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Asian American communities strengthen ties while apart

Before the Ithaca campus closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, members of Cornell’s Asian American community enjoyed strong connections to each other.

And more than six weeks into the global health crisis, many of these connections have grown even stronger and taken on deeper meaning – particularly for students and faculty involved in the Asian American Studies Program (AASP) in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

“It’s interesting how this whole crisis has introduced me to my students, where they’re from and the things that they’re facing in a real way,” said Christine Bacareza Balance, associate professor of performing and media arts and of Asian American studies. Since the transition to online teaching, she’s reached out to her students to reconfigure learning for class members that “span many time zones,” and also to check in with them.

A social media assignment that existed before the crisis is now providing real points of connection within the community, she said.

Every year, students in her Introduction to Asian American Studies class create social media campaigns. This semester, groups of students planned and launched Instagram accounts focused on Asian American athletes, desserts and media stars, among other topics.

After classes restarted online, the campaigns took on a renewed purpose, fighting against discrimination aimed at Asian individuals and communities during this pandemic, Balance said. For example, the “Documenting the Undocumented” campaign deepened in April to tell stories of how the pandemic has complicated life and compounded hardship for undocumented Asian immigrants.

The “Asian American Advocates” campaign posts messages about Asian Americans prominent in creative and entrepreneurial industries. Such messages are needed now more than ever, Balance said. During normal semesters, the campaigns help her students discover the Asian American community online: “This crisis has sped up that process, connecting students to organizations and community members.”

Another online offering has gained popularity during the crisis; a “Book of the Week” series on Facebook and on Instagram, designed by program manager Alexis Boyce to promote the Asian American Studies Resource Center, has evolved into a “Book of the Day” series (#BOTD).

AASP student employees post daily blurbs of books chosen from the resource center’s collection. “It’s a way for the students to retain a sense of continuity and stay connected to each other,” Balance said.

Recent posts review “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come” by Jessica Pan and “The Collective,” a novel by Don Lee. Other posts expand the definition of “book” to include films and even a collection of jazz tunes.

The #BOTD posts are getting engagement from faculty at other universities and from alumni. They’re also fulfilling an important role.

“Social and cultural historians are calling for us to document what it means to be living in this moment right now,” said Balance. “I think of these posts in that tradition.”

The online connections are not all academic. Balance and other organizers modified SEAP’s Language Week to reach participants in fun ways. On April 17, more than 70 Cornell students, faculty, alumni and friends came together for something only possible online: a bicoastal dance party.

The theme of the night was original Pilipino music. DJ JoelQuiz (Joel Quizon) spun 1970s-era “Manila sound” tunes from Los Angeles; DJ Un-G (Gary Gacula Gabisan) played indie songs by Filipino bands from his living room in Ithaca. Zoom video feeds showed partygoers dancing in their homes or listening attentively.

“This event would not have been possible prior to the crisis,” said Balance, citing the distance between L.A. and Ithaca, and the cost of holding a dance party on campus. But online during a pandemic, she discovered, “There’s an audience for this!”

The next night, another Language Week event screened “Rakenrol,” a cinematic love letter to Manila’s indie rock scene, complete with a livestream from Manila of two of the filmmakers.

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Rebecca Valli