Culture

In a sea of Southeast Asians on campus, I am a minority. I am underrepresented. I am Laotian.

Oftentimes, people misidentify me as Vietnamese. While I do not find that to be an insult, it functions as a reminder that I am not able to relate or identify with a cultural group on campus.

Laos is located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. My parents, like most of the Lao population in the United States, sought refuge in America from the war over communism. I am a first-generation college student in my family and according to the Center of American Progress Asian American Pacific Islander data, one of the 13 percent of Laotians pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Within the Southeast Asian community, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong individuals are less likely to be financially successful. According to The Washington Post, “the experience of refugee populations such as Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Khmer groups continue to fall below standard markers of achievement.” The reasons for this ranges from lack of personal motivation and familial support to complete higher education to gang involvement and traditional values that apply patriarchal beliefs.

There are plenty of APIDA student clubs and organizations at UCLA—Vietnamese Student Union, Association of Chinese Americans, Hanoolim (Korean Cultural Awareness group) and even the Association of Hmong Students and United Khmer Students of UCLA—but not one exclusively established for the Laotian community.

Imagine my shock, coming from San Diego—a culturally diverse city with a large Lao population—to UCLA. Approximately 31.2% of undergraduate students identify within the  APIDA community as of Fall 2016, but this campus still lacks a Lao student organization. Which brings me to the question—where is our representation?   

College seemed like a place for me to bridge the gap between my identity and heritage because as a teenager, I neglected to fully embrace my culture.

Participating in every religious ceremony and regularly attending temple allowed me to possess an adequate understanding of both Buddhism and Lao customs. However, I long to be more immersed and enlightened.

I regret not appreciating my culture throughout high school and did not realize how much of an impact my lack of traditional involvement and understanding had on me until the college application period of my life. Months of self-reflection for personal statements led me to realize that my perception of my own identity was unstable due to a deficiency in Asian American representation in the media and culture that I was exposed to.

A few months at UCLA did not solve my internal conflicts, but directed me towards valuable resources. For instance, I involved myself with  an APIDA Newsmagazine called Pacific Ties that allows me to be part of the news media presence that I wish I had growing up. In addition, my involvement in Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention (SEA CLEAR) connected me with two amazing Lao graduate students at UCLA, one of which includes my current mentor. Although I am still in the process of getting to know both of these individuals, I already feel supported, understood and a lot less alone.

However, I cannot help but imagine how wonderful it would be to have more cultural clubs and organizations centered around the minority groups of the minority groups. It is crucial to establish more clubs that emulate SEA CLEAR’s mission to “increase graduation and retention rates” and “nurture students to embrace their identity by exploring Southeast Asian history, culture, and politics.” Adopting these crucial principles will provide a safe space for students who identify as minorities of a minority group, as well as provide outreach opportunities to their ethnic communities to encourage Southeast Asian high school students to pursue higher education at UCLA.

With this representation, we can disillusion the Asian stereotypes that continues to overlook the struggles of the minorities within the community. Creating more cultural clubs and organizations on UCLA’s campus would grant the ethnic groups a chance to both genuinely represent themselves and to strengthen their community.

Ashley Beteta was always interested in Korean culture. In high school, she started a Korean culture club. She would research facts about Korea and present them to her classmates at weekly meetings. When she came to UCLA, she decided to study political science with a concentration in international relations.

However, the major and focus was not enough, so she searched for a Korean cultural club. Now as a second-year student, Beteta is the historian for Hanoolim – UCLA’s only Korean cultural organization dedicated to spreading cultural awareness.

Hanoolim, established in 1990, was originally a political organization aimed to raise awareness to Korean immigration and discrimination issues. Through poongmul, or traditional Korean drumming, the student-run organization participated in demonstrations and protests, standing at the battlefront especially when the Los Angeles riots struck Koreatown in 1992.

The student group helped lead a march through Koreatown during the riots, performing poongmul while the crowd followed and cheered on, according to a 1992 Daily Bruin article.

 

Hanoolim 1990_ la riots
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

“We need to show support. We need to show that students care about the community,” said Raphael Hong, a member of Hanoolim then, in the article.

After 24 years, though much less politically oriented, Hanoolim still maintains close ties with its community. Every year Hanoolim participates in the annual Koreatown Ji Shin Balp Ki (JSBK), a Lunar New Year tradition to remove evil spirits and to bring good luck to residences and stores. The poongmul team, along with UCI’s and USC’s, would go from door to door and perform the traditional Korean art.

The experience is “just amazing. Lot of older adults (are) so touched by the sight of us playing and that young people are celebrating traditional Korean holidays,” recalled Sally Oh, external vice president of Hanoolim and a third-year student, when she led the poongmul team at JSBK last year.

Besides serving its community, Hanoolim also shares the arts and traditions of Korea to the UCLA community. Just recently, Hanoolim hosted its annual Korean Culture Festival at Bruin Plaza, showcasing Korean food and hanbok, a traditional festive attire, to name a few.

Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

First-year student and Hanoolim member Minsoo Kim said when the festival was nearing its conclusion, a woman asked him the names of all the Korean food that was served so the next time she was at a Korean restaurant, she would know what to order.

“People seemed pretty excited to go and play” the traditional games, added Kim.

It was “fun for me to see people play traditional Korean games, put on traditional clothing,” said Beteta. “(I) felt so much pride to showcase.”

Near the end of the academic year, Hanoolim additionally hosts the annual Korean Culture Night, a collaborative event that emphasizes the arts and dances of Korea. One particular art emphasized is none other than poongmul.

Poongmul is very tied to our traditional culture. It was the music used by the more common people back in history,” described Hyeri Choi, a fourth-year student and current lead poongmul coordinator.

Photo courtesy of Hanoolim.
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

And just like the commoners in ancient Korea, the lead coordinators upheld the oral nature of the art, passing the music down to new members verbally. There is neither script nor sheet music for reference.

“This is the way it’s done, the only way it could be done,” said Choi.

Despite it being a hundreds-year-old art, other members of the poongmul team find no contention with the practice.

“I do appreciate how there is an effort to keep the tradition alive,” said Kim who is also a member of the team.

Alli Kang, a first-year student and member, expressed, “I’m really proud that I’m able to connect to my culture in an ancient way … Why did I not do this earlier?”

Whether it be because of the traditional drumming, community outreach or people, Hanoolim truly establishes itself as a cultural group and a community.

“One major thing is that our club has the word cultural in its name,” said YooJeong Han, a second-year student and the event coordinator for Hanoolim. “The majority of clubs that I saw … were all focused on (Korean people), whereas our club is getting everybody and doing something Korean with them.”

“Hanoolim gives you a lot of opportunities to be not only a part of the Korean community but also the UCLA community. (You can) be part of something bigger, get opportunities to either perform or run (a) show,” mentioned Oh.

“It really (is an) incredibly inclusive and welcoming community,” noted Choi.

Sharon Lee, a third-year student and president of Hanoolim, said, “Doesn’t matter (who) you are. We accept everybody.”

 

On November 4, UCLA’s Hanoolim: Korean Cultural Awareness Group hosted an evening screening of Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 film 국제시장 (Ode to My Father) at Northwest Auditorium on the Hill. Beginning the week with a successful Korean Cultural Festival in Bruin Plaza, Hanoolim bookended the week with a screening of the second highest-grossing film in the South Korean film industry.

Hanoolim’s collaborations with several sponsors contributed to the programming of these two events. A collaboration with the UCLA Office of Residential Life provided the venue for the screening, and a collaboration with CJ Group, a South Korean conglomerate which holds entertainment subsidies, led to the securing of the screening rights for Ode to My Father. Hanoolim’s President Sharon Lee, a third-year UCLA undergraduate student, described collaborations with Korean businesses based in Koreatown, Los Angeles as mutually beneficial as these businesses are eager to reach out to the student population at UCLA.

Lee hoped that Hanoolim’s movie screening would bring awareness to the historical narratives addressed in Ode to My Father, such as the Hungnam evacuation of 1950, the struggles of Korean migrant workers in Germany during the 1960s, and the broadcast television programming showing the reunions of family members separated by the Korean War in 1983. The film serves a purpose in highlighting the narratives of Korean and Korean American culture. In particular, the Hungnam evacuation is a recurring trauma for the film’s lead character, Yoon Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min), in which the circumstances of the evacuation inform the choices Yoon makes in the different stages of his life.

Despite being a high-grossing film at the South Korean box office, Ode to My Father has been subject to controversy because the film’s interpretation of South Korean history leaves out problematic and contentious moments in the nation’s history that might tarnish the country’s image. For example, critics argue that Ode to My Father leaves darker events in South Korea’s history unaddressed, such as martial law, student protests, and political scandals. Instead, Ode to My Father focuses on South Korea’s success in its rapid industrialization from a developing country to a developed country through the view of Yoon Deok-soo’s life experiences. The idealized perspective of history reflects a conservative cinema, and the filmic narrative primarily speaks to the older generations of Koreans and Korean Americans. Nonetheless, the historical events covered in the melodrama are important reminders for Korean and Korean American youth of the sacrifices their elders made.

On Saturday, April 16th, Bad Rap, an independent documentary about Asian American hip-hop artists, made its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  The documentary, directed by Salima Koroma and produced by Jaeki Cho, follows four rappers, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks, as they try to break into the hip-hop world.

With the tagline, “You don’t hear us on the radio,” the rappers not only struggle with making it into the industry, but face additional burdens associated with their skin color, such as the inherent responsibility of representing Asian Americans, the struggles of chasing their dreams when hit with reality, and the pushback from critics and lack of belonging in the industry.

To honor the film’s premiere, here are some sample tracks from each of the four artists featured to get you familiar:

 

1. Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park

Based in Koreatown, Los Angeles, Dumbfoundead became one of YouTube’s most visible Asian-American personalities, gaining notoriety from rap battles, one of which followed a five-year hiatus, and recognition from Drake:

Standout tracks: “24KTOWN,” “Cool and Calm,” featured in Keith Ape’s “It G Ma Remix.”

2. Nora “Awkwafina” Lum

After her viral hit, “My Vag,” Lum, a New York-based Chinese American, became one of the cast members of MTV’s “Girl Code.”  She will also be featured in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron.

Standout tracks: “NYC Bitche$,” “Yellow Ranger,” “Come Stop Me” feat. fellow Bad Rap-per Dumbfoundead.

3. David “Rekstizzy” Lee

Another New Yorker, hailing from Queens, Lee is known for his controversial acts, such as squirting condiments on his dancers’ rears in the music video for “God Bless America.” Despite explicit lyrics, in the track featured above, “You Can’t Be Serious,” Lee addresses the stigma against mental health treatment.

Standout tracks: “All Night,” “Whatever You Say,” “One Track Mind” feat. Ann One.

4. Richard “Lyricks” Lee

Hailing from Fairfax, Virginia, Lee faces the struggle between chasing his dreams and taking care of his parents, a value that resonates with most Americans born to immigrant parents.

Stand out tracks: “Seven Rings,” “Clutch,” “My Will Aside”

 

Bad Rap also features personalities like Jay Park, Traphik/Timothy DeLaGhetto, Far East Movement, MC Jin, Decipher, and the Fung Bros to provide commentary on Asian Americans in the music industry.

In addition to the Tribeca Film Festival, Bad Rap will also make an appearance at the 2016 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, screening on Wednesday, April 27th at 9:30 PM at the CGV Cinemas.  Student and senior tickets are priced at $13 and general admission tickets are $14, you can purchase your tickets here.

On February 3, a few nights before Lunar New Year, UCLA Feast at Rieber held a special Lunar New Year dinner that featured different kinds of food that East Asian cultures eat during Lunar New Year.

The menu highlights were:

  • Spicy Braised Short Ribs with Sticky Rice
  • Full Moon Tsukimi Udon
  • Spare Ribs with Goji Berry Bao
  • Pork Belly In Gwa Pao
  • Pork Dumplings
  • Faux Shark Fin Soup
  • Jicama Salad
  • Almond Tofu with Sweet Syrup

As people entered Feast for their delicious dinner, staff from Feast passed out sticky notes and pencils for people, who were waiting in long lines, to write down hopes and wishes for the upcoming New Year. After entering Feast, people could post their sticky note on a brown butcher paper, which symbolizes a wishing tree.

Wishing trees can be found in cultures throughout the world, but for East Asian cultures, people typically write down their wishes and hang them on the branches. In China, wishes are tied to small oranges or another auspicious substitute, and are thrown up to hang on the wishing tree branches. It is believed that if the wish successfully hung on the branches, the wish will come true, and that the higher the branch, the more likely the person’s hopes will be fulfilled.

The Wishing Tree

Inside, Feast had many New Year decorations such as lanterns and Chinese zodiac animals — especially monkeys since it is the year of the monkey!

Entering Feast - Lunar New Year Decorations Decorations Inside Feast - Lunar New Year Decorations

 

In addition to the festive atmosphere and mouth-watering food, Feast also arranged a lion dance performance by the ACA Lion Dance Group. During the Lion Dance, performers (lions) went up close and personal to students for fun, playful interactions that are supposed to bring good luck.

Lion Dance Performance by ACA Lion Dance Group

Lion dance has been a Chinese tradition for thousands of years. Common folk lore says that the performance was originally to scare away the New Year Monster that appears on New Year’s eve and devastates crops. Now it is performed not only during New Year, but also during festive events and holidays.

At the climax of the performance, the ACA lions performed the traditional cai qing (”采青,” “plucking greens”), where the lions pluck lettuce that usually hide red envelopes with money — or, in this performance, candy. The red envelopes are typically hidden in the greens (“青”), which often refers to lettuce, denoted by the characters “生菜” (“sheng cai”). Since “生菜” is pronounced similarly to “making wealth” (“生财,” “sheng cai”), eating the vegetable is said to welcome wealth in the new year. After eating the vegetable, the lion scatters the money (candy) all over to symbolize “遍地生财,” roughly translated to “making wealth from everywhere.”

Overall, Feast’s special Lunar New dinner not only caters to student’s stomachs, but also offers an opportunity to discover and learn more about East Asian cultures on and off the plates. However, the dinner would have been more successful if Feast featured more traditions or customs of East Asian countries other than those of China — especially since there is already the common misconception that Lunar New Year is Chinese. While China has many rich Lunar New Year traditions, it is also important to understand that Lunar New Year is also celebrated by other cultures. Nonetheless, Feast was able to include other cultures though the variety of food offered, but the experience has room for improvement.

One year and nine months or 21 months. If you are a man born in South Korea, you need to join the Korean army for 21 months. Whenever I hear about missile attack from North Korea, I realize that Korea is still at war. The Korean Peninsula is divided into two halves with the dividing line at the middle of the peninsula. The majority of my friends, mostly the college students, are in the Korean army to be trained for the possibility of war in the future.

I see my friends becoming frustrated before they join the service. They want to get away from it. Imaging college students forced to stop studying for two years and have highly limited community. There is no freedom but all the regulations to follow and all the physical labors to do.

When I first entered UCLA in 2014, I met a very caring friend Sean Suhwan Choi. He was a junior during that time. Sharing common interests, we became good friends; however, he had to go back to South Korea in order to serve as a soldier. He mentioned, he was very upset with the fact that he had to drop everything he had and “forced” to join the army for almost two years. He seemed like he was hopeless.

It has been almost five months since he joined the Korean army. Whenever he has the chance, we call each other and update each other on our lives. I tell him about how awesome UCLA still is and also how wonderful the food in LA is. He always says, “I miss the everything in LA so badly.”

Sean also shared his life in the army.

 

When did you first entered to the Korean military?

It was 2015 June 29 at 2pm. I can even remember the specific time I entered.

What are your major jobs as a soldier?

I am a “sapper” or a combat engineer. Although we are described as “combatants”, we are not to fight the enemies face-to-face. As our motto “First in; Last Out” says, we enter the battlefront before our forces in order to slow down the advances of enemy or facilitate our teams’ advances. To carry out such missions during the actual war, I have to be trained in dealing with demolition, explosives, mines, and constructions.

What are the types of trainings are you working on?

Basically, I work on three types of trainings. As a sapper, I work on developing the skills and knowledge necessary for my battlefront missions. As a combatant, I do all the basic military trainings on a regular basis: gunnery exercise, physical trainings like push-ups and sit-ups, and loaded marches. As a soldier, I also learn to the appropriate methods to respond to North’s actions – provocation, spy infiltration, all-out war, etc.

What are the values you’ve got to learn from the practices?

I would say you get to learn how to sacrifice yourself for the country. Well, we are basically serving as a soldier for the security of South Korea. It is not easy for us to give up on my interests, study, friends, and others for almost two years. But, I get to learn what it means to be a South Korean and work to build the country’s security. I also get to learn how to sacrifice and work for a team. Under the strict censorship in the army base, I have to be with my “co-workers” 24/7. To derive the better productivity while maintaining the good relationships, I have to compromise my personal interests and my lifestyle according to expectations of others. Having served in the army for only 5 months, I am still struggling with this environment, but I still appreciate this challenge.

If there is one, what would be the advantage of the army service?

Well, I get to learn how to appreciate what I had before I came here: my family, friends, study, food, and so much more. In the Korean army, we don’t get to have lots of the opportunities to leave the army base that many leaves; on average, we can leave the base and visit our family once every two months. Living in isolated, strict environments makes me to think about what I have taken for granted. I realized that I’ve been really blessed.

Oh, I also get to have time to think about myself too. I spend time thinking about what I am going to do with my life in general like plans for future career, development of personal characteristics, and so on.

Lastly, the army makes me strong both physically and mentally. My life in the army constantly challenges me in many ways, and I had to learn how to overcome those with my friends here.

Lastly, what is your plan after you come out from the army base?

I am definitely going back to UCLA. I will go back and study really hard. I am not certain what I would really want to study in the future. But I would say, I could think about it for the rest of my time while serving as a soldier. Once I am out from the army, I expect to have clearer future plans.

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