Transforming Asian American Studies

Saturday, November 4, 2023

When Panda Restaurant Group Chief Brand Officer Andrea Cherng, C’99, WG’13, was growing up, she didn’t see many people who looked like her on television. In high school in California, she had learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—something that really stuck with her—but when she got to Penn as an undergraduate, her classmates were uninformed about the historic mistreatment of Asian Americans. 

These experiences were part of what led her to become a fierce advocate for what was then the newly created Asian American Studies (ASAM) program, started during her sophomore year at Penn. More than two decades later, ASAM is thriving, and it continues to grow, helped in part by a cluster of new hires across Penn Arts & Sciences who bring a range of expertise to the program, and by the new Panda Express Postdoctoral Fellowship, a grant from the Panda CommUnity Fund that will support five postdoctoral positions over the next three years. 

At a September welcome-back lunch, Cherng and ASAM program directors David L. Eng and Fariha Khan spoke about the evolution of the Asian American Studies program at Penn. 

Panda Restaurant Group Chief Brand Officer Andrea Cherng, C’99, WG’13 (center), with Asian American Studies program co-directors David L. Eng and Fariha Khan at a welcome-back lunch and panel in September.

Scott Spitzer, University Communications

Eng, Richard L. Fisher Professor of English, began by reflecting on the importance of Asian American studies, especially following the anti-Asian hate and misunderstanding in the wake of COVID-19, and why a program like ASAM is important both as a way to broaden horizons and as a show of support. “There is no amount of money that you can throw at racism to make it go away. The only thing you can do is use education,” he said. “Two and a half years ago, I could have never anticipated that we would be standing here today celebrating the incredible growth of the Asian American Studies program.”

At ASAM’s 25th anniversary celebration last year, Khan had said she believed the program was poised to become the most robust on the East Coast. “Today, looking around, I know this to be true,” she said. Here she referenced the fellowship, the first of its kind in the Ivy League; Weirong Guo, who received a bachelor’s degree from China’s Fudan University and a Ph.D. from Emory University, is the inaugural recipient, appointed for the 2023-2024 academic year. 

ASAM also recently hired three new faculty members who will deepen the Asian American Studies offerings: Hardeep Dhillon, Assistant Professor of History, whose research focuses on the history of immigration to the U.S. and the laws and legal practices that shape immigrant lives; Bakirathi Mani, Penn Presidential Compact Professor of English, whose work examines the possibilities and limits of Asian American representation; and Tahseen Shams, Assistant Professor of Sociology, who studies how migration and global inequalities affect immigrants, particularly those from Muslim-majority countries in the West. New affiliated faculty include Emily Ng, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Linda Pheng, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education. 

When it was Cherng’s turn to share, she spoke about the story of her family’s journey from a single restaurant 50 years ago to nearly 2,500 today. She talked about how, when asked to come help with the family business, she planned to stay three months but has now been there for years, and about why it’s important for a company like Panda Express to support academic pursuits in this area. 

“Food often expresses a sense of identity,” she said. So, it was a natural extension for the company to engage in a way that could help others understand what’s distinct and special about Asian American culture. “In the same way that Panda Express has been built on a foundation of bridging flavors and cultures to bring people together,” Cherng said, “the Panda Express ASAM fellowships are dedicated to honoring and uplifting identities that, by definition, bridge cultures to promote greater understanding and belonging.”