Bubble Tea and Constructing Asian American Identity: A Conversation with Fenwick Scholar Mia Yee ’19

Student (Mia Yee) smiling at camera on Fenwick Porch
Mia Yee on Fenwick Porch. Photo by Avanell Brock

Editor’s Note: This article was published on the Holy Cross news website on May 22, 2019. It was written by Jane Carlton. Mia Yee ’19, in addition to being the 2018-2019 Fenwick Scholar, is also an Ignite Fund recipient.

Every year, Holy Cross names a Fenwick Scholar — a student who spends the entirety of their senior year conducting independent research. But it’s not every year that student embarks on a study of ramen and other modern Asian American food culture. Mia Yee, the 2018-2019 recipient of the College’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor, conducted ethnographic research on Asian American food spaces, combining her passions — and majors — of anthropology and architectural studies.

Yee, who also has a minor in studio art, spent a year observing and interviewing customers and restaurant workers at innovative eateries in the Boston area for her research. Now, we turn the tables and ask Yee about her project, the research process and how Holy Cross has made a lasting impression.

How would you describe your research in a nutshell?

I did ethnographic field research in contemporary Asian food places that serve trendy foods, like ramen, bubble tea, fusion, that type of thing. I focused on spaces that deviated away from what we normally see in American Chinese or sushi restaurants. I was drawn to places that have a lot of aesthetic props and are more modern or global.

There was a moment in Snappy Kitchen (one of the restaurants I feature in my research), where one of the co-owners said, “I don’t like cherry blossoms; I don’t like maneki-nekos,” which are the waving cats. They’re these very Americanized symbols of Japan.

I interviewed a number of Asian Americans, mostly millennials, to get their take on how these spaces are constructing their experiences as Asian Americans.

Why food spaces? Why did you want to spend a year doing research there?

I’m Japanese and Chinese American. My dad is third-generation Chinese American, and my family is very Americanized and worked at the Kowloon Restaurant in Saugus, Massachusetts. In college I became really interested in how space intersects with race, class and gender. I wanted to look at how spaces are racialized. I thought that was a really cool concept that, in architecture, hasn’t been explored as much.

What were some of the questions you explored?

I was interested in the way that class and privilege come out in these spaces, and how that is tied up with ethnic hierarchies, like who immigrated here first. Who’s had the most time here? Who’s been alienated the longest, and who’s dealing with the brunt of it right now? And then also how socio-economic status plays in.

My time at Holy Cross has taught me that Asian and Asian American representation matters. I came from a high school that had many Asian Americans and then came to a college where I was one of the only Asian people in the classroom. I began to think about how and why our identities matter and all our intersectionalities — race, class, gender, ethnicity — matter.

Take for instance “Crazy Rich Asians.” Beyond being a rom-com, it’s noteworthy because it’s the first movie in 25 years to have an all Asian cast — and that matters. When Asian Americans go and eat in these trendy, cosmopolitan, modern food spaces, they gain social and cultural capital, which gives them a platform where they can say “Hey, look, Asian stuff is cool” and is a space where they don’t feel like an “other.”

What was it like to undertake a yearlong research project?

I was working on it every day, and I also spent the entirety of most breaks doing research. While it was hard to separate myself from my work, it was still highly academic and analytical. But sometimes the question was, does work really have to be separate from one’s identity? It gave me some perspective, as I was able to understand all the dynamics of being connected to my work and understanding my own place as a researcher.

As for the actual research, I think because my family has worked in restaurants my whole life, it helped immensely in terms of talking to proprietors. I was able to talk the talk, so to speak. I could talk about restaurant stuff and they were like, “Oh, you actually understand this.”

What did your path to becoming a Fenwick Scholar look like?

It took me a while to find my people here, but I’ve come to love parts of Holy Cross. I’ve met amazing friends, had amazing mentors and professors. That said, my Fenwick Scholar process was a little convoluted. It was not a straight shot. I started off thinking that I wanted to look at how general spaces are racialized. From there I focused specifically on food spaces. It’s really nice to see that projects about race and about class matter.

You’ve mentioned that Ann Marie Leshkowich, professor of anthropology, has made a big impact on your time at the College. How so?

Professor Leshkowich is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I went to her during my sophomore year fall semester and said, “I heard a few of Susan Rodgers’ students went to Indonesia. How can I do that?” She told me she was going to Vietnam the next summer, and suggested I do independent research with her. So I went to Vietnam with her. She has so much wisdom and so much humor. She’s known to be challenging as a professor, which I actually wrote about in my acknowledgements. But that has made me grow.

Yee’s Fenwick Scholar project was entitled “Asians Eat Food and Drink Bubble Tea: The Co-Construction of Contemporary Asian Food Spaces and Asian (American) Identity.” Her faculty advisors were Ann Marie Leshkowich and David Karmon, associate professor of visual arts.

Mitchell ’19 Carves Path in Politics

Woman on balcony overlooking National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Carter Mitchell ’19

An interest in politics has always played a role in Carter Mitchell’s Holy Cross experience. Since volunteering on a local campaign during high school, Mitchell ’19 has carved out a path for herself in the political world, with stops such as the Speaker’s Balcony in the United States Capitol and the re-election campaign for Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

“My interest in politics first began during my senior year of high school when I volunteered on Governor Baker’s first gubernatorial campaign,” said Mitchell, a Political Science major. “It was a great hands-on approach to the election process. Through my political science courses at Holy Cross, I developed my passion for politics, and particularly enjoyed classes relating to American Government.”

Mitchell took part in both the Washington Semester Program and the Academic Internship Program (AIP). She interned with former U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership office in Washington, and then interned with Gov. Baker’s re-election campaign through AIP.

“My semester in Washington, D.C. was a great opportunity to fully immerse myself in the city, and to focus on my internship and thesis,” said Mitchell. “The AIP course allowed me to further my interest in politics and campaigns while remaining on the Holy Cross campus.”

As for what comes after graduation this week, Mitchell will find herself in the world of politics full-time. She secured a position with Targeted Victory, a full-service political strategy and marketing firm based in Arlington, VA. Mitchell described how her Washington Semester and Academic Internship experiences played a role in securing her job offer.

“The internships developed my work ethic, time management skills, and the ability to handle new responsibilities,” said Mitchell. “During job interviews, I was able to articulate the ways that I approached my tasks, challenges, and other aspects of my internships. The skills and relationships that I developed through both semester programs were beneficial in the job search process.”

Mitchell encouraged future Holy Cross students to consider taking part in either program, as it played an important role in her post-graduate plans.

“My experiences in the program were valuable in shaping my Holy Cross experience and future career,” said Mitchell. “During the internships, I recommend taking advantage of every opportunity, learning and understanding all the aspects of your internship site, and fostering connections within your office and with Holy Cross alumni. The real-world and hands-on experiences of both programs is unmatched, and I encourage students to consider pursuing a semester program.”

Grey ’19 Impresses in Washington and in Summer Research

Man in suit standing in front of window
Alexander Grey ’19

When Alexander Grey ’19 first came to Holy Cross as a transfer student, his decision to major in Political Science was somewhat unexpected. Originally an International Relations and Diplomacy major at Seton Hall, Grey decided to change his course of study.

It worked out well for Grey, as he would go on to take part in both the Washington Semester and Weiss Summer Research programs. After graduation, he will be traveling across the Atlantic to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) on scholarship for a M.Sc. in Political Theory.

“I pivoted to Political Science,” said Grey, “a choice which I am more than pleased with since it granted me a wide-reaching background in politics. The philosophical side of politics, in a field that is going increasingly quantitative, is exciting to delve into and fits with how my brain works more than statistical modeling and such.”

In the Washington Semester, Grey interned with the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. This internship gave him the experience of seeing “real-live policy making” in addition to his political philosophy background.

“Having experience in the real world is always helpful,” said Grey, “when applying to graduate school, and LSE greatly appreciated the background in American policy which my internship brought to the table.”

He also attributed his application’s success to the Weiss Summer Research Program. Grey, who is also an English major, researched in Summer 2018 how author Joseph Conrad’s letters influenced his novel, Heart of Darkness. The experience, even though not in the realm of Political Science, played an important role in his application to the LSE.

“The ability to say that I have crafted, researched, executed, and presented on a significant scholarly endeavor,” said Grey, “shows demonstrated capability which even a healthy term-paper cannot prove. Weiss demonstrated I am capable of putting in the work required for the M.Sc.”

Grey credited several mentors at Holy Cross for his achievements, including Profs. Madigan Haley and Sarah Stanbury of English, Profs. Alex Hindman and Eric Fleury of Political Science, and Dr. Anthony Cashman, Director of the Weiss Summer Research Program in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Fine Arts.

When asked to give advice to future Holy Cross students considering graduate study, Grey said that it’s important to take chances and to highlight your accomplishments.

“You never know what graduate committees will find interesting about you,” said Grey, “Yours could be a voice they want in the classroom as it brings a unique perspective to a room of otherwise like-minded people. If you find an interesting way to craft your story, no matter what that story may be, there is no telling what might happen.”