The Identity & Equity Issue

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The Identity& Equity Issue a brief sentence about the theme of this special issue.


Washington Square News Staff EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Alex Tey MANAGING Managing Editor Trace Miller Deputy Managing Arnav Binaykia Asha Ramachandran Sabrina Choudhary COPY Copy Chief Gillian Blum Max Tiefer Deputy Copy Chief Ariana Wahab Sam Spray UNDER THE ARCH Publishing Editor Caitlin Hsu Sydney Barragan Senior Editor Ivy Zhu Staff Editor Sunny Sequeira Portraits Editor Kiersten Dugan

Exposures Editor Julian Hammond Santander Voices Editor Aleksandra Goldberg CULTURE Culture Editor Alex Tran Culture Editor Roshni Raj Beauty & Style Editor Vivian Stockley Dining Editor Gabby Lozano Identity & Equity Editor Mayee Yeh MULTIMEDIA Multimedia Editor Manasa Gudavalli Ryan Walker Photo Editor Camila Ceballos Sam Tu Social Media Editor Luca Richman

Video Director Edward Franco Audio Director Vaishnavi Naidu DESIGN Creative Director Charitssa Stone Susan Behrends Valenzuela Illustration Editor Aaliya Luthra WEB Web Director Ryan Kawahara Contributor Sho Matsuyama BUSINESS Business Manager Yejin Chang Director of Sales Catherine Chen Account Associate Damascus Lee

Contents 01 Letter from the Editor 02 The prodigal tongue: Making the return to my native languages

04 Centering Ukrainian voices and documenting war in her backyard

06 Tattoos to honor 08 ‘Healing our inner child’: Students Selling Stickers 10 Reckoning with my Indian identity


FROM:

Mayee Yeh | IDENTITY & EQUITY EDITOR

TO: You SUBJECT:

Letter from the Editor

STAFF PHOTO BY SAM TU

Imagine hitting reply on an email. The subject line stays as it was, save for the “Re:” before it. For years, I thought those two letters were short for the reply function that automatically inserted it. To the credit of the history of written communication, “regarding” makes much more sense in that context — “Regarding: Subject.” Whether it has remained the same or adapted to modernity, the prefix’s denotation doesn’t matter because its connotation stays the same — it functions as a response, relaying that your words will address what has already been said, what has already happened. And in this special issue, that is what every submission does. With “Re:,” I wanted to focus on reactions to inequality and how such a force often plays an unfortunately critical role in shaping personal identity. Each piece delves into the writer’s or profiled individual’s heritage and lived experiences, focusing on how those pasts have defined their choices and influenced their personal endeavors. First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rest of the culture desk — Roshni Raj, Alex Tran, Vivian Stockley and Gabby Lozano. It was your support and reassurance that really pushed me forward. The same sentiment extends to our collaborators at Under the Arch, especially Caitlin Hsu and Sydney Barragan y’all are pretty cool, I guess. So much gratitude to our Multimedia Editors Manasa Gudavalli and Ryan Walker for coordinating photoshoots with all of the writers and for being so patient with our chaos. All of the pictures turned out perfectly — I can barely

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put it into words. Also, shoutout to Sam Tu for shooting in an unexpectedly small stairwell for the first time — just for our group photo — and successfully not falling off said stairs. A very large thanks to our creative directors Charitssa Stone and Susan Behrends Valenzuela for your amazing work on the cover and layouts. Without you, Gmail would never have successfully been yassified. I’d also like to thank our Web team, especially the Web Director Ryan Kawahara, for developing this landing page. And special thanks to our writers, who gave us their stories or told the stories of others — Derek Soong, Mika Chipana and Aarna Dixit. This issue would have been nothing without y’all. Of course, last but not least, thank you to our management team, especially the Deputy Managing Editors Sabrina Choudhary, Arnav Binaykia and Asha Ramachandran, for your collaborative efforts and ensuring the best narratives get published.

Mayee Yeh IDENTITY & EQUITY EDITOR

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FROM:

Mika Chipana | CONTRIBUTING WRITER

TO: Native languages, invisible hierarchies and linguistic pride SUBJECT: Re: The prodigal tongue: Making the return to my native languages

Growing up in South Africa, an invisible language hierarchy almost cost me the ability to communicate in my native languages.

STAFF PHOTO BY RYAN WALKER

“Himina, Xhangani girl. I am a Xitsonga girl.” I used to proudly repeat this phrase to anyone who asked. Knowing and speaking Xitsonga, a South African language, is a part of who I am. The first language I learned to speak as a child was Xitsonga. My father’s language was my predominant tongue until I went to preschool, when my mother began teaching me Southern Sotho. I grew up fluent in both. Preschool also introduced me to Afrikaans, a language from South Africa’s colonial history that followed me throughout my school career. However, English, the fourth and final language I learned, was the ultimate eraser of my native tongues. During the apartheid era, Black people were forced out of cities and into Bantustans, or homelands, spread across the country. From these homelands grew a tree of many different cultures — and languages. Xitsonga and Northern Sotho were spoken in the north, while the Nguni tribes that spoke Zulu and Xhosa were spread in the eastern parts of the country. The rich cultural landscape is what makes Africa a unique continent. When a language is lost, the culture can disappear with it. Preserving language, however, carries on the customs, traditions and rituals of that culture. Language is the bridge that connects me to my father’s tribe and my mother tongue. Black language is a celebration of my birthright as an individual; it remains untainted by colonialism and modernism. It is a reminder of my childhood, my grandmothers and the villages that they raised me in. Hearing the familiar sounds of Xitsonga takes me to my grandmother’s four-room house in Malamulele, a small village in northern South Africa, where I could eat freshly picked mangos on hot sunny days and bathe outside in a plastic tub while neighbors wandered by. Our white teachers would condemn anyone who spoke their native language in primary school, whether on the playground or inside the classroom. Anyone who struggled to adapt to this rule would be forced to sit by the teacher’s feet

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during recess. Not speaking fluent English was enough to deem a child slow, even if they understood and spoke four other languages. “Ja Baas, Nee Baas.” “Yes Boss, No Boss.” In apartheid South Africa, Black people who worked as domestic workers or under any Afrikaner were expected to know and speak the Afrikaans language. To this day, it is not rare to find older Black people who are fluent in Afrikaans but barely know English, similar to residents of former European colonies in Africa who still speak French or Belgian. It seemed to me that language was organized in some sort of hierarchical system. Books in the bookstore were never in my native language, only in English or Afrikaans. In high school I was never given the choice to study a native South African language, only English or Afrikaans. English was prioritized, while the languages of our heritage were not tolerated in formal spaces. It was unacceptable if someone did not speak English but somehow all right if they couldn’t communicate with their own Zulu grandmother. I was unaware of it then, but as my teachers reprimanded us for speaking our home languages, they forced us into this invisible hierarchy. Soon enough, I could not speak any language other than English. Black music and culture became something I was no longer a part of, even as my family continued to speak to me in our native languages. My school life affected my home life, and when I couldn’t find the balance between speaking English at school and Northern Sotho at home, it made sense to only speak English. As my friends played Diketo, a popular game among Black girls that involves throwing and catching stones, and chatted animatedly in their mother tongue, I remained unwilling to speak anything but English, so much so that I was labeled a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. Blackness was something I hid and strayed away from in all forms, including music and dance, to fit into what was deemed the norm. Somehow I’d become convinced that English was good and intelligent while anything else was not. As the years passed, words that should have come to me easily — like eggs, knife and fork in Xitsonga — disappeared from my vocabulary, and the languages I had once spoken so fluently were now foreign to my tongue. The way one’s tongue moves when speaking is different according to the specific language. Venda requires one to roll their tongue, while Nguni languages such as Zulu and Xhosa require a clicking tongue. However, English does not require such gymnastics of the tongue, and a lack of use allows the muscle memory to fade. It was on my first high school camping trip that I realized that the language hierarchy was not a figment of my imagination. I had boxed myself into only speaking English instead of leaning into being multilingual. Although teachers only enforced speaking English at school, I had allowed that to overshadow the fact that at home, I had the liberty to speak the languages of my mother and father. I chose to be influenced by those who could only speak one language, English, rather than my family, who could speak multiple languages.


IMAGE COURTESY OF MIKA CHIPANA MIKA CHIPANA WITH HER GRANDMOTHER IN TRADITIONAL ATTIRE.

IMAGE COURTESY OF MIKA CHIPANA CHIPANA WITH HER PARENTS IN SOUTH AFRICA ON HER FIRST DAY OF HIGH SCHOOL.

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For my high school classmates, language served as a form of companionship. Teenagers could use cuss words I’d never heard of to tease each other or mock the teachers in secret. I was finally surrounded by people who spoke their native languages with pride. I watched as the white children envied the languages and made it a point to learn the language, especially the swear words, so they could understand us. No matter what tribe you were from — Tsonga, Venda, Northern Sotho — language brought us together. As I grew closer to my friends, I realized how freely they spoke their native languages. They could read and write in their native languages — something I had never been able to do. I was learning that native South African languages could also be used to compose prose, write love songs and tell stories. Knowing English did not make us more or less smart than someone who only spoke a native language. The only difference between the kids who swore so loudly in Northern Sotho on the camping trip and me was that they had never bought into the idea of a language hierarchy. In our dorm rooms, dancing to “Hita Famba Moyeni” (“We will travel in the sky”), the child who had been proud of her heritage, who had introduced herself as a Xhangani girl, was finally returning. When I finally began to leave English in the classroom and speak my language, friends would endlessly tease me and beg me to stick to English, because when speaking Sotho or Tsonga, I sounded “wrong.” My accent was “too English,” they said, and my Xitsonga sounded broken and confused. When my mother was asked if her only child speaks and understands her mother tongue, she answered, “My child speaks both mother and father tongue, albeit in an English accent.” Even then, it had never occurred to me that my accent was something of a problem. This was until I arrived in the United States. A friend always spoke to other Africans and me in his standard South African accent; however, the minute he spoke to any American, he would change his accent. When I asked him why, he said, “So they understand me better.” “Everyone” — all Black people — “code switches when talking to a certain type of people.” It seemed that I had overcome the language hierarchy at home only to face the accent hierarchy in the United States. I feel that there is always a part of us that tries to conform to some imaginary standard in the world. Being able to speak to either of my grandmothers in their native language is one of my favorite things. Even far from home, listening to music in my native languages or tuning into a Xitsonga-speaking radio station makes me feel connected to my homeland and my heritage. The younger me may have seen English as the only desirable language to speak, but as I have grown older, I have been putting aside the English words and just enjoying my conversations in Northern Sotho with the people that matter the most to me. Language is at the heart of what unites us, and I am glad that I met people who taught me that our languages are something to be loved, celebrated and spoken out loud as much as possible. While I will always appreciate English for allowing me to communicate on a global scale, the Xhangani girl in me is always glad to return to her father tongue. Contact Mika Chipana at culture@nyunews.com.

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FROM:

Derek Soong | STAFF WRITER

TO: Foreign support, the Russia-Ukraine war and a stolen normal life SUBJECT: Re: Centering Ukrainian voices and documenting war in her backyard

Julia Tymoshenko, a 2021 graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi, uses Instagram to broadcast the day-to-day reality of civilian life during the Russia-Ukraine war.

IMAGE COURTESY OF JULIA TYMOSHENKO

When Julia Tymoshenko graduated f rom NYU Abu Dhabi in 2021, she looked forward to beginning her post-college life back in Ukraine. Now, after less than a year of living in Kyiv, the Russian invasion has forced Tymoshenko and millions of others to flee in search of refuge. By sharing her departure and experience on social media, she has gained thousands of followers while continuing to document the tragedy. “When we all woke up on Feb. 24, around 5 a.m., I think everybody realized that this was actually happening,” Tymoshenko said. “I woke up and heard the explosions and realized that this was it … I escaped f rom [the capital] on [the] train, together with my mom and some f riends. And right now we’re renting an apartment in Lviv.” While many fled the country, Tymoshenko stayed within Ukrainian borders, opting to move to the western city of Lviv. She explained that leaving the country altogether was not a decision she was willing to make. “Fleeing my city already felt like a betrayal,” she wrote via Instagram direct message. “I can’t imagine what it would be [like] to leave my country. As a person who loves to travel and explore, I realized that I only love to do it when it’s my choice, not when occupants are coming and forcing me to get out.” In Tymoshenko’s March 8 Instagram post, red flames engulfed the sky-blue St. George chapel near where Tymoshenko’s grandparents live, as the church joined a growing list of historic buildings destroyed by the war. Growing up in Zavorychi, a village east of Kyiv, Tymoshenko remembers seeing the chapel every day f rom her grandparents’ yard. She reminisced on

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the chapel’s beautiful fairy-light decorations during the Christmas season. An old photo of Tymoshenko standing in f ront of the chapel, which was burned to ashes by Russian shelling, is now just a memory. “I spent a lot of time growing up just playing in f ront of [the chapel] and actually being f riends with the priest’s son and priest’s kids,” Tymoshenko said. “[My grandma] always said that she lives in a holy place just because she’s right by the church. And I sort of always laughed at that, like I didn’t take it seriously. I knew that she was there to see it burn completely to ashes, and I just don’t know how she felt. She probably felt absolutely terrible, because it has been an even bigger symbol and of a bigger signif icance to her.” During the attack that destroyed the chapel, Tymoshenko’s grandfather was shot at but survived. The war had reached home for her. “Everything that is left alive in me burns,” she wrote in the Instagram post caption. Watching the looming threat of war in Ukraine earlier this year, Tymoshenko’s NYU Abu Dhabi classmates came to her seeking resources about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. At the time, Tymoshenko said she could not f ind reliable public resources to point them toward. She said the dearth of Ukrainian voices in Western media, combined with sparse shareable resources, prompted her to upload a carousel post to Instagram on the political situation in January. “It sort of picked up among both foreigners and Ukrainians,” Tymoshenko said. “And that’s when I started getting a lot of of Instagram followers f rom abroad. The number of followers increased dramatically — I think like in two days I got 10k more. And so many people were texting me.” While Tymoshenko enjoys using social media as a platform to spread information on issues like LGBTQ+ rights and feminism in Ukraine, her current focus is updating her audience on the day-to-day realities of the Russian invasion and sharing memories of Ukrainian life before the war. “I was just living a normal life as one does. I was going to work [in] this beautiful co-working space,” she wrote via Instagram DM. “I rented an apartment with another NYUAD alumna. The life was so wholesome. I was looking forward for a concert in March actually.” Tymoshenko believes the battle for Ukrainians isn’t just on the ground in Ukraine. Even while at NYU, an institution that prides itself for being a global university, she felt misrepresented and experienced erasure of her Eastern European culture. “Once in NYU Abu Dhabi, we’ve had the case when our dining hall was actually trying to do the


cuisines of the world,” she said. “They ran into a problem that if you have such an international campus, you have to be really careful how you label those [dishes].” She expressed f rustration that on a Russian food day at NYU Abu Dhabi’s dining hall, Eastern European foods such as borsch, a dish that originated in Ukraine, were labeled as Russian. “We were saying this perpetuates the idea of Russian cultural dominance over Eastern Europe, even in such small things as food,” Tymoshenko said. “It’s a small instance that shows again how, in all of these institutions, I think Russia has been given more credibility and chance to represent the region, while other countries and cultures have been grossly overlooked.” Tymoshenko also critiqued the Russian and Slavic Studies program at NYU’s New York campus, where she studied away during the spring 2021 semester. She said the program spotlights Russian history at the expense of other Eastern European countries, a sentiment she held before the war started. “It was really interesting for me, as a Ukrainian student abroad in this big institution, to observe how my part of the world is being studied f rom the perspective of the U.S. academics and academic institutions,” she said. “And it’s in my opinion, my perspective, it’s still being studied through the colonial lens of Russia.” She believes that Ukrainian culture today is battling contemporary colonialism while the country f ights against Russia for its sovereignty. “I think highlighting Russia as the dominant voice of all Slavic nations, or the country … that has determined the course of Eastern Europe is kind of problematic,” Tymoshenko said. “It excludes the voices and the cultures and the beautiful diversity of all the nations that are in Eastern Europe that have to survive and f ight against Russia in order to become independent today or in order to preserve their languages and culture.” By using Instagram as a platform for raising awareness of the Russian invasion and sharing resources for foreigners, Tymoshenko hopes to make a change to dominant archetypes of Ukrainian identity and combat misrepresentations of Ukraine. “I really don’t like the narrative that has been spread in the Western media about us for a very long time that we’re this sort of second-world European country,” Tymoshenko said. “But by me sharing these videos and pictures, again, I want to focus on getting across the message of, this is how people lived here before, which is probably not very much different f rom the life in Europe, the life in the United States.” Tymoshenko thinks that the recent online attention — and her Instagram verif ication — haven’t changed her social media style. While she believes her blue check mark helps her reach people faster, she does not want to be perceived as someone special because of it. “I’ve always been very, I guess, vocal about a lot of political issues on my personal Instagram,” Tymoshenko said. “I’ve kept my Instagram as a little

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blog f rom all of my traveling and studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. And it was mostly me talking about this experience as a Ukrainian abroad, and I’ve mostly had a Ukrainian audience.” She offers a solution for foreigners who want to assist Ukraine in the war with Russia. Tymoshenko says not to donate to large bureaucratic organizations; instead, she recommends donating to local organizations on the ground in Ukraine. In the midst of war, Tymoshenko is still settling into her new apartment, spending most of her time spreading information on Instagram and Twitter and speaking with international media organizations. She admits that she doesn’t get much work done during wartime — just before our interview, an air raid siren went off, she said. It is with bravery and a love for her culture that Tymoshenko continues to speak with a proudly Ukrainian voice by documenting her experiences with the war in her country. Her story is one of many that illuminate the direction of Ukraine’s future. “The devil works hard but Ukranians work harder,” she said in a recent Instagram post. Contact Derek Soong at culture@nyunews.com.

IMAGE COURTESY OF JULIA TYMOSHENKO

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FROM:

Mayee Yeh | IDENTITY & EQUITY EDITOR

TO: Personal expression, imparted standards and academic expectations SUBJECT: Re: Tattoos to honor

Even from the other side of the country, family never fails to leave its mark on me — so why not make it permanent?

STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

Last October, I got my f irst tattoo: a red string with a few jade beads on my upper left arm. Everyone likes to ask about its meaning or why I got it. Sometimes I say it’s a fanf ic trope, but most of the time I tell the truth, or at least what Wikipedia told me. While the red string of fate is traditionally associated with marriage, I feel like it ties me to my family. The jade beads are more for me — some well wishes of luck. This past fall was the f irst semester I spent away f rom home since the pandemic started. I’d spent more than a year in suburban Southern California, so I really missed my family, and wanted something to remind me of our bond. I was already calling my mother a few times a week — she’d ask me about how my classes were going, and I’d ask her if anything new was happening at church, if my brother was adjusting to his f irst year at college — but it was never enough. I wanted something more permanent. Was I well aware of how my father despised my older siblings’ tattoos? Absolutely. But I felt like familial honor could shield me f rom too much yelling. I had constantly pushed for the highest grades in my class and stayed out of trouble, even when it was to the detriment of my social life. I never told him if there were any obstacles in what he saw to be my perfect life — if it’s for him, he shouldn’t be too upset. Right? I don’t plan on f inding out. My brother decided to be a wise guy and tell my mother. She told me that my father could never know. I’ve seen how my family reacts to things they don’t like. There’s a lot of yelling and f rustration and a consistent inability to hold a conversation about it. Defense mechanisms leave me silent and my eyes full of tears. With the help of light jackets and brief

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interactions, he is still none the wiser. It’s a pretty tattoo, and I’m content with how it looks. But as with every decision I’ve made under the scope of honor, I don’t feel anything beyond contentment. Honor is a complicated thing for me. Time and time again, I’m reminded of all the sacrif ices my family has made — my grandparents are immigrants, as are my parents. My mother left her family and all of her siblings in Malaysia to accompany my father for U.S. residency. My father never made it past his high school degree, but he somehow achieved that rags-to-riches dream. He says his sole hope before he passes away is to see each of his kids walk their college graduations. In life, and especially in academics, I try to be the perfect kid, the one your parents would be jealous of if they heard my name. It was the only measure of worth I’d known. I chose NYU over the state schools I was accepted into because it felt like I’d somehow done better than my siblings. High school forced me into an environment that quantified value by academic worth and college appeal, so it was like a two-for-one deal for validation from both peers and family. I’ve often joked that I ran solely on anxiety, which was painfully true for those four years. I just wasn’t diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder until I graduated. So I complain about my GPA going down by a hundredth, try to complete that inconceivably long thesis, and recite by heart three practical routes I can take with my applied psychology and linguistics majors to any questioning soul. I think it’s all a part of fitting into that honorable perspective. If I can’t even get honors in a major that everyone has to question, is it really worth it? All of my friends around me reassure me that it is, that one C-plus isn’t the end of my academic career, that I’ll overcome a missed assignment or quiz, that all that matters is that I’m doing my best. While I do believe some of it, there’s a little voice in the back of my head that has internalized years of academic pressures and familial expectations with a sprinkle of generational trauma. It says that my 15-minute breaks are excuses to slack off and that my efforts are simply not enough. I can’t help but contradict myself. Even when I feel like I won’t be able to, I constantly encourage everyone around me to work toward what they want to do. It makes me so happy to see my younger brother ignoring our parents’ expectations. He sacrificed job marketability in order to actually enjoy what he’s studying. Our parents don’t sing the same praises about him, but the pressure I feel is a burden he doesn’t have to carry. He makes me want to work harder — if I do, our


STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

parents will never have a reason to turn to him. But all too often I wonder: Am I really OK with this perfect life my parents want? Is everything I say I want to do really what I want to do? How far has the line blended between what I want to do and what they want me to do? For me, parental love isn’t just serving cut-up f ruit and being unable to talk about your emotions — it’s a bond that feels like it’s only acknowledged when you can honor them. So naturally, the second tattoo I got was also for them: a line of their Chinese zodiac signs. The tiger is for my father, the f irst goat is for my mother, the snake is for me and the second goat is for my brother. It’s a piece I’ve been thinking about getting for a while, and when the artist I wanted to get it f rom had an open slot, I almost considered it fate. When my mother found out about my f irst tattoo, she made me promise not to get any more until my father passed away. It was a bit morbid, but my family likes to work in extremes and empty promises. When I was consulting the artist, I considered coloring my brother’s and mine black, while our parents’ were red, a representation of our differences, physical and cultural. My brother said it was cringey, so I didn’t. But the message still rings true. I constantly feel like an impostor in my own home. If I ever came out to my family, I have it hammered into my mind that I would be shunned. My parents are the kind of people who say, “Gay people can do whatever they want — if their lives don’t affect me.” So of course, they can’t even fathom their children being gay. I know I have nothing to apologize for, but I can’t help but feel like my existence is wrong, can’t help but fear their backlash. My use of 他 (tā) is like me grasping for straws: the intersection between my culture and history and objective fact. Historically, it was the only thirdperson pronoun before its male denotation. Now, many Chinese transgender individuals have reverted to its original, singular meaning. Because all thirdperson singular pronouns are homophones, it’s weirdly validating f rom other people. But there’s this impending, unfortunate knowledge that the same will never be true for my parents. All I can do now is take the praise they give to their daughter, the person I pretend to be. And I can’t say anything to correct them. I’m so used to the support they give me, and losing that is so terrifying. All I can do now is hope, dream, that if I ever tell them, they’ll think it’s an honor. Much like the kind I try to return. It only makes sense after all they’ve done for me. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get something that doesn’t make sense, something that I don’t feel like I need to justify. Contact Mayee Yeh at myeh@nyunews.com.

STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

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FROM:

Roshni Raj | CULTURE EDITOR

TO: The pandemic, anti-Asian hate, self-education and activism SUBJECT: Re: ‘Healing our inner child’: Students Selling Stickers

Reflecting on years of injustice and stereotypes, this CAS junior channels her energy into selling stickers.

STAFF PHOTO BY RYAN WALKER

Hearing the words “COVID-19” or “March 2020” makes most of us feel a blend of uncertainty, terror and outrage. The pandemic took family members and f riends away from us and deepened socioeconomic disparities in the United States. For CAS junior Grace Xiang, along with her high school friends Taylor Harris, Kylie Ning and Heidi Tandiono, these feelings of powerlessness and a desire to stay occupied during the lockdown led them to artistic expression. After spending hours researching and planning over FaceTime calls, Students Selling Stickers was born. “Back then, we didn’t really know what we could do to really contribute or make any sort of impact, like we weren’t leaders,” said Xiang, the collective’s head of management and graphic design. “But something that we did know was that you can sell little stickers.” Students Selling Stickers is a student-run nonprofit organization that, at the time of writing, has sold 1,715 stickers and donated $1,900 to various organizations. The group donates the profits from special sticker designs to specific organizations: A “Thank You” take-out bag sticker supports Send Chinatown Love merchants, and a “Higher Ground” sticker partnered with Didómi supports Water is Life to increase water accessibility in African countries. All profits from other stickers — such as “Trans Rights = Human Rights” and “Defund the Police” — are split between the 12 organizations Students Selling Stickers currently donates to. “Stickers are like, what, two dollars?” Xiang said. “You can print meaningful messages or images on them that make people happy, that people can resonate with, that people can carry around with them and kind of show messages and who they are. It kind of gave us a sense of self again to be able to feel like we were doing something meaningful.”

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Xiang, whose family is from Wuhan, China, was aware of COVID-19 f rom the moment it began. “It was really, really annoying being in the U.S. and having people not take it seriously and then also blame people f rom Wuhan for the virus, when in reality they were probably the ones suffering the most and feeling the most fear,” Xiang said. “I wanted to sell stickers to raise awareness about anti-Asian hate. But then with the coming of the summer, I thought that this could be an important thing for all minorities to be able to have some sort of output.” Xiang and her friends attended Little Rock Central High School, a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. A city with a history of segregation and brutality, Little Rock forced Xiang and her friends to become very aware of their race and how they differed from the majority population. Xiang recalled feeling unwelcome in her own city when Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton tried passing a bill to ban Chinese students from studying STEM subjects in the United States and repeatedly used the racist phrases “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” when talking about COVID-19. After the Atlanta spa shooting last year that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, Xiang called Harris to help her channel her emotions into a sticker. The donations f rom the “Stop Asian Hate” sticker pack continue to benef it Send Chinatown Love, which supports struggling businesses in New York City’s Chinatown, and AAPI Women Lead, which aims to increase the visibility of Asian American and Pacif ic Islander women in American society. “I had a full panic attack. [The Atlanta shooting] felt gross, disturbing, so alien and unsettling,” Xiang said. “That’s why actually some of the stickers that we created were things that I specif ically requested them to make. The words in the background, they say things like ‘We are not your fetish. We are not docile. We are not a virus. We are not your scapegoat’ just over and over again, because I needed to reclaim something.” As Students Selling Stickers brought in more sales, Xiang and the cofounders — who are all full-time college students on a premedical track — recruited volunteers to help them with their responsibilities. Xiang says the group, which also includes high school students and university graduates — works tirelessly to continue the non-prof it by helping with artistry and management. “I’m sure everybody who grew up as a minority in America has [thought] about some person or some incident where you felt powerless and weak and you wanted to cry,” Xiang said. “And so I think that was really fuel. It was like healing our inner child and also hopefully the inner child of many people.”


The Students Selling Stickers website features numerous readings, infographics, f ilms and documentaries that spread information about injustice. Aside f rom donating and going to protests, Xiang says history education is a critical path to eliminating one’s own biases, discovering the truth and learning to respect others. She vividly remembers reading a book about the Syrian civil war when she was in the eighth grade — a profound moment that drove her to educate herself on other parts of the world. “I wanted to throw up,” Xiang said. “I couldn’t believe that that was a real world, and I think that was like a glass ball shattering, because I realized how sheltered I had been. I knew about issues in America, issues in China, but kind of the whole world opened up to me.” She sees Students Selling Stickers not as the def initive form of activism but a way for these students to respond to horrible verbal and physical attacks against minority communities. To Xiang, activism means inherently appreciating everyone around the world and standing up for them. “I feel like the word ‘activism’ is so funny now because so many people are just like ‘I’m an activist,’’ and then they post a TikTok dance of them and the caption is ‘don’t hate Black people,’” Xiang said. “But activism, I don’t think it’s something that you have to consciously do. It’s trying to reconcile your identity with the forces pushing against you, telling you that

you shouldn’t be there or that you’re different, or that you’re weird, or that you’re not loved … It’s literally just telling yourself, ‘I’m beautiful and I’m meant to be here.’” In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, political inactivity and anti-Blackness in the Asian community sparked intergenerational conversations, Xiang said. To promote these conversations between family members with different English proficiencies, Students Selling Stickers lists language resources on their website. She said that having resources for people who don’t speak English helps share those ideas across language barriers. “Our parents, and especially our grandparents, have certain views that they’re very set in their ways about, certain ideas or viewpoints that were presented to them that they believe in, even if they’re not true,” Xiang said. While she acknowledges that contributing money can be difficult for many who simply don’t have the funds, she believes these stickers help incentivize generosity for people who have the financial ability. “[Money] is an evil thing, but it’s such a huge factor,” Xiang said. “Incentivizing that donation and being like, ‘If you literally donate three dollars, you can get a free f reaking sticker.’ You get like a fun little message that you resonate with and that maybe represents your identity and makes you feel better.” Contact Roshni Raj at rraj@nyunews.com.

STAFF PHOTO BY RYAN WALKER

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FROM:

Aarna Dixit | STAFF WRITER

TO: Indian culture, American stereotypes and outdated traditions SUBJECT: Re: Reckoning with my Indian identity

As an immigrant living in the United States, I struggle to reconcile my personal values with my Indian identity on a daily basis.

STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

I have been at odds with my birth country since I was born on the outskirts of Mumbai in 2003. I grew up in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. I have very fond memories of getting street food with my grandmother, going to weddings and celebrating festivals. At the same time, I carried a lot of hatred toward my Indian identity, as contemporary India’s political narratives center on nationalistic, right-wing and patriarchal values. In recent years, the passage of Islamophobic and sexist legislation are only two examples of India’s politics becoming increasingly conservative. The country’s history of colonization has only complicated its politics. As such, I have had to work a lot on reckoning with my Indian identity, trying to restore a healthy relationship with it and my identity as a progressive activist. When I think about it, I never really had a strong connection to my Indian identity to begin with. In middle school, we were only allowed to speak English. Hindi, my first language and India’s most-spoken language, could only be spoken during Hindi class. I was forbidden from speaking my mother tongue in my mother country. Alongside my feeble attachment to Indian culture was a passion for activism that often clashed with India’s politics. Toward the end of middle school, I started forming my political identity, reading books on feminism, and becoming more aware of current events and social justice movements. I started becoming more passionate about gender equity and LGBTQ+ rights. I had the privilege of going to an international school, which most people in India don’t, and I tried to use that platform to advocate for issues I was passionate about. International schools in India usually tout progressive values and an awareness of global issues. When I asked to host an awareness assembly on LGBTQ+ issues, I assumed the administration would be on my side, but they said no, telling me that such matters were “inappropriate.” I felt

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defeated. I had wanted to create a safe zone for my LGBTQ+ friends, but I couldn’t even discuss their identities at school. Of course, I myself hadn’t identified as queer back then. If I had, my identity would have been deemed inappropriate, which would simply invalidate and dehumanize me. As I started becoming engaged in activism I became frustrated with the lack of political advocacy platforms available to me. The United States, on the other hand, seemed like the ultimate escape from India’s conservatism. The Indian media I consumed throughout my childhood made the United States seem like a perfect land with perfect people, where the quality of life was simply better — more progressive. The idea of moving to the “West” and living in the magical land of America enthralled me. You could have caught me watching American television shows as a child with wide eyes and an open jaw. The universe granted my wish halfway through the ninth grade. My father, who worked for Nike, was transferred to the company’s global headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Moving to the United States was a privilege that most Indians don’t have. I was excited to engage with progressive politics and activism. However, my excitement faded when the facade lifted before my eyes. The United States wasn’t all that. In the United States, marginalized people rail against those in power to dismantle systems of oppression that have been in place ever since colonizers brutally stole this land from Indigenous peoples. India might appear to be more progressive in certain ways, such as its history of women in power long before Kamala Harris became the U.S. Vice President, the constitutional right to reparations offered to the historically marginalized, and longer maternity leave stipulated by law than many “Western” countries. But these professedly progressive policies, while theoretically written in law, are often inaccessible to people who need them most. Despite the problems in both nations, in my experience, starting social movements or engaging with activism seems much easier in the United States than India. As a college student, I also became involved with sex education. Now, I feel conflicted about how misaligned my values are with those of the authority figures I had growing up. One of the reasons I became passionate about sex education and sexual liberation was that I didn’t receive any sex education at my school in India. I recognized the need for comprehensive sex and consent education is just as important here in the United States, where there is no mandate for teaching it on the federal level and many states stress abstinence over education about sexual health or informed consent. In the United States, although I could be a sex educator openly and engage in the political activism I was passionate about, my peers constantly stereotyped me. I was appalled by the number of people who were surprised I


STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

STAFF PHOTO BY MANASA GUDAVALLI

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could speak proper English. The captain of my high school’s speech and debate team complimented me on my English, though I have always prided myself on being well-spoken. Realizing that I could be reduced to a stereotype was a harsh and hurtful truth. Everything I have known and experienced in my life seemed to vanish, reduced to a warped, “Western” perspective of South Asian culture. As someone who lived in India for the first 14 years of their life, I believe I have the right to criticize my country for its wrongs. But it makes my blood boil when people who have never even read about India make assumptions about my culture or society, thinking all we do is eat curry and speak “Hindu.” It would always bother me when people would tell me they love Indian food the minute they heard my accent. I have seen mundane practices from Indian culture fetishized and exoticized in the United States. Think about the last time you went to a yoga lesson or watched a TikTok about crystals. No, it’s not called the downward dog, it’s the Adho Mukha Svanasana. Better yet, go into any New Age spirituality shop or even vintage store. Note the various “trinkets” from Indian culture and Indic religions on the shelves: incense, crystals, tapestries, idols of various deities and the Om sign, ॐ, a symbol that signifies bringing together the three parts of an individual — mind, body and spirit. I subscribe to many spiritual aspects of Hinduism — karma, the afterlife, divine consciousness — but not the religion in its entirety. Nevertheless, symbols and cultural aspects of Hinduism are important to me. Every time I have entered a New Age store in Portland, a non-Indian person behind the counter has smiled at me with incense in hand. Seeing my friends in Portland buy and light that incense — agarbatti, as I know it — unsettles me. I often wonder if those buying and selling items with the ॐ symbol know its significance, or what it’s even called. When their Indian roots are not preserved, these practices become subject to U.S. consumerism and lose their meaning. However, I am glad my culture is being appreciated on a global scale. Seeing Indian culture valued, however misinterpreted, made me realize how beautiful and fascinating it is. However annoying it was when people heard my accent and immediately told me how much they love Indian food, it does remind me of my home and the culture I miss. I can never truly detach from that. I will never stop loving and protecting my culture. After 18 years, I’ve finally begun to reconcile my identity with my values by coming to terms with the United States’ flaws and separating who I am from my home country’s shortcomings. I love India’s culture, despite being at odds with some of its societal values and the effects of its colonial history. I am unequivocally proud of being Indian, because it has made me who I am. Reconciliation is an ongoing process. I wrestle with it every time I see headlines of sexism or Islamophobia in India or see Americans appropriating my culture. I believe it’s important that I work towards building a better relationship with my country and its culture. No matter how far away I move from India or what clashing values I hold, it will always be my home. Contact Aarna Dixit at culture@nyunews.com.

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The Identity& Equity Issue a brief sentence about the theme of this special issue.