Part 1 of 2

By Heidi M. Pascual

It was “quite an accident of fate” that Lynet Uttal became the director of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Asian American Studies Program. Although
Uttal has been a faculty affiliate of Asian American Studies since 2003, she never
considered being in that position.

“I was in Mexico on sabbatical when I received an email from then director Leslie
Bow asking me if I would consider being the next director,” Uttal said in an
interview with Asian Wisconzine. “Although I teach about Asian Americans in my
courses, yet I never considered myself as doing research about Asian Americans
or being part of the field of Asian American Studies. “

Four years into her position, Uttal has loved her work as she learned the
importance of the program in terms of education offering and how it also helps
her grow professionally.
“I love being the director of the Asian American Studies Program because the program is very important for the mission of
the University as well as for my own professional growth as a race scholar,” she explained. “I have grown in the last four
years to believe that the Asian American Studies Program is important because Asian Americans are a racialized group in
the United States that is invisible in the practices and understanding of race in the the United States. For example, although
it was Asian American graduate students who were extremely active in creating all of the ethnic studies programs and
ethnic studies requirement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, very little has been done to acknowledge their activism
and contributions.  Yet, Asian Americans have a history in U.S. society parallel to African Americans in terms of having
experienced legal exclusions and discrimination on the basis of race. “

Uttal has a mixed racial, cultural and national background, with a Japanese American mother and a Russian American
Jewish father, but according to her, neither of these cultures (which were not mainstream Euro-American) was used to
create a sense of ethnic identity in her parents’ home.

“My mother is a Japanese American who grew up in Japan from age 9-23 years and returned to the U.S., almost as if she
were a Japanese immigrant,” Uttal said.  “She raised my two sisters and me to think of ourselves as American, because
according to Japanese standards we certainly were not Japanese.  But we also were not Japanese American.  The cultural
and socialization values in the home I grew up in reflected my Japanese grandparents' values as well as my mother's
transnational identity ideas, and also father's upbringing as a Russian American Jewish father.”

In addition to Uttal’s parents’ cultures, another culture resulted from such an intersection. This in many ways, helped Uttal
“feel at home” in the Asian American Studies program at UW. Her experience is somewhat similar to that of many new
Asian immigrants in the U.S.

“By the time I was 12 years old, I had lived in Hawaii, Japan, and Australia, yet the meaning of being biracial and
transnational was not ever articulated by my parents, “ she said, comparing her experience to that of other Asian
immigrants, but with a difference. “But to be able to call oneself ‘Asian American’ means to me to have a sense of group
identity with for example,  Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, or Hmong.  I don't have that kind of group identity
personally because of my mixed race and mixed national background. Probably the closest I come to identifying as Asian
American, is when I think of Asian Americans in Hawaii. Hawaii is a  multicultural society with a majority of Asians from all
heritages (Japanese, Filipino, etc.).

“As director of the Asian American Studies Program, I am an advocate for Asian Americans, which means simultaneously
attending to specific Asian ethnic groups (e.g., a conference for Hmong Americans), pan-Asian American identities and
issues (e.g., how do we as a program that represents diverse constituencies {e.g., Hmong, Chinese American, Asian
Indians, etc.}  find common ground and voice?, as well as race relations between Asian Americans, and Whites, Blacks,
Latinos.”  

The UW-Asian American Studies Program (or Asian Am for short) has been visibly active in educating students and
interested community members about Asian American issues. It offers annual activities/programming, initiated by
members of the Program Advisory Committee.

“The annual activities and programming in the Asian American Studies Program are driven by the interest of individuals
who want to take leadership to develop an event,” she said when asked how Asian Am activities are planned. “I frequently
receive requests for co-sponsorship of events and I forward them out the Program Advisory Committee and ask for vote of
interest (and how much funding we should assign to it).  I also respond to any suggestions for events with ‘Would you like
to take leadership of this suggestion?’ or throw it out to the whole Program Advisory Committee. Then, I work with our
wonderful and competent program administrator, Yer Lor, to ensure that all the details, logistics, and advertising are in
place and the event happens.”

Uttal described how important the role of the Program Advisory Committee (
http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/aasp/faculty/) is, with
members coming from both faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin.

“Its members contribute their thoughts and time in diverse ways,” Uttal explained.  “Some members teach classes. Some
members organize a single speaker, or an entire conference.  Some members provide advice on institutional matters.  
Just sharing your opinion (which we often do by email) is really important for the functioning of this program.  My job is to
collect these ideas and make the decision whether we are doing an event or not. Sometimes an idea, such as Ethnic
Studies Week, passes in front of me and I am so interested in it personally, that I take leadership to make it happen. Other
ideas are organized because someone else has the passion to increase the visibility of Asian Americans through one of
our events.”

How does Uttal make decisions as to what events should be sponsored or co-sponsored by her office?

“Whenever I get a suggestion or co-sponsorship request, I make sure that the link to Asian AMERICAN studies is explicit,”
Lynet Uttal at one of WOAA's
meetings
An interview with UW's Lynet Uttal
Making the Asian American experience visible through learning
she said. “Matters about events and people in Asia are still
conflated with Asian American because of ignorance
rather than a more complex definition of ‘Asian American. ‘
To work towards better education on this, I do require that
Asian American Studies sponsored events are centered
around Asian experiences in the U.S. or Asian Americans,
and not just people in other countries of Asian heritage.
For example, we wouldn't sponsor a taiko drumming
cultural event unless it was connected to something Asian
American. We recognize that the experiences of Asians in
the U.S. are transnational and global, especially for recent
Asian immigrants, so it's easy to make the connections,
but we also make sure the bridges are obvious.”

Most of the Asian Am events are targeted directly for UW’s
undergraduate students, and Uttal thinks they benefit the
most from these events. Course instructors inform the
students about these events and explain to them the
connection to Asian American Studies.

In recent years, with the significant presence of the Hmong
in Wisconsin, the UW Asian American Studies Program
has made it a priority  to offer perspectives on the Hmong
experience in the United States, including academic
research from several disciplines, community work and
issues, and family matters.

“We have hosted a couple of conferences on the Hmong
experience,” Uttal said. “For example, this fall we will be
hosting a Hmong/American/Diaspora Institute to promote
the professional development of scholars in the new field
of Hmong Studies. Last year, the Hmong American
Students Association organized a conference on Hmong
with the support of the Asian American Studies Program.”

Next issue: Hopes for the future of Asian Am Studies
Program.