Asia House Must Be Recognized as Identity-Based Housing for Asian Students

Asia House is having an identity crisis. 

Located at the center of campus, anyone can go there to eat at Pyle Inn Co-op, rummage through items at the Free Store, or — though frowned upon — study in the library. As much as I love and appreciate these places, their current functions and placements are the antithesis of Asia House’s intended function as a cultural hub for Asian students on campus. 

Although Asia House is listed as an identity-based house, the Oberlin website designates the space as open to anyone with an “interest in Asian and Asian American cultures,” with special priority given to East Asian Studies majors, and its name is interchangeable with the “Quadrangle.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “interest” is not the same as lived experiences. Interest is not the same as facing weird stares, uncomfortable questions, and plain ignorance from other people at Oberlin. These experiences can even reach physical violence, or threats of it. For instance, in 2017, an Asian student who was a resident of Asia House was threatened with a knife and called racial slurs by a drunk man in the parking lot. 

“He was calling me a Chinese b***h. … He kept saying, ‘I’m going to cut you. I’m going to stick you,’” the student said in a Review article (“Altercation Leads to Arrest in Harassment Case,” The Oberlin Review, April 14, 2017).

Asia House’s Oberlin web page goes on to say that there are programs coordinated by both the Multicultural Resource Center — which isn’t even its name anymore, speaking further to the outdated nature of the information presented — and the East Asian Studies department. But when events here are coordinated by a department that primarily studies three Asian countries — China, Japan, and Korea — it doesn’t account for the many Asian students who aren’t Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Events held by the East Asian Studies department are few and far between, and events coordinated by other student organizations this year have often been held in other places, such as Shansi House or The Cat in the Cream. 

When talking about the importance of Asia House’s existence as a community hub for Asian students, we must also acknowledge its history. When Asia House was built in 1931, it was called the Quadrangle and housed students of the now-defunct Graduate School of Theology. Oberlin’s School of Theology educated missionaries who traveled to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to “enlighten” the people there with Christianity. We are reminded of this sad and disgusting history every time we walk past the Memorial Arch, which honors the missionaries and their families killed with barely any mention of the Chinese victims of Oberlin’s colonial past. Asia House did not house any of these missionaries, but it was built on the foundation of their legacy. The truth is simple: without the attempts to “civilize” Asian countries, specifically China, Oberlin would not be the Oberlin that it is today. 

Asia House does have the potential to host these activities, but, without the official recognition as an affinity space for Asian students, it can’t hold as much weight. An example of a successful affinity space on campus is Afrikan Heritage House. Monthly soul sessions and spaces such as the lounges make it a friendly and welcoming environment for any Black student on campus, regardless of whether they live in the dorm or not. A-House’s success as an affinity space is aided by multiple factors. First, they have student program assistants, though it’s important to recognize that these positions weren’t added until after they were included in a list of demands from ABUSUA in June 2020. A-House also has a director and faculty-in-residence, Professor of Africana Studies Candice Raynor. These positions exist because of collective action and long-term community care by Black students and faculty throughout the years. However, it is important to acknowledge that A-House still faces challenges within the institution — right now there is a movement and petition advocating for an assistant for Professor Raynor. 

Ultimately, from A-House to Asia House, it feels like the POC living spaces get little to no respect from either Residential Education or the College. For Asia House, this looks like placing the burden of activities and events on the students and the students alone. Community-building events are often organized by the Asian Diaspora Coalition, the Asian American Alliance, and by Asia House RAs, who, like many student workers on campus, are overworked and underpaid and can only do so much. Finding faculty assistance may be hard without a specific major that fully represents the identities of all Asian students. However at this rate, almost any institutional support would be better than what we currently have. 

I don’t know if we can forgive our past, but we can take a step toward the future. To do so, Asia House must be recognized as a space for Asian students that is supported by the College. This is not a friendly suggestion. This is a call to action.