“So…why are you an Asian American Studies major?”

One’s student’s perspective on the value of Asian American Studies

by casey tran

“What’s your major?”

“Asian American Studies.”


As an Asian American Studies major, most responses I get when I tell people my major are condescending and ignorant.

People often have a hard time understanding the value of Asian American Studies. I’ve encountered people who have gone so far as to say that the entire discipline of social sciences has no value whatsoever, and that the math and sciences are somehow inherently more valuable.

I seriously want to smack these people upside the head when they tell me this. I just want to write them off as ignorant and never speak to them again.

But then I remind myself that doing this would be counterproductive. Just writing someone off as ignorant does not change the fact that there are so many others out there with the same mindset. So I have two choices: I can try to share my perspective and hope that they will listen, or I can walk away. Fight or flight.

I choose to fight. Because the social sciences are essential to the world in which we live.

Asian American Studies challenges students to think critically about society. Why is it that U.S.-born Chinese and Filipina women under age 55 have higher rates of cancer than white women of the same age group?[1] This isn’t just a statistic. This is just one example of the kinds of issues that Asian American Studies investigates – issues that affect you, me, and our communities.

Contrary to popular belief, social science is not just about writing bullshit papers. It is about addressing issues that plague our country. It is about advocating for our communities. It is about social justice. The social sciences critically examine why people behave and think the way they do. We question and analyze existing paradigms because we can’t change them without studying them.

Now, the jaded and cynical student would argue that social justice, just like the social sciences, is bullshit as well. Many believe that it’s just human nature to be selfish and tyrannical; even if we tried to advocate for change and social justice, human nature would win out.

I find this sort of cynical attitude to be part of a vicious cycle of apathy. Apathy (and perhaps ignorance) is at the root of a lot of issues in this country. People use their cynicism as an excuse for not acting, and therefore nothing changes. We need to break out of this vicious cycle.

I realize that realistically we as individuals cannot transform the world into sunshine and puppies. It’s too much for any one person to tackle every pressing issue out there. So we often have to choose the issues that matter the most to us.

Advocating for change is hard work. There are some days when I would like to just throw in the towel and join the ranks of the apathetic. But I choose not to. Because choosing not to act is choosing to condone injustice, which I personally cannot accept. This is why I study Asian American Studies.

People may think Asian American Studies majors are naïve for wanting to make a difference in their communities. I would say that this drive for change is better than sitting on our apathetic asses and doing nothing. There is nothing wrong with being idealistic. Even if we don’t necessarily reach those ideals, we at least have something to strive for. It’s better than settling for a system that we know is flawed and broken.

Change is often intangible. It isn’t always a vaccine that eliminates AIDS. It may be difficult to see the progress that emerges from Asian American Studies because it often is not a tangible product. However, that does not mean the progress does not exist.

The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act is an example of past social progress. This act eliminated the National Origins quotas, which had limited immigration from Asia to token levels. The 1965 Immigration Act was a watershed in Asian American history because it allowed, for the first time in American history, waves of immigration from Asia into the U.S. Although policy makers at the time did not intend for the act to benefit Asian immigration, it is an example of the amount of power that policy makers have. This is why we need socially conscious policy makers in office whom we can trust to advocate for social progress.

In my conversations with non-social sciences majors, I’ve often encountered the questions, “Well, what can you even do with a B.A. in Asian American Studies? Can you even make money with that?”

I’d like to point out that what you major in will not necessarily become your chosen career. Mike Judge graduated from UCSD with a B.S. in physics. Did he become a physicist? No. He ended up creating one of America’s beloved cartoon series, “King of the Hill.” He followed his passion and was innovative enough to create a career from it.

Law, education, non-profit work, journalism, politics, social work… Asian American Studies majors have the chance to do something worthwhile. For example, Jane Kim is the President of the Board of Education and a civil rights attorney in the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. As an undergraduate, she double majored in Asian American Studies and Political Science at Stanford. Kim is an example of someone who followed her passion and used her Asian American Studies major to advocate for the API community in San Francisco. As director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, she developed the Adopt-an-Alleyway program, which was responsible for cleaning up the alleyways in Chinatown that the city government neglected.

I have also encountered the argument that math and science majors have a heavier workload, and therefore these disciplines are more valuable. There is an inaccurate perception that social science majors have it easier because all we do is read and write. I’m not going to argue that one discipline is easier or harder than another. This is a moot point because engaging in that debate is counterproductive. I don’t see why we have to organize the disciplines in a hierarchy. Each discipline has its own unique value.

Unfortunately, this attitude isn’t reflected in this university. Just last year, the University proposed drastic cuts to the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. The proposed cuts would have reduced Japanese language courses by 40 percent, Chinese courses by 54 percent, and Korean courses by 66 percent.[2] In this time of budget cuts, we have to ask ourselves, why are the humanities and social sciences always the first courses to be cut? What does this say about our society?

American culture has the tendency to value the math and sciences over the social sciences. We’re taught as a society that math and science are more useful because they produce tangible products that we can see and touch. Part of growing up, however, is learning to think critically about what we’ve been taught.

Berkeley has had a rich history of activism leading to social change. And social change starts with critical thinking and questioning, which the social sciences facilitate.

The hard sciences can only fix certain aspects of the issues plaguing our society. What we need now is for individuals and society to validate the social sciences. We need social progress as much as we need scientific progress. We can produce all the AIDS vaccines that we want, but if the communities that need these solutions the most such as the API community are not receiving the benefits, then what is the point of all this scientific progress? If certain communities are not benefitting from science due to unfair policies, then we are not truly making progress.

The hard sciences go hand-in-hand with the social sciences. These disciplines are most effective when applied together. Berkeley offers over 300 undergraduate and graduate programs. We need to embrace the diversity and wealth of knowledge in this university and work across disciplines in order to find solutions to not only issues that affect our university, but also issues that we will encounter in the outside world once we graduate.

[1] Allday, E. (2010, March 19). Asians differ when it comes to rates of disease. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/03/19/MNQP1CI1SM.DTL&tsp=1.

[2] Sing Tao Daily. (2008, May 10). Berkeley students protest to keep Asian study courses. News America Media. Retrieved from http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=56e1b7053b6dc21ce223134d6e2531ed.