Yi-Fu Tuan identifies with the desert.

Wearing a knit sweater and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, Tuan, now 88, sat at the cafeteria of his retirement community as he recalled the day in 1951 when he and his friends arrived at Death Valley.

Against a hurling dust storm and a pitch-black night sky, he and his friends attempted to set up tents at 3 a.m. As a Chinese man, he was unfamiliar with camping — the whole idea, he thought, was “alien.” He cocooned in his sleeping bags after futile attempts.

“I woke up in the morning, and it was just Death Valley right in front of me,” Tuan paused, letting out a hearty smile as he reminisced. “It’s … it’s Death Valley. I just loved it.”

He didn’t love Death Valley the way most would — at least not in the way a tourist would, a way that would render the desert exotic and foreign. It was beyond that — perhaps the opposite of that.

Amid the vastness of Death Valley, he felt a sense of belonging.

“This is me,” Tuan said. “This dryness, this sterility is me.”

Deserts, to Tuan, outlive the tropical rainforests which many of his fellow geographer friends are drawn to. Where his friends see homes to a luxuriant life, Tuan himself sees festering grounds for decay and death. Deserts, on the other hand, transcend the biological cycle of life and death — a characteristic symbolic of his own experience.

Tuan left China for Australia at 10-years-old, amid Imperial Japan’s military occupation in 1940. He would eventually make his way to the Philippines and the U.K. before finally settling in the U.S. A citizen of the world, Tuan, too, has lived beyond the conventional cycle of life and death, declaring a new beginning with each new country.

This life cycle has inspired Tuan, now regarded as the father of humanist geography, to dedicate his career to examining the idea of space and place — how humans relate to the physical environments which they encounter and occupy, and how they form associations and emotions while becoming more fully themselves in the spaces they inhabit.

Place — or ‘here’ — we have constructed the meaning because that’s where we are. But space — or ‘there’ — is kind of empty,” Tuan explained. “Place is familiar and secure, whereas space promises the unknown adventure.”

It has been more than 10 years since Tuan retired from being a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin. But this institution, where he spent his final years of teaching, continues to tell a story of space and place today.

UW tells a story about space and place — or perhaps, a story about feeling out of place and asserting one’s right to occupy a space.

Space for improvement

UW students donning blackface arrived at Phi Gamma Delta fraternity for their Fiji Island–themed party May 2, 1987. Greeting them front and center was a cardboard caricature of a black “native” — a man with exaggerated, distorted lips and a nose punctured all the way through by a bone.

Inundated with the blatant racism displayed in the space, the Black Student Union quickly organized a protest at the house. The caricature was initially removed but was soon reinstated after the protestors left.

The president of Phi Gamma Delta defended the caricature as part of a 40-year tradition, denying any racist intent. In a move to appease black protesters, the president claimed further that the caricature was “one of a Filipino native in keeping with [their] party theme.”

Filipino American activists from the Madison community quickly clapped back in an op-ed in The Capital Times, saying “bigotry is the fruit of ignorance — so is misplaced geography.”

After all, the Philippines is some 3,500 miles away from the Fiji islands.

In the aftermath of the party and in light of a flurry of other racist incidents on campus, the university administration organized a working group of about 80 students, faculty and staff to address racism on campus.

Skeptical of the university’s effort, student activists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds — brought together by solidarity in response to the multidimensional nature of the racism involved — quickly established an umbrella organization known as the Minority Coalition soon after the working group’s initial meeting.

The students who composed the Minority Coalition would later make up the majority of a steering committee of minority affairs, helmed by BSU co-president Charles Holley. In a move to establish visibility, space and place for students of color on campus, the Holley committee suggested among its list of recommendations the creation of a multicultural student center to focus on the needs of five targeted American minorities: Afro-Americans, American Indians, Chicanos, Asian American and Puerto Ricans.

Stemming from those recommendations, the Multicultural Student Center — today located at the Red Gym — was founded one year later.

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Out of place

The mere establishment of a dedicated cultural space is not itself an antidote for a pervasive culture, however. More than 30 years after the MSC was created, students of color continue to conceptualize their place on the UW campus.

The 2016 Campus Climate Report found that, while 81 percent of all students felt welcome on campus, only 65 percent of students of color felt the same. Among students of color, 19 percent reported incidents of hostile, harassing or intimidating behavior.

“Place — or ‘here’ — we have constructed the meaning because that’s where we are. But space — or ‘there’ — is kind of empty,” Tuan explained. “Place is familiar and secure, whereas space promises the unknown adventure.”Yi-Fu Tuan, UW professor emeritus of geographyAs a freshman living in Chadbourne last school year, Emily Bian has many times heard her space referred to as “Chinatown” — a nickname given by her peers in reference to the dorm’s international and Asian American student population.

“That was so rude,” Bian said. “It was not just Chinese people, there were a lot of Korean students as well. And also, it was way dominated by white people, so why would they say that?”

But on a campus composed of more than 85 percent white students, feelings of isolation and alienation inevitably extend beyond the living space and into the learning space.

After three years at UW, junior Shiloah Coley continues to find herself battling feelings of frustration that come with being the only black student in class. Part of that, she said, means confronting and conceptualizing the significance of being a black woman in predominantly white spaces — an identity students make sure Coley doesn’t forget when they look away from her whenever professors ask them to partner up.

“No one makes it easy to give you all the resources that you need in regards to being successful on this campus as a student of color,” Coley said. “And I think due to that almost automatic feeling of being rejected from the rest of the campus community — because you can’t really find people who look like you or people with necessarily shared ideas or shared experiences — it makes it so hard for it to be someone’s place. You feel out of place.”

For senior Riley Tsang, the feeling of being out of place was reawakened when he found himself in spaces at UW that challenged him to reexamine his identity from different perspectives — in spaces that proved to be a stark contrast from the predominantly white, conservative Waukesha County where he said he had to whitewash himself to fit in growing up.

The beginning of that awakening came in part when a series of racist incidents plagued UW during his freshman year. The next year, following the election of President Donald Trump, the country saw a spike in Islamophobia and threats toward immigrant communities which many Asian Pacific Islander Desi American families are part of.

Tsang began to grow frustrated that there weren’t many visible ways for APIDA students to get involved with supporting their own communities and other communities of color.

That too, is related to the idea there isn’t a visible APIDA community on campus.

“If we had a space, we’d be able to form a community on campus,” Tsang said. “So I went to the director of the MSC and was like, ‘Hi, why isn’t there an Asian American cultural center?’ And he was like, ‘you should try to make one.’ That was my whole last year.”

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Claiming place

Tsang and recent UW graduate Shannon Thao began advocating for the APIDA Cultural Center in 2017, the same year the Black Cultural Center returned to the Red Gym in its third iteration. The second one, located on University Avenue, closed in 1973 after the Board of Regents took away funding from the center.“Because you can’t really find people who look like you or people with necessarily shared ideas or shared experiences, it makes it so hard for it to be someone’s place. You feel out of place.”Shiloah Coley, UW junior

Inspired in part by the success of the BCC and concerned with issues facing Latinx students on campus, junior Michelle Navarro and three other students — Josue Velazquez, Jonathan Godinez and Alondra Avitia — also began discussing the possibility of a Latinx Cultural Center at a social justice leadership retreat in February 2018.

But their efforts were met with resistance.

When Tsang proposed the APIDA Cultural Center to then–Dean of Students Lori Berquam last year, he said Berquam explained that the Division of Student Life lacked the requisite money or space. She struggled to prioritize projects — from helping APIDA students establish their cultural center, to the Latinx students hoping for the same, to the Native American students who may face imminent displacement from their cultural center.

Though disheartened with UW’s expansive bureaucracy and its limitations, Tsang passed on what he had heard along to other APIDA, Latinx and Native American students also fighting to occupy their rightful place on campus. Together they formed a temporary cross-cultural coalition, demanding visibility and access to form communities of their own — just as the Minority Coalition did 30 or so years ago.

“We were like, ‘let’s do this together,’ because we don’t want the administration to say who’s going to get what and when to get it,” Navarro said. “You don’t have to prioritize us, you can just give us what each of our communities deserve.”

Tsang concurred, adding that white supremacy is perpetuated when authorities pit communities of color against each other to fight for “scraps of resources.”

Working in solidarity, the temporary coalition proved itself a force at the Campus Climate Student Forum in March 2018.

“They were very frazzled by [our presence] because they neither expected it to be live-streamed nor expected a whole coalition of students,” Tsang said. “We just kept on asking all these questions. We were stirring up some noise there.”

At the end, the university agreed to offer the APIDA and Latinx cultural centers the North Mezzanine on the second floor of the Red Gym, tucked away in the back of the MSC.

With an end goal of securing permanent homes for the cultural centers, however, both decided to label the locations as startup centers — interim, temporary spaces.

“The MSC had an interim space before, and now it takes up almost the whole space of the Red gym,” Navarro said. “It was just really important that we claim our space starting now then work toward expanding.”

But the future of these centers, Tsang believes, depends greatly on the resources offered to them by the university in the meantime.

“The hard part is, the current space is pretty hard to get to and doesn’t have the funding for the full-time staff it needs,” Tsang said. “And unless we actively demonstrate that students will use this space, there’s a good chance administration will use it as justification to take away our space.”

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Displaced

While activism by the temporary cross-cultural coalition has helped the APIDA and Latinx cultural centers secure startup spaces in the Red Gym, no visible solution lies ahead of Native American students whose cultural center once again faces the potential of demolition under the current Campus Master Plan.

An update on the plan last year reinforced the speculation. The update proposed that two cultural spaces currently inhabiting North Brooks Street — the American Indian Student and Cultural Center, as well as MEChA House, a Chicanx organization that promotes community engagement, political participation and culture — be replaced by a new academic building and reimagined as part of a pedestrian mall.

The irony, of course, rests in the fact that these Native American students are confronted with the necessity to reclaim spaces on land that was historically theirs and theirs alone. This struggle began with the proposal of a cultural center in 1972, which was not realized until 2009, when the AISCC was established after Wunk Sheek’s former office was demolished for campus development, Aaron Bird Bear, assistant dean for Student Diversity Programs in the School of Education, said.

Michael Williams, co-president of Wunk Sheek, one of the five Native American student organizations that currently uses the space, said the effects of being displaced once again would be detrimental. He is currently working with Native Nations_UW in hopes of preserving the space.

“There were two years when we didn’t have a cultural center, and you can tell because that’s around the time that Wunk Sheek lost ASM funding. That’s around the time when Wunk Sheek started losing member engagement,” Williams said. “There’s a direct correlation between not having a cultural center and not being able to produce the kinds of events that we are producing.”

Dwindling cultural activities aside, Williams said that demolishing the AISCC would threaten the survival of spaces safe for Native American students on campus, citing the facts that nearly half of all Native American women on campus have reported being sexually assaulted and that at least one Wunk Sheek member reports being the target of cultural appropriation, cultural attacks and racial slurs every day.

“When you come from a reservation where everyone knows everyone … it makes it real hard when you come to a campus and you’re one of less than a percent of the campus population,” Williams, a Native American from the Oneida Nation, said. “When you can actually find other Native Americans or indigenous people that can relate with you and just kind of bring that sense of home back, that’s one of the best things that it can do, especially because Native Americans have a horrible dropout rate.”

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Fusing space and place

Back at the retirement community where Tuan and I shared lunch, he continued the story of his visit to Death Valley 65 years or so ago.

“If I had stayed in China, in the humid part of China, I would never know that there’s this side of me that identified with the desert,” Tuan said. “It was out in space — in Death Valley — that I encountered my psychological self, my place. I try to make the point that we humans are both [space and place] — it’s always both, partly because we have imagination.”

This duality of existing both in space and place, is precisely how Cindy I-Fen Cheng, associate history professor and director of the Asian American studies program, thinks of UW as she reminisces about her past 13 years here.

“UW is both a place where you wonder if you belong, but it’s also the potential that it could be,” Cheng said. “And I think honestly, the process of minoritization is that you feel both rooted and displaced. It’s a conflicted feeling, but it’s also a place where you found great friends and things that you both belong to even though you know that there are obstacles like racism.”

This duality is a feeling that brews within many students of color at UW as they continue to work on reclaiming spaces where their heritage and culture would be honored and recognized at the institutional level.

For Coley, this duality takes form in reexamining her intersectionality as a black Jamaican-American woman as she shuffles between both predominantly white and predominantly black spaces on campus. And what makes her feels right in her place — her art — she shares with strangers that occupy spaces foreign to herself.

Coley just completed her first mural at Slow Food’s UW dining space to articulate “the importance of marginalized communities working to support each other and the importance of the next generation to come.”

For Navarro, this duality means volunteering her time to the unfamiliar space of university bureaucracy in hopes of creating a place for future students like herself.

And as for Tsang, he invests this duality into fostering APIDA culture on campus, which he said is “less about celebrating what’s in the past but rather creating a shared future together” — it’s about creating “a culture of solidarity, community and activism.” It’s about leaping forward from place into space, into to a realm of possibilities.

“UW is both a place where you wonder if you belong, but it’s also the potential that it could be,” Cheng said. “And I think honestly, the process of minoritization is that you feel both rooted and displaced. It’s a conflicted feeling, but it’s also a place where you found great friends and things that you both belong to even though you know that there are obstacles like racism.”Cindy I-Fen Cheng, UW associate history professor and director of the Asian American studies programIn a way, wandering into space is both a courageous and a comforting act — courageous because it signals departure from complacency, comforting because it carries with it hopes for a sense of belonging anew.

As Tuan and I parted ways, he made sure that I, too, would be firm in my sense of space and place — that I would not forget about my own identity no matter the spaces I traverse in the future.

“Any plans for the rest of the day?” I asked.

“Just editing a student’s paper. What else am I going to do — play mahjong?” he responded.

“They have mahjong here? I don’t even know how to play mahjong,” I said, laughing.

“See, you’re losing touch with your identity,” he said to me in a grandfatherly way.

I smiled in embarrassment, bid my farewell and walked away. The moment I left his sight, I pulled out my phone, opened up Safari and googled “Cantonese mahjong rules.”