My Cultural Space: Politics of Identity and Belonging in Neighborhoods of New York City
Lili Shi, Kingsborough Community College (CUNY)
My course is Intercultural Communication, a survey course introducing foundational theories of the discipline. It is a certified “writing intensive” and “civic engagement” course in which I take a critical focus on race, gender, language, and space. My goal of integrating Asian American content was two-fold: 1) to raise students’ political consciousness to engage conversations of social justice when investigating identifications, representations, and experiences of race and gender in specific spatial and temporal communication contexts, and 2) to recognize Asian American experiences and identities are a critical site where such political consciousness calls to be raised.
Asian American content is not new to my course. Throughout the years, I have included historical materials of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, and Vincent Chin’s case – for example – in my lectures on comparative racial histories and identities. This semester, after being exposed to the wonderful materials and ideas from our summer institute, I particularly redesigned a core project, a scaffolded writing and presentation assignment on “cultural space” – a spatial interrogation of cultural identity politics and belonging in New York City through one’s own lived experiences — that runs throughout the semester. The project is done through several scaffolded assignments.
First, early in the semester, students read A Dialectic Approach to Intercultural Communication, a key text that introduces students the paradigmatic frame for the course — that culture is not a static label or a sum of ethnic artifacts, but an evolving power-laden matrix producing meanings and identities through a dynamic, relational, messy process that even involves contradictions. Students then were assigned an exploratory essay answering the following prompts: Who would you say are your two most important cultural communities? What communication behaviors do you engage that make you say so? Do other members all think and behave like you? Are there moments you feel you don’t perfectly belong? Describe those moments. Apply those moments using the “dialectics” from the reading.
Later in the semester, as I lecture through the text book on intercultural communication and history (chapter 3), identity (chapter 4), nonverbal communication and cultural space (chapter 6) while students read the following entries from the Key Words for Asian American Studies book: assimilation, citizenship, community, diaspora, enclave, gender, globalization, immigration, incarceration, politics, race. After learning the core concept “cultural space” – any physical or psychological space produced by human communication that one negotiates one’s cultural identities with — each student was then asked to organize a 5-minute presentation introducing three examples of “my cultural space” using three digital images taken as s/he carried on his/her daily activities, among which two represented the two most important communities/identities discussed in the previous essay, and one image representing a space that s/he felt alienation and discomfort to some degree. Students were asked to discuss their lived experiences and dialectics with(in) those spaces and how any of the Key Words played out in such experiences.
To provide some context and practice for this major class presentation, I provided students with excerpts of reading from Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America and Tarry Hum’s Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. We read Bald’s vivid spatial ethnographic account of an Indian immigrant, Habib Ullah’s daily commute of life and work in 1940’s New York City, how he moved from varied districts of India to New York, from Lower East Side “up the Lexington Avenue subway line to East Harlem” (p.161) where he settled down with his Puerto Rican wife, working and co-running an Indian restaurant in Midtown’s Theater District by day and becoming Harlem’s “overlapping diasporas” (along with lower class Mexicans, Argentineans, and Peruvians) by night. In class, we discussed how the Key Words (e.g. community, citizenship, diaspora, enclave, etc.) played out in Habid Ullah’s life based on the racial context described by the book and how he would hypothetically present photos included the book for this assignment if he’d be in our class. In addition, we read excerpts of Hum’s work on Sunset Park – a familiar neighborhood for many Kingsborough students – on its gentrification and environmental injustice to ethnic groups, and invited students to talk about their relationships, dialectics, and experiences with that neighborhood, how the key words were lived, and how such lived experiences related to Hum’s analysis. After such warming up in class, students presented their three cultural spaces and discussed their lived politics of identity and belonging individually.
Students’ performances for the project are polarized. Those who fully participated in the scaffolding process gave amazingly rich and insightful presentations, some of them were even journalistically and sociologically valuable and poetic. Those who missed any of the scaffolding steps – especially those who missed the readings and discussions – made the content overly simplistic that engaged too much chatty narratives and not enough contextualized analysis.
Students reflected that it was a meaningful project and the presentation was the most difficult assignment throughout the course. During the presentations, prominent themes emerged such as impact of gentrification on Asian American communities, politics of belonging in academic spaces for immigrant students and reverse transfer students from four-year college to two-year college. Such themes developed into extensive discussions in the classroom space where students felt relevant and connected. I realized the scaffolding process was a little too complex which confused some students, therefore I am considering breaking the “dialectical approach” essay to be independent from the later cultural space presentation next term. I am also thinking about changing the orders of the readings, introducing the more accessible pieces like Bald’s Bengali Harlem book or Frances Chung’s Chinatown poetries as the first pieces at the beginning of the semester rather than the theoretically dense Dialectical Approach to Intercultural Communication. Hopefully in this way, ideas such as “complexities are within the mundane”, “personal is political”, can make an inviting impression on the students early on that improve students’ understanding of the later cultural space assignment.