What Identity and Belonging Mean to Me

Conversations with Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students reveal the importance of community—and of finding one’s voice
Five students. Conversations with Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students at Tufts reveal the importance of community—and of finding one’s voice
From left, Kevin Lee, Neha Ratnapuri, Raissa Li, Nuha Shaikh, and Arnav Patra. Photo collage: Momo Shinzawa
June 2, 2021

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How do you answer when someone asks, “Where are you from?” What does it mean to be Asian Pacific Islander Desi American at Tufts? How has your view of who you are changed during your time at the university?

Tufts Now posed these questions of identity—and of being a student at Tufts today—to a group of undergraduates this spring. The students answered with candor and caring, emphasizing the diversity of their experiences.

Kevin Lee, A21: Celebrating and Sharing My Culture

Photo: Christian NorthMy identity is something I hadn’t truly thought about until I came to college. I remember going on the Tufts Asian American students retreat and being asked, “What do you think about your identity?” And I genuinely couldn’t give an answer.

I moved to America from Korea when I was eight years old, and even though I recently got my American citizenship, I don’t think an ID can fully define who you are. Korean culture is still very important to me, and I’m grateful to be able to celebrate and share it with the diverse student body at Tufts.

I’ve been involved in the Korean Students Association since freshman year, and have had an active role on its executive board—the E-Board. I’ve helped organize fun activities like Running Man, which is based on a Korean variety show, and a winter formal where students can bring dates and participate in games.

This creates a learning experience for students who aren’t Korean, who might come to our events for social reasons and end up learning a lot about our history and traditions. The openness and curiosity of Tufts students truly helped us create an inclusive and supportive community on campus, which welcomes students who are Korean, Korean American, and those who are just interested in Korean culture or have never even been to Korea before.

As I graduate and move on to the next part of my life, I know that I will continue to learn not only about my heritage, but also about others’ cultures and backgrounds, and the kind of community we can all create together.

Nuha Shaikh, A22: In Touch with My Identities

Photo: Nuha ShaikhWhen I first came to Tufts, I had a bit of culture shock, specifically related to my Asian identity. I’m a mixed Asian—I’m half Pakistani and half Chinese, and I’m a first-generation American, too. Sometimes, I had to reconcile strangers’ expectations of me when I meet them. I’ve had people here assume that I can’t really speak English well, even though I grew up in a town in the Midwest. And I’ve had people consider me as “not really Chinese” or “not really Pakistani.”

I knew that if I was experiencing microaggressions and other issues, many other students must be, too. I felt burned out, and needed a space where I could speak up about these experiences. I started visiting the Tufts Asian American Center, and though I was unsure about it at first, I met a lot of people there who listened to my experiences and my concerns about being Asian and multiethnic at Tufts.

I was lucky enough to be hired as an intern for the Asian American Center this past year. We worked together to make the center even more inclusive for South Asian, Southeast Asian, and mixed students.

In that process, I also became more in touch with my unique identities. I realized that I was not only Asian, or only American, or only Chinese, or only Pakistani. I was all these things. I realized that just because I had multiple identities, that didn’t mean any one of them was more or less important than the others. I learned to not be too bothered with what other people can say about me. Only I can decide who I am.

Raissa Li, A22: Connecting with My Heritage

Photo: Jake ShinAlthough my high school was very diverse, I didn’t have many friends who were Asian, and I wasn’t very connected to my Asian identity. But when I got to Tufts, I had a lot more opportunities to connect with my heritage.

Freshman year, I had the chance to watch the Chinese Students Association’s Culture Show, which introduced me to fascinating things on campus like a variety of Asian short films and the Asian a cappella group at Tufts. I was also a part of the Tufts China Care club, which works to improve the lives of Chinese orphans and connects Chinese adoptees with their birth culture.

All these activities allowed me to make many friends who are of Asian descent and made me proud of my heritage. But it wasn’t until I took the Asian-American Sociology class with Professor Cruz that I truly learned about the extent of anti-Asian racism in America’s present day and history. Especially with the rise of hate crimes against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for students of color to not stay silent and call out racism.

Neha Ratnapuri, A23: Bringing Together Identities and Interests

Photo: Shweta Nair and Alekya MentaGrowing up, I went to a small school in northern Virginia, where people were accepting of my culture, but I didn’t really have the space to truly explore my identities. I liked to dance, I loved my Tamil Indian heritage, and I was very interested in social justice activism work, but I couldn’t connect these identities and interests.

When I came to Tufts, I realized that I could do all these things and also make them come together. I became very involved with Tufts Pulse, the Indian classical dance team on campus, where I have a wonderful community and can practice a form of dance that is deeply rooted in my family and tradition.

I also began working with the Tufts University Chaplaincy. I’m part of the Interfaith Student Council, the Buddhist mindfulness group, the Hindu Student Council, and recently began working as an Interfaith Leadership Workshop training assistant.

These programs allow me to do great things in terms of civic engagement, social justice work, and in connecting with my culture and religion. I’m very passionate about making these experiences as inclusive and beneficial as possible and can’t wait to see where we can bring our programs at Tufts by working together.

Arnav Patra, A24: AAPI Community Standing Together

Photo: Jonathan LaiThe AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community at Tufts is very broad, and I’ve been able to meet and get to know people from all over the world and have conversations about the different things that are going on in the world.

It’s been really interesting to find out how others’ past experiences were similar or different to my own, and how everyone sees the world differently. It’s been encouraging to see how the AAPI community at Tufts has worked together this year, especially in the face of a lot of the terrible things that we’ve seen going on recently.

Many AAPI student groups on campus have been standing together and pushing both the Asian American Center and Tufts to act, serve, and stand together. That’s definitely difficult because of how diverse the community is, but it’s also allowed all of us to celebrate our identities and take on leadership roles in times of uncertainty.

I don’t think one person can ever fully encapsulate the AAPI experience, but it’s very powerful and motivating to see the kind of supportive synergy we have at Tufts.