WHAT THEY LEARNED: Sunny Zheng ’16

The history major and fine arts minor explored post-1965 Asian American identity through visual representations.

For Sunny Zheng ’16, who minored in fine arts, there has often been a visual component to her academic pursuits. The history major spent last summer on a Center for Peace and Global Citizenship-sponsored internship in Cambodia, teaching art to child sex-trafficking survivors. And though she is now moving to Singapore to pursue social justice work, she also plans to teach art part-time while there. So it stands to reason that her senior thesis would have a graphic slant as well.

Her thesis, “’Image’-ing Otherwise: the Ambivalent Politics of Asian American Visual Self-Representation in the post-1965 Era,” sought to understand Asian American identity through illustrational examples, such as newspaper cartoons.

“My thesis was focused on the power of the visual and the fraught politics of Asian American identity,” says Zheng. “While this does not directly tie into my future career plans, art continues to be a primary passion of mine and my new understanding of ‘Asian America’ better prepares me to think of my own identity and positionality as an Asian American in Southeast Asia.”


What inspired your thesis work?

I grew up in the Asian-majority suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, right outside of Los Angeles, and became more aware of my identity as an Asian American throughout my time in college. In my thesis research, I wanted to better understand the nature of Asian American identity, an ambivalent entity rooted in the visual politics of the radical ‘60s. I chose to focus on L.A. as an Asian American population center because of personal ties to the region, and traced the development of the San Gabriel Valley as a suburban space where Asians could claim an alternate American subjectivity in the last portion of my thesis.

How did your advisor help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, or interpret your results?

[I worked with] Associate Professor of History Andrew Friedman. He helped me to narrow the focus of my thesis topic from the generalized “Asian American identity and history of Asian American suburbanization” to focus extensively on the visual as a primary political terrain for U.S. national culture and counter Asian American self-representations in the post-1965 era. Professor Friedman met with me weekly, read over countless drafts, directed me to relevant secondary research, and consistently helped me to refine my research and arguments.

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

Firstly, I learned that my current understanding of Asian America as a fusion identity—an identity rooted in difference and reaching across ethnic, socioeconomic, immigrant generation differences—is rooted in the 1965 moment. I learned that the visual, when displayed in newspapers for popular consumption, is imbued with political power: both the power to “fix” and racialize minority groups and to radically counter those racializations.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.