By Yujia Wang, ASLA
For the past year or so, we have witnessed a historic period of widespread, record-level aggressive rhetoric and attacks on the Asian community — the Atlanta shootings being the most severe of all. The Asian community seems to have become a punching bag and scapegoat, at least for a part of American society.
For Asians in the United States going about their daily life, there are increased risks and a growing sense of anxiety about basic safety and well-being. For those whose lives perished during these violent events — ordinary people who worked to provide for their family, just like any of us — the future is no more, and their families are now shattered. This is both sad and infuriating.
To solve any problem, we need to face it with great honesty. This proves difficult for some, because it means self-criticism and sharing more moral responsibility. The xenophobia and hatred against Asians did not start recently: Its history, as many people will tell you, can be traced back to the 19th century — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the massacres of 1871 and 1885; Japanese internment; the list goes on.
The problems Asians living in the United States face have not been fully recognized in the past. In fact, the problems are often sidelined and ignored. And while there has been some recent positive momentum, I would say it is still far from enough. Recognizing the problem fully and sincerely and standing in solidarity are the very least that can be done. Silence is noted and taken personally.
I have outlined additional steps that need to be taken:
We must all acknowledge that xenophobia and hatred are categorically wrong. There is no excuse — not tension in international relations, not domestic party politics, and certainly not the character of the victims. The term Asian American is problematic too, because it neglects the expatriates, students, and visitors who deserve equal inclusion. In a healthy and law-abiding society, no one should need to worry about their life and dignity, regardless of their ethnicity. However, in one of the most advanced countries, I get calls from family and friends who are understandably worried about my safety. I think the absurdity is self-apparent.
When we oppose racial hatred, we must oppose not only acts of hatred, but also the seeds of hatred — the seemingly conditional and temporary acceptance of Asians, the rumors and scapegoating that are tolerated and allowed to spread openly online because not many voice their opposition, and so on. Concluding that it is some politicians’ fault and moving-on is simply not enough. This is a societal problem that needs to be responded to as a society. Everyone needs to play a role and share the moral responsibility of preventing hatred.
The landscape architecture profession is in a unique position. With regards to race and equity, it has done well in some respects, but the shortcomings are also apparent. Landscape architecture has one of the most diverse communities, including a vibrant Asian community, especially in many undergraduate and graduate institutions. However, the Asian landscape architecture community should not be taken for granted.
Unless students and emerging professionals have confidence they are safe and supported in the profession and in the society, we will eventually lose the continuous influx of talented people in our universities and practices in the United States, which has strongly propelled the discipline forward.
Change need to happen. It’s important to empower Asian voices, support their growth and celebrate their achievements and give them platforms to share personal stories, cultural perspectives, and professional insights. A fuller, richer storytelling of Asian experience is long overdue. A healthy level of representation will turn into long-term and profound support of the foundations of our discipline.
Landscape practices commonly operate across cultures, regions, and countries. Today, as I tell my students and prospective students about my passion for landscape architecture, I am reminded of the multi-cultural nature of our work, and the kind of diversity and open-minded attitude we embrace as a profession.
When teaching, we also expose students to abundant cross-cultural design and learning opportunities. From my observations, I can see how much the ideal of diversity and cultural richness resonates with our young generation of students. This comes from the nature of human kindness and curiosity, which we can protect and encourage. This is the same for landscape architecture professionals. In classrooms and our practices, we should actively embrace the symphony of different cultures and the cross-pollinations of them.
In practice, this means strengthening the inclusion of our Asian students and colleagues in domestic projects teams, and, more importantly, increasing and supporting their presence in managing clients, hosting community events, and other engagement opportunities. These steps have often been lacking based on likely implied racial preferences. The effect limits the voice and growth of Asian landscape architects.
We can also support a mixture of backgrounds on international project teams, as a way to strengthen cultural understanding and exchange. Using our knowledge and cultural sensitivity, we can contribute as general members of the society in demystifying Asia and debunking and stopping the spread of rumors and offensive or aggressive messages. We should all take these steps not because they are the easy, but because we know they are right, and we trust they will enhance the diversity and inclusion of our field, and make our society a better place. This is how real changes begin.
Many of us have a strong belief in the ideal of globalization, which thrives on inclusion everywhere. On a personal level, I find it incredibly fortunate to have grown up in China; lived, studied, and worked in four countries across three continents; and visited more than 40 countries. Almost all of my work is international in nature.
It is so great to witness a mostly peaceful and thriving world, and the appreciation of, exchange of, and respect for the knowledge, culture, history, language from people with vastly different backgrounds. When young people try to work out their future path, as I did years ago, I want to see that their choice is made based on the merit of content. I want to see that they will be treated with the same level of inclusion wherever they decide to join as a member of the society, and that the safety and well-being are the least of their concerns.
That is the future that we, regardless of race and background, owe to our next generation – a more equitable, inclusive, and beautiful world. But this will not become a reality unless we all work towards it. And I think we must.
Yujia Wang, ASLA, is a landscape architecture professor of practice at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and founding partner at Yi Chang Landscape and Planning. In 2020, he became the first landscape architect to be listed on Forbes China 30 Under 30. Yujia is a Harvard alumnus and previously practiced at Sasaki.
Westerners of East Asian heritage have been increasingly verbally and/or physically assaulted during the last year, the perpetrators perhaps under some delusion their targets are willful creators/spreaders of Covid-19. Just yesterday, an East Asian woman was unprovokedly attacked with a hammer in cosmopolitan New York City, resulting in her decision to return home to Taiwan. Many have no Chinese lineage, ironically, though their assailants seem to not care, maybe due to a hateful perception that they are ‘all the same’. Overlooked is that there’s a good chance the assault victims came to the West to leave precisely that which so many Westerners currently dislike about some authoritarian East Asian nation governments.
The unprovoked hatred can be even more intense if the target happens to be deemed professionally successful and/or has managed greater savings (etcetera), regardless of it all having been through hard work and/or thrift budgeting. Sometimes the victim is a convenient political football or scapegoat.
The current anti-Asian abuse brings to my mind the 2007-08 financial crisis, which resulted in the biggest, and perhaps the most culpably corrupt, mainstream U.S. bankers not being criminally indicted but rather given their multi-million-dollar performance bonuses via taxpayer-funded bailout. Yet, the feds, in a classical cowardly move, only charged some high-level staff with a relatively small-potatoes Chinese-American community bank as a figurative sacrificial lamb that couldn’t really fight back and who looked different from most other Americans.
Some people will always find an excuse to despise the ‘other’ or ‘them’.