The UNC Asian American Center's second cohort of fellows — Theodore Gonzalves, Samah Choudhury and Sean Metzger — are bringing more opportunities for UNC students to learn about Asian American communities, culture and history through new in-person fellowship visits.
AAC Director Heidi Kim said the center's Fellows Program invites scholars and artists to lead events and workshops that highlight the Asian American experience on campus and beyond. The AAC was founded in 2020, and opened its first physical space in 2021, but there is currently no Asian American Studies department at UNC.
The AAC Fellows Program was announced in Fall 2020.
“Nationwide, there’s no other program like this,” Kim said. “I sort of can’t believe that there is no other program like this, and so as someone in the field, I saw this gap and I really wanted us to fill it.”
Theodore Gonzalves hosted the first AAC Fellows talk in October. He researches Asian Pacific American history, with a focus on Asian American and Filipino American experiences.
During his event, he spoke about his role as curator of Asian Pacific American history at the National Museum of American History.
“I focused generally on the kind of work that I have been doing so far at the museum that focuses on exhibitions and research,” Gonzalves said. "So I kind of kept it narrowly focused on those two areas: The kinds of objects that I've been collecting and the reasons why I think the National Museum of American History should be those kind of museums in the area of Asian American and Pacific Island history."
Gonzalves is also interim director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in Washington, D.C.
He said the AAC Fellows Program has offered him the opportunity to discuss this research with other prominent scholars in the field.
“The most exciting aspect of it for me is to be able to be in conversation with other Asian American studies scholars and to help build the community around Asian American studies,” Gonzalves said. "In terms of this area of expertise that's been growing for the last 50 years, and one of the most underserved areas of it concerns Asian Americans in the South, so I'm intrigued by the location of it as well."
Samah Choudhury is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College. Her research focuses on the Middle East, Islam and Muslim experiences, specifically looking at aspects of humor, race and gender.
Choudhury is currently writing a book about American Muslim comedy.
Her research, which follows three South Asian American comedians, Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, was the focus of an AAC Fellows event she hosted on March 21, called “Why Does Representation Matter? The Diversity Complex and American Muslim Comedy.”
“So these three men, I think, I take as an interesting point of departure to think about why is it that the most prominent American Muslims in pop culture today are all comedians? Why are they all men? And why are they all South Asian?’’ Choudhury said.
She said that the comedians included in her book use comedy as a way to provide legibility for Islam and Muslims but in doing so may also obscure possibilities for Muslims on stage as well.
“This allows me to think about the way that religion gets racialized in the public sphere, the way that people kind of impose expectations of what the proper and ideal American subject is," she said.
Sean Metzger is a professor at the School of Theatre, Film and Television and the vice chairperson of undergraduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
His research is on film, performance and sexuality studies, and the intersections of Asian American, Caribbean and Chinese identities.
He also has a background in Asian and Middle Eastern studies during his time as an assistant professor at Duke University.
“I taught at Duke for eight years and I used to work with the only Asian American with UNC at the time, before professor Kim was hired, so it was a nice opportunity to come back and see how things have transformed since I left," Metzger said.
He is currently writing a book about Asian American theater, and discussed his research on representations of refugees in theater during his fellows program event last month.
"I think the center is doing a good job of bringing people together for interdisciplinary conversations and exposing UNC students in particular to people doing work all over the country in different disciplines," Metzger said.
Since its opening, the AAC has provided programming and spaces for Asian American students and community members to feel a sense of belonging, even in times of tragedy.
March 12 marked the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Atlanta in which eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — were murdered.
Kim said the two weeks following the shooting was an especially difficult time in her professional career, and though leading the AAC has at times been taxing, it has also brought her a great deal.
“Something like this is hard work but it’s very fulfilling, it’s very rewarding and I really believe in what we are doing and in the community that we are building," Kim said.
Applications for the third cohort of AAC fellows are scheduled to open next month.
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