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Kenyon Asia Society members search for common ground

On a Wednesday night, seven members of Kenyon’s Asia Society settled at a table in lower Peirce and began chatting. As they ate dinner, conversation switched between friendly chatter, thoughtful discussion and frustrated venting. There was one central theme: the Asian and Asian-American experience.

Co-presidents Kyla McLaughlin ’17 and Winnie Thaw ’17 are unsure of the club’s origins but have made Asia Society a community for students to voice opinions that they might otherwise be uncomfortable sharing.

Asia Society is as diverse in Asian experiences as its name sounds. Asia Society does not limit itself to one region of the world. Around half of its members are international students, while the other half are American.

McLaughlin and Thaw illustrate this diversity. McLaughlin, an Asian American from New York City, and Thaw, an international student from Myanmar, have had very different experiences. Thaw described growing up in a country where she was never an ethnic minority — an experience that McLaughlin, as an Asian American, has had at Kenyon.

With such a variety of experiences within the organization, defining one unifying experience can be tough. This year, McLaughlin began providing articles before meetings as springboards for discussion, but members often read articles on different topics. Thaw, for example, is more interested in North Korea than the others. The club’s co-presidents think that this lack of unified interest may be the reason that there is not as much crossover between Asia Society and other Asian cultural organizations as they would like.

“It’s hard to define a singular Asian experience and yet that’s our goal: to bring people of all different backgrounds together,” McLaughlin said.

The group does seem to have found a source of commonality — member Jia He ’17 believes that the common experience of being labeled Asian is what unifies members of Asia Society. “People just assume that we’re all the same type of Asian,” she said. “The collective experience that we feel as the result of that is something that I think we can all talk about and empathize with.”

Thaw and McLaughlin described bonding over their frustration with Peirce’s attempts at making Asian cuisine. They have found comfort at food events when other club members didn’t need help identifying a type of salad or soup.

The club also includes members who are not Asian or Asian-American. Rita Carmona ’19 joined the club this year when she noticed a lack of cross-cultural membership in affinity groups in which she already was a member like Adelante and the Black Student Union. She likes to follow the conversation during meetings. Occasionally she will interject with a separate minority opinion.

The club is certainly not at a loss for topics to discuss.  In a recent meeting, members compared two articles with different opinions of the “yellow fever” phenomenon — the phenomenon by which certain non-Asian males find themselves only attracted to Asian women. Past articles have covered topics like microaggressions and representation of Asians in American pop culture.

“The topics that we talk about are really prevalent in all our lives and relate to how we see ourselves as Asians and Asian Americans,” McLaughlin said.

The club has also worked to bring their discussions to the larger Kenyon community. In February, Asia Society brought prominent social media figure and activist Ranier Maningding, founder of the blog Love Life of an Asian Guy, to campus. Earlier this year, the organization led a discussion on a controversial Fox News segment in which a reporter went to the New York chinatown and interviewed residents while promoting many Chinese stereotypes.

Thaw appreciates the club’s unification of diverse Asian backgrounds. “Seeing these different experiences, it’s incredible,” she said. “So many people who call themselves Asian will have so many different experiences and backgrounds.”

Through its broad range of membership, Asia Society has become a space of unity for some of Kenyon’s Asian and Asian-American students. When asked if the club has helped them navigate Kenyon’s predominantly white environment, both Thaw and McLaughlin started laughing before Thaw said, “Yes, 100-percent yes.”