Growing up Japanese in the American South, I was often the only Asian kid in my classes. My eyes were perceived as being too small. My skin was too tan and my food was icky. Characters on TV hardly ever looked like me and no one pronounced my name correctly. This experience is common among many Asian Americans, especially in the South, where our number has historically been lower than on the West Coast or in the Northeast.
The problem of underrepresentation is a long-term one, seen not only in Hollywood (Ghost in the Shell, anyone?) but also in academic circles. Even organizations known for focusing on documenting diversity can sometimes fall short. The Southern Oral History Program, a branch of UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for the Study of the American South, has been collecting in-depth oral histories from the South for more than forty years. The center's archive contains more than 6,000 interviews, including ones with notable figures like Bill Gates and Newt Gingrich. But only forty-seven of them featured people of Asian descent.
Rachel Seidman, SOHP's associate director, hopes a new project called Southern Mix (www.southernmixvoices.com) will fix that. Seidman says the lack of Asian stories was disappointing but bound to change because of the influx of Asian Americans in the South in the past decade, when, according to census data, that population grew faster than any other ethnic group in the U.S., increasing by 46 percent from 2000 to 2010. In that time, North Carolina became the state with the third-fastest-growing Asian population, with an 85 percent increase.
Anna-Rhesa Versola, who knows the challenges of my own upbringing firsthand, says that representation is still catching up with this growth.
"You don't hear our stories," says Versola. "I want to use [Southern Mix] as a way to give voice to the quiet minority—well, in this case, the quiet majority."
Versola, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the Triangle, grew up feeling like an outsider. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was three years old, shortly before Ferdinand Marcos, then the president of the Philippines, declared martial law, resulting in unrest and violence in the ensuing years.
"It was too dangerous to go back," Versola says. "We had to commit to being as American as possible to help assimilate better."
A graduate of Duke and UNC, Versola founded Southern Mix, which launched in April. A collaboration at UNC between SOHP, the Carolina Asia Center, and UNC's Alumni Committee for Racial and Ethnic Diversity (of which Versola is a member), the project is collecting oral histories from Asian and Asian-American residents of the Triangle and the larger region, documenting stories about immigration, assimilation, and the blending or preservation of cultures.
While UNC has the largest Asian studies program in the Southeast, Morgan Pitelka, the director of the Carolina Asia Center, notes that the study of Asians and Asian Americans has always been separate. Southern Mix, which includes stories from both groups, will bring the two together.
"People need to know that there are differences between Asians and Asian Americans," says Versola.
The Southern Mix website currently highlights the forty-seven interviews with Asian Americans that were already in SOHP's archive in addition to two new ones, stream-able and supplemented with photos, including one with Versola. In it, she discusses the prevalent dichotomy of race when she was growing up and the feelings of never belonging to either side and being forced to pick one.
"For a majority of the time, all I saw was black or white," Versola says in the interview. "Every day I was reminded that I looked different than everybody else."
This summer, the coordinators of the project want to recruit UNC undergraduates as interns and train them as interviewers. Those interested can learn more on Southern Mix's website, where you can volunteer to interview others or be interviewed yourself.
Pitelka envisions Southern Mix becoming a holistic, sustainable entity. His focus is on using help from university departments to offer grants to faculty to create new courses or change existing ones to incorporate Asian-American stories—and to assign students to interview people or otherwise engage with the project.
For the organizers, Southern Mix isn't just about collecting stories to be filed away, filling a gap in an archive. It's an avenue toward creating wider public awareness about the Asian community and its numerous identities. The group hopes that the momentum of engaging students and faculty will foster public interest and lead to conferences and events on campus. Pitelka looks forward to the possibility of someday creating an Asian-American major or minor for the school.
"The study of Asian Americans in the South is not a big topic, so we will be on the cutting edge of this," Seidman says. "That's why oral histories are so key. You can share full life stories, not just slivers." And for many Asian Americans, like Versola and myself, it's about finally being heard.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Quiet Majority."