Leader of Asian community dispels stereotypes Nair serves as model for student activism

Ajay Nair doesn't like to get his picture taken.

"I feel like a celebrity or something," he says as he sinks into the corner of the smokey Diner cubicle, not knowing where to look. "I'm going to hide when this article is in the paper," he laughs.

But for Ajay, hiding might be a difficult task. He is one of the most visible Asian student leaders on campus and just an all-around friendly sort of guy.

He smiles as he talks about how he skipped a year of elementary school. It pretty much destroyed his grade-school career, he says - "I still can't cut right . . . and I'm a terrible colorer."

But things worked out in the end. Ajay might not be the reigning champion of the national paint-by-number competition, but he is a University Scholar and a respected campus leader. Under his guidance, the Asian-American Student Coalition has produced two extremely successful conferences and, for the first time, sent an Asian-American couple to shake things up at the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon this year.

Victoria Fong, co-adviser of the Coalition, said Nair has helped the Asian community at Penn State take great strides.

"He's been a dedicated and driving force behind so many things," she said.

And just as you think he's done just about everything, this senior, originally from outside Philadelphia, decides to come back for some more. Ajay was recently elected president of Lambda Phi Epsilon, Penn State's Asian-American fraternity, which he helped found in 1994: he is going to pick up a minor in sociology and stick around for another year, primarily to lead the fraternity.

He can't stand being passive. As long as Ajay has things to do, he is happy.

But when asked what he does for fun, Ajay hesitates. He really doesn't have a lot of time for fun. Even at parties and social functions, he is usually the one in charge - making sure everyone is having a good time and that things are running smoothly.

"Actually, everything I do is fun," Ajay says, now that he has had time to think it over. "It's just not the traditional kind of fun."

Ajay genuinely enjoys the time he spends working with the Asian-American community. Over the years, he has developed some very special bonds with Asian students. In fact, he finds it is a rare occurrence to run into an Asian student at Penn State who he doesn't know.

It's important to him that the Asian-American student population be united. People tend to be intimidated when they see a group of Asian students hanging around together, Ajay said, but it's one of the only ways his community really feels safe on campus.

Since at Penn State, Ajay has been a victim of racism. He's heard it all. People screaming names at him as they drive past. "Go back where you came from!" is a popular insult.

"I was born here," Ajay says with a bit of sarcasm in his voice. For the first time in about an hour, Ajay appears angry.

"I find myself developing an attitude," he says, explaining how he deals with racist slurs. Then his face softens again. His defense mechanism quickly fades. "But I hate to hate anyone."

In fact, it's not the blatant racism that bothers Ajay the most - it's the subtle things that really hurt. Ajay said it surprises him that so many people call Asian people "oriental."

."It's offensive. Why would you want to be called a rug?" Ajay says. "It's just that people just don't know. You find the most educated people saying it. My professors say 'oriental.' " So Ajay politely corrects them, in hopes that he can open the minds of a few people as he makes his way through the halls of academia. But when Ajay came to Penn State as a freshman, he did not think there would be so many minds to open.

"I was very naive when I applied to the University," he said.

Ajay thought that at an institution of higher learning he would find more learning than institutionalized racism, but he was wrong. The old Asian stereotypes are alive and well at Penn State, Ajay says.

People assume just by looking at him that he is a premedicine major with a perfect grade point average, even though he is majoring in human development and family studies and goes through the same academic struggle as most students. He says students in his classes ask him for help even if they don't know anything about him.

Smart, quiet and submissive. Those were the characteristics white America assigned the Asian community in the 1960s as it tried to quell the civil rights movement by telling the black community to be more like the Asian community.

But even a stereotype of intelligence is not something the Asian community wants on its back. Asians are tired of being lumped together as foreigners, Ajay says as he tries to make himself comfortable in the Diner's wooden bench.

He takes his last sip of 7-Up and stretches his neck so he can see if the sun is still shining. It is. Ajay smiles.

"It's such a beautiful day," he says.