By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
As board president and founder of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) in Tacoma, Patsy O’Connell sees diversity every day.
The APCC, founded in November of 1996, is the only Asian and Pacific Islander cultural center located in Pierce County, representing an impressive 47 countries.
Moreover, it’s brimming with activities, through partnerships with schools, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and other organizations. APCC offers a variety of educational, cultural and language programs throughout the year. It also provides rental space, acts as a resource center and throws on a popular Lunar New Year celebration with a different “host country” every year. Earlier this year, the Lunar New Year celebration was hosted by Pakistan and attracted 9,000 people
In a sense, the APCC is a culmination of O’Connell’s life, which has involved lots of emigrating and immigrating, traveling, and a smorgasbord of cultural experiences.
After all, culture hopping is in her blood. O’Connell’s grandfather was born in Korea, educated in America for nine years and — after returning to Korea — emigrated to China when Japan occupied Korea. Understanding both Eastern and Western culture, speaking both Korean and English, he was able to find work as a port commissioner in Shanghai, where he raised 10 children.
That’s including O’Connell’s father, who stayed in Shanghai, learning to speak English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
So it comes as no surprise that O’Connell, also born in Shanghai, would embark on a life of cultural transitions and connections. She moved back to Korea after its liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945 and then immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. There, she met her husband in San Francisco, the source of her Irish surname.
Her travels didn’t stop there. She spent the next several years with her husband, who was in the Army, hopping from assignment to assignment. Okinawa, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Another year, another Asian or Pacific Island country. Another culture, another language, another set of friends to make.
Reflecting back, she notes the importance of the immigrant story.
“Those kinds of experiences made me think, as an immigrant, I think the survival skills we bring to this country are important, and it is important we share that with our generation,” she said.
In 1995, O’Connell brought her father to the U.S., where he passed away the following year. The event had a profound effect on the grieving O’Connell.
“If you have that kind of experience, you can just sit there and be sad about it. You kind of reevaluate your existence. That’s when I called six people, four different ethnicities, second and third generation,” she said.
“I was wondering if second and third generations feel the same way (as first generations) and we unanimously agreed that we need a place,” she said.
Thus was born the APCC.
At first, it was O’Connell’s intention to represent Asian countries. But, as she talked to more people, the more need she realized there was. The center opened up to the Philippines, Tibet, Pakistan, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia — and more, and more and more, until it reached today’s current total of 47 countries.
“It’s not just a place, it’s an identity, it’s an aspiration we can attain in a big scale,” O’Connell said.
Now, after nearly 20 years, O’Connell wants to take on one more project: Moving the APCC from its South Tacoma Way location, which it has outgrown, to the new Point Ruston development.
The idea is lofty in scale: A new 390,000 square-foot campus complete with 200 units of housing, a cultural center, retail and a grocery store/food court something along the lines of Uwajamaya in the International District.
“I think it will be a destination place,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell said the new campus would cement the Puget Sound’s Asian and Pacific Islander history, the bad and the good, and would help bring awareness to the immigrant story.
“I think it’s important to let people know that we are also residents of America,” O’Connell said. “You still read about the discrimination — I don’t like to use that word — but there are people who still say that we are just passing through.”
“I want to make sure the Asia Pacific Cultural Center is as equal as Tacoma Art Museum, History Museum or Glass Museum,” O’Connell continued. “We bring a lot more cultures and differences to the mainstream. It’s important that we share and show, using the five senses. … How great for other countries to know that America really embraces the immigrants and Asia Pacific people?”
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