Friday, May 13, 2011

Asian American Visionaries

"Damn gooks." 
"Asian bitches." 
"Ching chong Asian take-out." 

These three phrases have all been muttered or said to me as a stranger passed by either on the street or in a shopping mall. Each time, I was simply standing or walking, minding my own business, either with a friend or my mom. The first slur occurred in my hometown San Francisco and the last two occurred both within the past year. One thing is clear - people still see me as an Asian person who needs to have nonsensical and sometimes hateful words thrown at her for no reason other than that I appear Asian.

Coming to terms with my cultural identity was an evolving process, which only solidified in recent years. A large majority of my school peers in SF were the same race as I was. Having "Asian" people around was normal - I was "Asian." I went to Lowell High School, which had a point system for its admissions. At that time, affirmative action was in place as Chinese kids had to score higher to get in since there were already so many Chinese kids enrolled. I was just one in a whole pack. 

While I was a sophomore at UCLA, I joined the Asian Pacific Coalition (APC) as an intern. APC is the umbrella organization for all of the Asian/Pacific Islander (API) organizations on campus and acts as the voice of the community. The next year, I became the APC liaison for the Association of Chinese Americans (ACA), a rather difficult job as not everyone in ACA was interested in APC. Nonetheless, both ACA and APC emphasized the bi-cultural experience that we Chinese/Asian Americans faced. It was with APC that I first consciously heard about the case of Vincent Chin, the Chinese American beaten to death with a baseball bat for racial reasons and whose murderers literally walked free. We stressed the idea for a need of a strong community to prevent such outrageous things from hitting us again. While I sometimes found I didn't identify with every issue that APC fought for, I would later take away some important messages after my two-year stint in Asia following graduation.

It's a bit funny that my sense of being "American" really hit full force while I lived in Asia. I looked "Asian" but I really felt so far from it. The Koreans in Korea were definitely separate from Korean Americans and the Chinese in China weren't the same "Chinese" people who had surrounded me all my life. I never introduced myself as being Chinese while in Korea, because I simply was not the Chinese person from Beijing they would think of. I was American. In China, the average Chinese person would still scoff at me in disbelief when I said I was American, but it's true I did not grow up with the same language, social pressures, and cultural nuances, save perhaps a few values, that these people did.

But back in America, I have to go back to being "Asian" or at best Asian American - because that is what others see. Not everyone has lived or traveled to the "Far East" to see how we're really not the same breed.

I was reminded on Twitter last week that it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and brought to the attention that there is a "Visionaries" conference being held on the evening of May 26 in New York, at the Grand Ballroom, at Webster Hall - somewhere I'm not personally familiar with, but perhaps my few readers in NY may be able to attend. The speakers, Suchin Pak and Teddy Zee, are described as Asian American pioneers who have words of wisdom to impart to those who want to follow in their footsteps. Alternatively, there's also a Verizon contest for aspiring Asian American visionaries (apparently only those permanently living in the Northeast US, so excluding California me) to submit videos with their ideas, with a prize of $5000 going towards this idea. The deadline is next week.

In retrospect, I really am glad for the Asian Americans who have fought to carry a voice for the community and proud of the ones who have become leaders in some shape or form. Asian Americans have their own set of challenges - trying to come to terms with differing cultural values or feeling like we really belong in a certain place. And every now and then, to this very day, our community (or I on an individual level) suffers some sort of backlash just for the way we look. One can only imagine the sort of trials the true pioneers had to face or the comments that were or are still uttered. So, regardless of who you are, let's all keep fighting and working on our visions...and embracing our identities.


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