Ajay Nair has proved Thomas Wolfe wrong: You can go home again.
But the West Philadelphia he has come back to is a different place from the neighborhood where he was born.
“It’s so different. It’s really very beautiful,” he said. “It’s always had this element of beauty to it, but I think Penn has done some interesting things in the community to help beautify it and make it an attractive place.”
Born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents who came from India to study at Penn, Nair has spent his entire adult life in academe, both negotiating and helping others negotiate the boundaries between Asian and American culture. After studying at Penn State and holding student services positions there and at the University of Virginia (UVA), Nair returned to Philly both to be closer to his family and to take on the challenge of what he described as a unique position, that of director of the Pan-Asian American Community House and assistant director of the Asian American Studies Program. We talked about his job and cross-cultural navigation shortly before the holidays.
Q. What are some of the main problems facing Asian-American students at a school like Penn?
A. There are so many that we could go through. I think that at a place like Penn, and probably in all [institutions] of higher education, this whole idea of the model minority myth is still alive and active. And our students, because of this myth, often aren’t given the services—their needs aren’t addressed as they should be. …Students may [also] pursue careers that aren’t necessarily appropriate to their skills, and so they’re pushed into the—
Q. She’d rather be an artist, but she’s being prodded to be a doctor instead?
A. A doctor or an engineer, right. And from that, there are some other issues. Mental health issues that our students face often are obscured.
Q. Is that really a problem?
A. It’s a huge, huge problem. And I think if you talk to colleagues at CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services], they’ll attest to that. Institutions like Cornell, our peer institutions are facing serious [mental health] problems. We’re actually working with CAPS and other colleagues to address this concern.
…Nationally, there are other things we can point to. There’s rates of tuberculosis and hepatitis B in the Asian-American community that are higher than in any other ethnic minority community.
I think there is also this perception that [Asian-American] students are all wealthy and privileged. Nationally, the Asian-American community, yes, [has] the highest median income. But it also doesn’t really point to the fact that Asian-Americans have a high, high poverty rate, almost 11 percent.
Maybe there aren’t so many implications for Penn students, but as they go out into society and try to be change agents with their Penn degree, these are issues that not only Asian-American students need to know about, but all Penn students. And PAACH is a sort of a conduit, a vehicle to help the community on a variety of issues.
Q. Do questions of separation and assilmilation come up among students here?
A. All the time. All the time. I think it’s one of the most talked about topics. At UVA especially, it was huge. At Penn State, it wasn’t so much, I think, because it was so big—it was a topic, but not nearly as much as at Penn and UVA.
My response typically is that for minority students at a predominantly white institution, they must find their community, a sense of themselves, to be able to survive. Otherwise, the ramifications on your mental health, I think, could be severe. It was one of the first things I did when I went to Penn State, because I needed that.
But I think in the end we should really take a look at who is separate, who is segregating. I don’t think it’s necessarily ethnic minority communities. People don’t say the same thing when you have a group of white people sitting together at a table. And I wonder why.
…I think that we do need to make an effort to bridge communities together, I think that’s important, but I also think that it’s important to maintain communities, ethnic communities, and to build them and to make them strong, If you do that, I think eventually you will bridge them all together.
Q. Did you grow up mostly in Indian communities?
A. Yes. It was a huge part of my initial upbringing. And specifically the Malayali community, which is [in] the southwestern tip of India, a state called Kerala. The community in Philadelphia is actually quite large, [but] not too many at Penn.
We spent virtually every weekend doing some kind of cultural activity, and my first language is actually Malayalam. My parents wouldn’t speak to me in English at home. And it was on purpose. They wanted me to learn my language. Which at the time I didn’t understand, but I’m really grateful for now. And religion. Both were so important in who I am now, and probably bring me to do this type of work, I would say, to a large extent.
I’m happy to be back in Philadelphia also, because I can get back into that community. And I’ve started to do that slowly, but work has been keeping me busy. It’s been great.
Originally published on January 16, 2003