Michelle Bui knows pork belly should be buttery, crispy and made with care. She has eaten it her whole life with her family.
Bui, a Vietnamese 18-year-old UF business administration freshman, remembered eating the dish at UF’s Chinese New Year show in February produced by the Asian American Student Union. It tasted different then.
“It tasted very bland and nothing like actual Chinese food,” Bui said. “They just used some random, gentrified recipe.”
Richard Doan, a Vietnamese 18-year-old UF business administration and telecommunication freshman, said the Chinese American Student Association can’t prepare its own food for the events hosted at the Reitz Union each year. Instead, it provides its recipes to a contracted caterer.
Representation on campus for Asian American students consists of a small office on the third floor of the Reitz Union, five cultural organizations under the Asian American Student Union funded by Student Government and an Asian American studies minor within the English Department that some feel struggles to stay alive.
The Asian American population at UF makes up 7 percent of the total student body. The majority of Asian Americans who come to Gainesville are here to work or study at UF.
They find a community within organizations like the Asian American Student Union but still feel like they aren’t fully represented; they are seeking a permanent way to preserve their traditions.
Letters from the president
At a time when the U.S. restricted Chinese labor immigration, UF welcomed two students: Hsiu Sheng Hua and Len B. Tan.
Letters dated from November 1921 to February 1922 between President Albert A. Murphree and the students solidified a positive relationship with Chinese students. Murphree wrote them letters of recommendations, referring to Tan as a “bright young man” and “gifted as a public speaker.”
Murphree had a personal relationship with the students. He would ask how their health was. In 1922, Hua and Tan were the only Chinese students at UF.
Phillip Cheng attended UF in 2008 and was involved with the Chinese American Student Association. The current president of the UF Association of Asian Alumni said he found the letters while studying for his master’s in Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. He researches Chinese student immigrants who attended UF in the early 1900s. The letters stood out to him because the country shunned Chinese immigrants at the time they were written.
“There’s something special about the way the University of Florida treated these students as opposed to other universities,” Phillip Cheng said.
Murphree and the Chinese students wrote letters over a period of months like they were good friends, Phillip Cheng said. The aged, typewritten letters are still in the George A. Smathers Library today among hundreds of other letters Murphree wrote to students.
Phillip Cheng said he felt closer to his identity when he discovered the letters. They seemed to be a link to his own cultural history after a university archivist told him information about Asian American student life wasn’t accessible.
“If you know that information, it gives you a stronger sense of belonging at UF,” Phillip Cheng said.”
‘It felt I could be attacked for being Asian American’
Justin Ho, a Vietnamese 20-year-old UF psychology junior, sat among about 50 attendees as he learned the Vietnamese word of the day at the Avengers-themed Vietnamese Student Organization meeting.
He repeated the Vietnamese words “anh hùng” and “siêu nhân,” which translate to heroes and superhero.
At every meeting, students learn a Vietnamese word and a piece of Vietnamese culture. Ho carries the words he learns with him as a way to feel closer to his culture.
Ho grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and did not feel welcomed as an Asian American student at first because of campus guest speaker events, like Richard Spencer’s talk in October 2017. But he said he found a sense of belonging after joining the Asian American Student Union.
“With Richard Spencer coming to UF, it felt I could be attacked for being Asian American and Vietnamese,” Ho said. “But that’s why I turned to VSO and the Asian American Student Union community here because they provide me with a sense of security and comfort knowing that I’m not alone.”
Sarah Liu, a Chinese 18-year-old UF psychology freshman, said the cultural organizations on campus give Asian cultures needed representation.
Liu and her family moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Gainesville nine months ago after she was accepted to UF.
Her mother, Haiyan Xu, a UF biological scientist, volunteers every Friday at the Gainesville Chinese Christian Church, at 2850 NW 23rd Blvd., to teach youth Bible classes.
Xu said she spends teaches the younger generation of Chinese Americans and passes on her Christian faith and Chinese culture through Bible study.
Liu said she couldn’t relate to her peers because she had different interests when she attended her first Chinese American Student Association event. Students who come from ethnic backgrounds sometimes feel pressure to join different cultural organizations on campus, she said.
“If it doesn’t click, then don’t push it. You can love your culture and not be a part of the organizations,” Liu said.
Seeking more for the community
The Asian American Student Union office is nestled in the back of the Department of Student Activities and Involvement on the third floor of the Reitz Union.
Nine years ago, the union’s former president Megan Vu wrote a letter to the Reitz Union Facilities Program Committee asking for a multicultural space. Today, it exists. But Cheyenne Cheng said there’s still more work to be done.
Cheyenne Cheng, a Filipina Chinese 22-year-old UF psychology senior, is involved in a task force recruiting students to ensure an array of Asian cultures are represented in an Asian institute. She said the building will be similar to La Casita or the Black Student Union building and will be used to express their culture and host events.
“Compared to other communities of color, Asian American Student Union doesn’t have as much resources,” Cheyenne Cheng said. “I think about how many Asian professors I’ve had — I can only think of one or two.”
Cheyenne Cheng said she wants more for her community than a line on a budget. The overall amount given to student organizations was $1,031,930. The Asian American Student Union was given $122,485. The Hispanic Student Association was given $128,582. The Black Student Union was given $105,305 and has its own buildings.
To her, an Asian institute would mean the university cares about her culture, she said.
‘It’s my food, man!’
Richard Doan found a community of people that shared his traditions in the Asian American Student Union. Growing up in Parkland, Florida, Doan said most of the people in the white suburban area did not look like him.
Doan remembered that in elementary school he would pull out his bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich with pickled radishes and carrots, that his mother packed for him for lunch.
“Everyone has that ‘lunchbox moment’ when you come to school and you take your food out, and kids would ask what that smell was or what is that,” Doan said. “It’s my food, man!”
Doan said growing up he didn’t have multicultural student organizations to become involved with.
“No matter what your background is, you can find something that you like to do,” Doan said.
“In terms of multicultural organizations, there’s pretty much every ethnicity represented at UF, but in terms of funding and resources, it’s not all the same.”