This Chinese New Year, students at Columbia University in New York City received a jarring reminder that prejudice and xenophobia can be found in even the most liberal of enclaves.
Over the holiday period, several students reported that the name tags on their doors had been taken down, according to an email from Melinda Aquino, associate dean of multicultural affairs, published on Feb. 1.
At American universities, it is common for students living in residence halls to have name tags on their doors. Around the end of January, several East Asian students who used Romanized or pinyin versions of their given names returned to their rooms to find that their name cards had been ripped off, while those bearing Western names remained intact. According to Columbia’s student news website, the attacks on Asian name cards began earlier in the semester at one dorm and spread to others during the holiday.
An investigation has been launched into whether the incidents were racially motivated, and Aquino has called for any information on the parties responsible while expressing concerns about the “growing climate of xenophobia” and its effects on the university community.
Less than a week after the initial reports, Columbia undergraduate Yan Huhe published a video he made on Facebook of himself and fellow Chinese international students talking about the meaning of their names, as well as the hopes and dreams their parents had when they chose them. The video, titled “Say My Name,” had been viewed over 253,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t think this is racial discrimination,” Yan, 19, told Sixth Tone, referring to the vandalism. “This is xenophobia.” The sophomore student said the impetus for the video was to reach out to Americans on campus and start a conversation. “The video serves as a statement from the stereotypically ‘silent’ Chinese community and a first step toward gaining more understanding,” he added.
Say My Name
In response to recent xenophobic incidents at Columbia where East Asian name tags were ripped off in multiple residence halls, my fellow Chinese international students wanted to share these stories of our names with you. #saymynamePosted by 闫呼和 on Monday, February 6, 2017
In an earlier editorial for the university’s student newspaper, Yan — who first traveled to the U.S. in 2015 — wrote: “From my perspective as a complete outsider to American politics and society, it seems to me that there is a larger climate of ‘purging’ that is being cultivated beyond the disappearance of name tags from doors.”
A Beijing-based Columbia alumna surnamed Liang, who graduated with a master’s degree from the university in 2015, echoed Yan’s sentiment, saying that President Donald Trump’s executive order to suspend the refugee program and ban citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S. would only “encourage people who are racist to take extreme actions against people they don’t like.”
Liang, who learned of the “Say My Name” video through Columbia’s public account on messaging app WeChat, said it made her feel “very proud.” Online, viewer responses have been mostly positive, and other Chinese have started commenting under the video with the history and meaning of their own names.
A Chinese student at Columbia surnamed Lin told Sixth Tone that a second “heavier” video in which 10 Asian or Asian-American students directly address the vandalism will be released later this week. “I think Yan’s video is so great because it shows how proud we feel of our own culture, and how inviolable our names are,” Lin said. “My video will go more into what the victims and Chinese students think about the issue, what we really want to say.”
Sixth Tone’s calls and emails to Dean Aquino, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and university President Lee Bollinger’s office went unanswered.
The Asian-American Alliance, a student group that has been particularly vocal since the incidents, issued a statement co-signed by mainland Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese student groups “condemn[ing] these actions as xenophobic efforts to divide and incite fear among Columbia’s Asian and Asian American community.” The statement, published along with Aquino’s email on Feb. 1, added that “these efforts echo the actions of the Trump administration that target people of color, specifically black and brown bodies with non-Western names, as unwelcome.”
Asian-American Alliance member Tina Wu told the Columbia Daily Spectator, “I’m hoping that this incident will draw attention to the racism that already exists in conjunction with Trump being elected and his few days in office.”
Not all student reactions have been as measured as those reflected in Yan’s video. Columbia sophomore Joanna Zhang, for example, reacted to the targeted vandalism by telling a student news blog, “It’s honestly just so fucking disrespectful.”
Additional reporting by Dong Heng.
(Header image: A view of the library of Columbia University, New York, April 15, 2014. Mu Yu/VCG)