By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
After 20 minutes of listening to exhortations to Asian Americans to give back to their society as a way to build community and find safety, Annie Ren found she did not agree.
“As a Chinese American, even if I don’t participate in government, even if I don’t give back to my community actively, I still should not be afraid to go outside,” said Ren, who identified herself as a resident of Ballard. “I still should not be afraid to be the target of a hate crime.”
Her comment, coming at the end of a panel urging Chinese Americans to become politically involved as a way to counter recent hate crimes, signaled both the successes and the frustrations generated not only by the panel, but by the issues facing the Asian American community overall.
With over 2 million hate incidents against Asian Americans having occurred since the start of the pandemic, a statistic shared by Ren in chat comments, there is a rapidly-growing sense among the community that nothing will ever be enough.
The panel, “Political Engagement: A Must for Chinese Americans Now,” attempted to address this issue. Of the 115 who signed up, 74 attended the virtual event.
It was successful in that it encouraged dialogue about what forms activism should take and what role the government should play relative to community organizing, said organizers. Y.P. Chan, board member of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and Winston Lee, president of United Chinese Americans of Washington (UCAWA), worked together to coordinate the panel.
“We can use this as an initial discussion to encourage the community, not just Chinese Americans, but the entire community to speak out against all types of hatred and convert anger into political action,” Chan said, at the end of the panel.
Panelists included some of the foremost Chinese American officials in the region: Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, former Bellevue City Mayor and Bellevue City Councilmember Conrad Lee, and Will Chen, who is running for Edmonds City Council.
Murray Lee, incoming president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), rounded out the panel as part of the organizers’ wish that Chinese Americans learn from Jewish Americans’ history of political activism. Still, from the outset, things did not go according to plan.
Fong, for instance, offered an alternative model for Chinese Americans to consider as they considered political activism. He encouraged participants not to focus exclusively on common cultural characteristics between different ethnic groups that might provide clues for political action, in this case Chinese and Jews. Instead, he suggested considering the quintessential ways that all immigrant communities have found ways to achieve success and fulfillment in a society set up to prevent them from doing so.
It might be more important to focus on the “innovation and ingenuity of immigrant communities to find ways to persevere and be successful in environments that are designed and systematically structured to prevent that from happening,” he said.
Conrad Lee seemed to echo this sentiment.
“We are all human beings, we all have similar needs, that’s why we all came to the United States in the first place,” he said. “So we need to get into the system and disrupt it.”
Lee’s family fled China in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War and temporarily relocated to Hong Kong, where he went to high school before coming to the United States. In response to an email after the event, Lee acknowledged that his family belonged to the exiled group of so-called “waishengren” that had experienced repeated dislocation throughout modern Chinese history.
“Sadly, we were not organized to have an EXODUS to find a HOME. Even sadder, we are still seeking with no unified and organized effort in a country we can proudly call home as many are still considered ‘aliens,’” he wrote.
Chen said the way to become fully integrated into American society is to engage on a political level. That includes joining an NGO, a local association such as a chamber of commerce, or even volunteering at a food bank. Such engagement would change your mindset from being a foreigner or alien in your own country, and thereby allow you to build community that would increase your safety, he said.
“I see many people have lived in this country for decades and they always see themselves as Chinese, as Vietnamese, as Korean, but when you have that kind of mindset, then you think that the government is the United States,” said Chen. “No, we are the United States.”
Murray Lee described his organization’s strategy as one of doing outreach to all other communities “to learn more about them” and find common ground. He mentioned work that the Jewish community had undertaken to engage with some among the Muslim communities.
Meanwhile, Ren and others were filling the chat commentary with requests for suggestions about how to ensure their personal safety.
“I am a Chinese American senior citizen. The only response I can think of to anti-Asian violence is to buy a gun for self-protection,” wrote one participant. “Is there a better response?”
“Start with pepper spray, get trained in self-defense, and connect with all your neighbors to let them know about your feelings of insecurity. I am sure they will reach out and build a small neighborhood watch to help you,” wrote Ren in response.
Other comments raised questions about who was more responsible for ensuring the safety of the Asian American community—the government or the community itself.
Fong responded that it took a partnership, but praised the huge outpouring of dialogue and organization that had taken place over recent years.
“I have not seen before this level of organizing among the Chinese senior community that I’ve seen in the last 24-36 months.” Fong added that it was necessary for people to continue to speak out in order for the momentum to continue. Organized action among the Asian American community also gives increased clout to leaders such as himself and Conrad Lee, Fong said.
“By showing up and giving voice to the community, even if the immediate action may not be the deliberate outcome that was the full expectation or desire, the truth of the matter is it also gives people like Councilmember Lee and myself political equity and capital within our own organization, within government itself.”
They then have increased leverage to act for the interests of their community within the government itself. Conrad Lee noted a recent rally in Bellevue and said such organizing must continue until it becomes a movement.
“It has to be sustained,” he said.
In another chat comment, though, Ren called on the speakers to provide concrete ways for Asian Americans to move forward.
“I think it’s also on the panelists to give us an understanding of the formal channels or avenues to organize,” she wrote.
“How do we tangibly take some action here? At the local level, I live in Ballard, what can I do?
What can I do to make my senior citizens here, the Asian women that work here as frontline workers, what can I do right now to make sure that they feel safe?” she then asked, in spoken comments.
Organizers said they are planning future panels to address specific ways Asian Americans can organize and protect themselves.
Lin Crowley, co-chair for the Asian Pacific Islanders Coalition South Puget Sound chapter, praised the organizers for addressing such important issues, but said she hoped there would be women on the next panel.
(This reporter was the moderator of the panel.)
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.