine the bronze figure truly is. In a scene familiar to most Yale students, I winced as the tourists in my group lined up one by one to rub the statue’s urine-stained foot for luck.

Our visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was even briefer. While the company had advertised the school tour as an all-day activity, our stay lasted just 15 minutes — enough time to take photos of the student center on Massachusetts Avenue.

The tour guide informed me that while they used to stop in one of the cafeterias to eat, on one trip they were asked to leave and told by a member of the administration that “this was a school, not a tourist attraction.” Since at this point I now considered myself a tried and true Asian tourist, I became quite indignant at MIT for blocking our entrance. My fellow trip-goers, however, accepted the restriction without comment.

“We know that these schools are for learning, and we want to do whatever we can to be respectful of the students,” tour guide Hu explained when I voiced my distaste.

I later called the visitor center of MIT and asked them about the tour being barred from entry to the cafeteria, but Manager of the MIT Events and Information Center Joe Coen assured me that MIT had no such policy and that it was welcoming to all tour groups. He sounded alarmed that someone had taken it upon themselves to remove a tour group, asserting that such an action in no way represented the views of the administration.

But such interventions, or at least overt avoidance, are far from rare. Several Yale students interviewed admitted that when they saw an approaching Asian tour group, their first instinct was to turn the other way.

Model Minorities

hy do we choose to make fun of a group of people that, with good reason, desires to learn more about the institutions that we have come to call home?

It is possible that we are comfortable with these jests, which more often than not identify the ethnicity of the recipients, because most of American society does not consider “Asians” to be oppressed in the same way that other visible minorities may be.

American Studies Professor Mary Lui, who teaches Yale’s only Asian American history course, attributes many of the attitudes towards Asian assimilation into American culture to the model minority myth, in which Asians are viewed as the group who will naturally overcome any obstacle. This myth is perpetuated through several different factors, including the lack of an Asian presence in popular media, said Lui. When an Asian character is on screen at all, it is usually as a heavily stereotyped sidekick or background character without a fully fleshed out story. What ensues is a false entitlement to ridicule a group because of the belief that the group is not truly marginalized.

“I think it’s very difficult,” Lui said, “for many people to think of Asian Americans as somehow an oppressed minority group because it seems very extreme, given that we see these images of Asian American success all around us.”

Lui said the model minority narrative portrays Asian Americans as a group of peoples who work hard and, as a result, “opportunities just fall into their laps.”

“More often than not, that is not a very satisfactory narrative,” she continued. “It obfuscates so much of politics or economics that people just don’t really bother to work through.”

With a dearth of classes being offered on Asian American histories, dispelling the myth is difficult. But students are working to change the dialogue.

John Tam ’15 and Long, coordinators of the Asian American Studies Task Force, explained that the task force is comprised of students interested in hosting a conference on Asian American studies at Yale next year. It is their hope that the event will encourage the University administration to increase the school’s number of Asian American Studies courses and hires.

"We stopped short of saying that this is evidence of discrimination against Asian students and refer to it as a disadvantage or penalty."

Thomas Espenshade GRD '66, sociologist at Princeton University

John Harvard, the "statue of three lies." Or four?

“Too Asian”

he tour bus was host to a range of colorful personalities. An elderly man behind me suffered from car sickness and spent a good part of the trip throwing up into a black trash bag. The two women sitting across from me were part of the same Christian church in China and read bible verses out loud from New York to Rhode Island. In Boston, we lost two members of our group only to discover that they had boarded the wrong tour bus.

But beyond all the eclectic experiences, I observed that none of the tourists were ridiculously obsessed with the schools — none of them were planning to fervently push their kids to apply to the Ivy League. They were just people who wanted more information about a renowned institution — a place where, despite their good intentions, they are often the butt of a joke.

Long thinks it is important to question our attitude towards these visitors.

“We think that when we make fun of Asian tourists we are making fun of an isolated group,” Long said. “But where do we draw the line between Asian tourists who want to be a part of Yale and ethnically-Asian Yale students and their families who at one point also wanted themselves and their children to be a part of this community?”

Most of the travelers I spoke to were attracted to the tour because either they or their family members were interested in attending one of the American universities. At Yale, some current students also recalled taking part of these tour groups before college.

Paolo Roxas ’17, an international student from the Philippines, has gone on one of these tours. Now, he said seeing the tourists on campus makes him feel grateful for the resources we have access to at Yale.

This feeling of appreciation, however, is rarely our first reaction to seeing Asian tourists on campus. Five Asian American Yale students interviewed said they often reluctantly partake in the jokes as a way of distinguishing themselves from the tourists. Long acknowledged that while caricaturing Asian tourists may have become a mainstay of the Yale experience — a tour group was featured in a Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show film in 2011 — it may fracture the community more than it binds us together.

After a while, the suggestion that a person or activity is “too Asian” begins to carry a negative connotation. Students on campus become reluctant to associate with anything that carries the “Asian” label.

James Ting, co-coordinator of the AACC noted that he was initially hesitant to become an active participant in the Asian American community as freshman because “I didn’t want to be lumped into a group where certain stereotypes could be made about me.”

Tam had a similar uneasy feeling about Yalies’ treatment of Asian stereotypes, such as the perception that all Asians are overcommitted to studying or Asians only hang out with each other.

“There seem to be generalizations made a lot about Asian students which are said in jest but which can actually offend,” he said.

These sentiments are incongruous with Yale’s history of advocating for Asian student involvement. Don Nakanishi ’71, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the founder of the first Asian Student Alliance at Yale, praised the University for its outreach efforts. Of East Coast schools, Yale admissions officers were the first to actively recruit Asian high school students, and the University was the first Ivy League college to establish an Asian American cultural house on campus.

“For many years, Yale was the only Ivy League that even considered Asian American students as in need of recruitment,” Nakanishi said.

“We know that these schools are for learning, and we want to do whatever we can to be respectful of the students."

Lingling Hu, tour guide

The Great Wall

hile Dao remained unimpressed by America as a country, he had only glowing praise to offer for the campuses we visited. He told me he thought they were beautiful, that they were unlike any of the schools in China, and that he loved the rich history behind each university. In Dao’s eyes, where America failed, American colleges succeeded.

Among the tourists, there was a deep appreciation not only for the architectural magnificence of the campuses, but for the academic ideals that each college was built around — in particular, freedom of choice and student creativity.

During our bus’s Yale stop, many people remarked on the openness of the campus layout.

“In the Beijing Universities there is always a wall surrounding the campus,” said Yang Qin, a Chinese member of the tour group. “The wall is more than physical — it’s symbolic of the college being closed off from the outside world.”

For Qin, the open philosophy of American universities is what makes them so great. But this openness is something that needs to be constantly maintained: in a moment of jest, poorly chosen words can have the same exclusionary effect as a physical wall.

In Dao’s eyes, where America failed, American colleges succeeded.


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