Class of 2021 Graduation Theses Highlight Important Issues in Asian and Asian American Communities


This spring, several older Browns focused their dissertations on exploring relevant issues facing Asian and Asian-American communities around the world. The Herald interviewed three recent graduates – Nicole Yow Wei ’21, Anchita Dasgupta ’21, and Jenny Lee ’21 – about focusing their culminating articles on Asian American topics and the historical and cultural significance of their research.

Defining History: Impacts of Transcription on Malay Oral Text

Yow Wei, concentrator of history, focused her thesis on the Malay historical tradition through an in-depth study of a Malay text, the Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal. Originally interpreted as an oral folk tale, the text was recorded and printed in the 1900s by a British colonial scholar in Malaysia, present-day West Malaysia.

“By publishing (the Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal) as a printed book, the scholar completely neutralized the historical potential of the folk tale, and in printed form it became a work of fiction, ”said Yow Wei, describing the argument for his dissertation.

Previous research on Malaysian history has mainly focused on chronicles, such as court records produced by elites, with little study of folk tales from rural Malaysia, according to Yow Wei.

To analyze the text, Wei learned the written Malay language herself and translated 160 pages of the text from Malay to English. She has taken an interdisciplinary approach to translation, employing several aspects of literary theory and performance.

For example, the text consisted of words that were usually alternated with familiar filler words to create rhythm in a speaking performance. Yow Wei built on previous studies and developed his own techniques for logically connecting these sentence fragments when translating into English.

In her thesis, she underlines that the functioning of the text as a work of history differs from perceptions of what history is in the contemporary West. “In Malaysian history, traditional historical methods focus on the fact that the text can constantly change” so that the oral text can respond to political concerns of the day, Yow Wei said.

When the British colonial officer printed it, “the text cannot change, (and) that’s when it becomes literature.” It can no longer be considered as history because it no longer operates according to the rules of the Malaysian historical tradition, ”she said.

The work on her thesis prompted Yow Wei to reflect on the lack of education in Malaysian issues she received while at home in Singapore and Brown. Growing up as a Chinese Singaporean, Yow Wei felt that her ethnic privilege had alienated her from the cultural experiences of her family and fellow citizens in Singapore.

While leading the Southeast Asia Initiative at Brown, Yow Wei advocated for an increased presence of Southeast Asian Studies at the University and expressed the need more full professors specializing in cultural issues in the region.

After graduating from Brown, she headed to Chulalongkorn University in Thailand to pursue a master’s degree program in Southeast Asian Studies. Yow Wei hopes living in Thailand will help her become a deeper and more intimate part of the Southeast Asian community.

Finding an Agency within the Law: Power Dynamics in Palestine and Kashmir

Dasgupta, a Middle Eastern studies concentrator, had been an activist and organizer in Palestine and Kashmir throughout her studies at university. “Palestine has become a very interesting subject for me because of its controversy in academic spaces,” Dasgupta said, urging him to get involved in Palestinian politics outside of his classes.

After working with a human rights organization in Kashmir in the summer of her first year, she became interested in the connection between the resistance movements in Palestine and Kashmir. With a strong interest in law, she decided to use legal affairs as a means to explore these commonalities.

In his main thesis, Dasgupta studied two cases – one in Palestine and one in Kashmir – where resistance fighters were able to use the legal system to fight the state, despite the law’s aim of protecting the state. This contrasts with the common instances where resistance fighters are “trapped in having to use the law to fight their oppressors” who created those same laws, she said.

In both legal cases, Dasgupta found that the use of the law was “a form of agency exercise”. Even within a limited legal framework through which protests could be legitimized, the resistance fighters managed to show power, she added.

Instead of analyzing legal affairs through the prism of politics and law like past research, she chose to focus on how the resistance movements of the day interacted with the law.

One of the findings Dasgupta found most intriguing was the range of political ideologies held by resistance fighters as to whether and to what extent legal resistance should be used against the state.

She plans to do more research on resistance movements in law school.

West meets East: the mental health of Vietnamese immigrants

“How are Western concepts of mindfulness, mental health and social justice perceived by low-income Vietnamese immigrant women in the Bay Area?” How has COVID-19 impacted their lives as well as their perception (of these issues)? Lee posed and sought to answer these central questions in his graduation thesis – an interdisciplinary article that covered research in religious studies, contemplative studies, and public health.

“With COVID-19, there is a hype about mental health and mindfulness that is very important. But access is not available for all communities, ”she said. Those who are first generation and low-income may face cultural, linguistic, financial, religious and social barriers, she said.

For her research, Lee interviewed 11 low-income Vietnamese immigrant women about their experiences of racism and discrimination as Vietnamese Americans, their perspectives on mental health and mindfulness, and the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.

Lee was able to overcome language barriers in the interview process by speaking to the women in Vietnamese, then transcribing and translating the interviews into English. She then began a thematic analysis by identifying recurring ideas in each transcript and matching them to the experience of American immigrants. She used these themes to come up with two models: an Immigrant Assimilation Model and the American Cumulative Immigrant Health Belief Model, drawing on intersectional feminism, intersectionality, and assimilation theory. .

Although she did not intentionally select participants by religion, Lee found that all women religiously identified as Buddhists. His findings highlighted the lack of awareness in these communities of practices adapted to Buddhism, such as mindfulness, despite the contributions from some Vietnamese monks, such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, to conceptualize mindfulness within religion, according to Lee.

Lee’s cultural background as a Buddhist and a member of the Vietnamese immigrant community in the United States has also exposed her to a host of overlooked issues facing Asian Americans, one of them being inaccessibility of psychiatric care. She recalled a case at a Buddhist retreat where she was discriminated against by retreat leaders for practicing mindfulness, which made her question her religious integrity.

Likewise, nearly all of the women Lee interviewed had experienced anxiety adjusting to a new life in the United States and, for some, to the effects of forced migration and living in refugee camps. Yet the cultural stigma surrounding mental health and financial barriers limit their access to mental health resources and contribute to discrimination in areas of mindfulness practice.

Lee’s thesis supervisor, public health professor Don Operario, highlighted the relevance of Lee’s research during the COVID-19 pandemic, when anti-racist movements and hate crimes against members of Asian communities were a critical part of the social context of the United States.

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