What we represent and what we don’t

Students and faculty discuss representation at the OCCU’s event Passages and Perspectives earlier this semester. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Executive Staff

When I was nine years old, my family and I moved to New Delhi, India, as part of my father’s diplomatic assignment. It was my first time leaving Myanmar that I would remember: I had, at the age of three, travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, but aside from brief memories of snow and red couches, I recall nothing. My parents enrolled my brother and me at Springdales, a prestigious school that wasn’t too far from our apartment.

My first day at Springdales, I was swarmed by a crowd of curious students. Questions were thrown at me like quickfire: “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where is that? What’s it like there?”

And my repeated answers: “Mandy. Myanmar. It’s right beside India. It’s fine.”

When I left home at 17 to study in Perth, Australia, the vice principal of my college approached me and my best friend, Dayana Ahamad, a wonderful Muslim girl, and said: “It’s so nice to see that you two are friends, despite everything that’s going on between your countries.”

He meant the Rohingya crisis. He meant the slaughter of thousands of Muslims at the hands of Burmese Buddhists. Dayana and I looked at each other, not knowing what to say. You could almost see the ghosts of our countries and our people appearing on our shoulders.

I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was being asked to represent. As was she.

This past year, the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU) launched the Representations Project, which aimed to address the unique challenges that come with having to represent entire cultures, countries, ethnicities, races, and identities.

Our first event was a panel discussion, Combating the Single Story, that featured Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, Dr. Emmanuel Asiedu-Acquah, David “Chief” Johnson (C’19), and Jasmine Huang (C’21). For this we focused on the media stereotypes that allowed for often wrong assumptions that are made about often minorities and international students. Thematically it was based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which I encourage that you watch.

This event started the conversation. We then set up the Representation Station at McClurg Dining Hall, asking students, faculty, and community members to come by and tell us what they are often asked to represent and what they actually do represent.

Here are a few examples of the cards we got filled out:

Don’t ask me to represent Africa. Don’t ask me to represent all Asians. Don’t ask me to represent all women.

I represent aspiring journalists. I represent someone trying to be a good dad. I represent myself.

While manning the Representation Station, I noticed that a fair number of students took a longer time to understand the concept and what we were asking them to do. These students were not minority students. Were not international students. Were not students of color. These students presumably had seldom been asked to represent more than just themselves and so the responsibility of representing their country, their culture, their race, their religion, or their sexuality never really falls on them. It isn’t something that they usually consider.

My favorite thing about this project is that I’ve had people come up to me and tell me about their experiences having to represent much more than themselves. They tell me how exhausting it can be. How nobody had talked about it before. How important it was that we were having this conversation.

But this project has brought up other questions as well. What happens when we refuse to take up the mantle of representation? Say I stop telling everyone about Myanmar and my experiences in the country. Say I refuse to respond when someone asks about the Rohingya crisis. Say I demand that everyone see me as an individual, as a drop in an ocean of experiences, incapable of representing any other perspective but mine.

Where would that leave those who do not know better than to ask? Isn’t it better that I am here, educating others not to depend on stereotypes perpetuated by the media and literature, grounding these abstract notions of a faraway land in reality? Shouldn’t I be proud to represent my country, seeing as how I’m one of three Burmese students on campus?

It is a question I am still struggling with. While I am happy to discuss the trials and tribulations that my country has undergone, along with its joys and its merits, I don’t want to keep answering the same questions, particularly if the conversation will be forgotten once I walk out of your direct line of sight.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am proud of my country, of my heritage. I am happy to talk to you about any aspect of it, if you let me know that you care. I need to know that you are not getting information about this aspect of my identity from only me; that you are not about to trivialize or generalize my experiences; that I am not your token Burmese representative.

As international students, we are not given the luxury of hesitating when someone asks us what we are often asked to represent. We do not have the privilege of writing “I represent myself” on a card without having an existential crisis.

There are countries on our backs. Some days we bend under their weight. Some days we break.

So I ask you, dear reader, to be conscious and considerate. When you’re talking about China’s environmental crisis and you turn to the one Asian person in your class, you’re asking them to represent a culture and a country that may not even be theirs. When you’re talking about slavery and you turn to the one African-American person, you’re placing an entire history on their heads.

Be aware too that even if you don’t direct the questions to the people in the room for whom it might be pertinent, they feel that pressure to represent. From experience, I’ve had days when I have not been called on to represent, but I’d felt that I’d had to. If I happened to walk out of the class without saying anything, there is an ache in my gut that doesn’t go away.

So switch up the questions. Ask instead, “What do you think about this? What are your personal experiences?”

Ask us as individuals first, and we will happily answer.

One comment

  1. Gee… If only there were a society built on the concept that the individual is sovereign, and said society were not under constant assault by those who insist on focusing on identity and power… What would we even call such a place?

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