Updated: Apr 22, 2022
It’s a Wednesday night, and a handful of members from the Asian American Association at Belmont University gather in a small room on the second floor of the Massey Business Center to watch “Minari,” a film about an enthusiastic Korean immigrant who moves his family to
Arkansas to start a farm.
Jacob Yi, the main character, soon realizes that life in the rural United States may be more difficult than expected as he and his family experience several hardships, from fitting in with the predominantly white community and dealing with subtle racism, to the struggles and setbacks of their difficult occupation.
In many ways, the film mirrors the experience of some Asian Americans on Belmont University’s campus.
It was Michelle Dong’s freshman year, and the black-haired, bespectacled girl came to Belmont expecting to find diversity and community in Nashville.
After all, she was coming to college in a large, diverse city, and nearby Vanderbilt University had a big Asian community, said Dong.
Dong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Manchester, Tennessee, and had always been part of the minority, but it felt different now.
At Belmont, she found minimal diversity and no way to meet people that looked like her on campus.
“I got here, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m literally the only Asian person in every room that I am in,'” Dong said.
“It was actually kind of weird just surrounded by white people, even though I was surrounded by white people back in my hometown. I just had different expectations.”
As she struggled to make connections, she felt uncomfortable on campus.
In 2021, Asians and Pacific Islanders made up just 2.8% of the student population at Belmont, only 239 students of the university’s total enrollment of 8,696, according to Belmont’s Office of Assessment & Institutional Research.
The underrepresentation can make it difficult for Asian students like Dong to socialize or make friends, especially for first-generation Asian Americans who grew up in households that never completely assimilated to American culture.
“I was raised traditionally,” she said. “We’re all about face and being respectful of strangers. I was raised to be quiet and be respectful and reserved. Maybe too reserved, because something I’ve noticed is that I’m not very outgoing. But in American culture, it’s just if you’re outgoing and like to talk, so that has impacted how I interact in groups of people,” Dong said.
Being a part of a small percentage on campus can also lead Asian Americans to isolate themselves from their identities, like Anthony Vannarath, public relations manager of AAA.
“Some people that come here, they don’t really touch on their Asian side. I can relate,” said Vannarath. “I tended to disconnect from my culture because it felt like it was embarrassing. It felt like other people would be racist towards me, so that’s where I disconnected.”
Due to Belmont’s low enrollment of Asians and the lack of opportunities to connect with one another, Dong sought to fill this hole on campus with AAA as a founding member and now serves as the organization’s president.
“I really want to be friends with all the other Asian people on campus and give us a common place to meet and socialize with each other. Kind of like a safe space to talk about our shared experiences being Asian American,” said Dong.
Although there were several Asian cultural associations on campus, none of them provided the opportunity for Asians to meet one another, because not a lot of the university’s Asians attend the cultural association meetings to begin with.
“I actually joined the Chinese Cultural Association as a freshman. I showed up. I was the only Chinese person in that room,” Dong said. “I was like, ‘This is really weird because I came here thinking I was going to meet other Asian people.”
The primary difference separating the AAA from the Chinese Cultural Association or the Japanese Cultural Association is community.
“Chinese Cultural Association is exactly what it sounds like. It’s just a bunch of people appreciating Chinese culture. AAA is more about the community of students instead of appreciation of the culture,” said Dong. “For the most part, it’s about hanging out and having fun.”
Since its inception, the organization saw growth and impacted the lives of several of its members, some of whom have now become leaders within the organization.
“I went to a predominantly white high school, and I never felt so out of place here. But through AAA, I found some of my best friends; I found my roommate,” said Emma Feland, AAA’s vice president.
Vannarath’s experience is much the same.
“It seems so much like family. When I was distant, there was nothing around here that felt like family,” he said. “Being here, I just feel happier.”
AAA keeps its meetings as fresh and engaging as possible in order to keep members interested in coming to meetings, said Dong.
A meeting may include an in-depth discussion of current events, a movie night like “Minari” or even dinner at a Japanese hot-pot restaurant.
Regardless of the activity, AAA engages students in what it means to be both Asian and American by surrounding its members with a variety of stories and cultures.
Another important aspect of AAA’s meetings is to give homesick Asian students, especially freshmen, chances to eat food they may miss from home or converse comfortably as they would with their families, said AAA treasurer Wanyi Fang.
Membership at AAA is diverse in and of itself. The organization’s members come from various backgrounds. There are Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Indian students represented in the group, said Vannarath.
Moreover, the organization’s attendees are not just Asians. Among its members are African Americans, Caucasians and those of other ethnicities, all of whom are welcome to attend.
Oftentimes, it’s friends of Asians who want to see what the club is like, as well as individuals who are interested in general Asian culture, Dong said.
Only three years old, AAA has made some big moves at Belmont, one of the greatest being a Zoom vigil held in memoriam of the Atlanta spa shootings in March. The AAA-sponsored event saw campus-wide participation from over 200 students.
However, being a fairly new campus organization, AAA now finds itself in an odd limbo when it comes to their campus presence.
“One of our problems right now is that we’re big enough to where people know that we’re on campus, but we’re still small enough and not as much attended to justify pulling off some events that require serious funding,” said Dong.
AAA leaders have to navigate the obstacle course of university politics. The Office of Student Engagement modifies rules for student organizations annually, and the Student Government Association is unable to fund events that could help AAA reach out to more students.
As a result, AAA is limited to small meeting spaces that can only hold so many students. At the same time, the organization isn’t able to guarantee how many students will show up to its events.
“If we want to do something, like a buffet of food, you want to be in a big room where there’s enough space, but also, OSE is like, ‘If you want a big room or something that’s not a classroom, you have to guarantee you’ll fill it up 70%.’ So that’s a constraint,” Dong said.
With a naturally small target demographic to work with at Belmont, AAA is already at a disadvantage: there would need to be greater participation from the Asian community at the university to lift the organization up to reach the goals it wishes to accomplish.
Nonetheless, the leadership team continues to experiment and try its best to reach as many people as it can with what it is given.
Dong hopes that one day AAA grows to the scale of Vanderbilt’s Asian community or Belmont’s Black Student Association, she said.
Graduating in May, it is unlikely that Dong will see the fruition that she dreams of, but she leaves her organization in hands that are eager to take up the mantle. Feland and Fang are still eligible to lead the group, and the two share Dong’s vision for AAA’s future.
Much like the family in “Minari,” AAA continues to make things work despite some setbacks. By the end of the picture, it seems like all is lost when the Yi’s produce burns in a barn fire.
Nevertheless, his minari stalks remain intact to be harvested. Throughout the film, the minari weed symbolizes resilience, as it can grow anywhere and continues to prosper despite its conditions.
With seeds still freshly sown, AAA and its members continue to embody the spirit of minari, electing to cultivate in the face of intimidating and difficult environments, but growing
evermore in the face of adversity.
PHOTO: Members of Belmont’s Asian American Association hang out at Korea BBQ and Sushi in Brentwood. Belmont Vision / David Pang.
This article was written by David Pang.