By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
This year has been tough, and if you identify as an Asian or Asian Pacific Islander (AAPI), then it has been like a crescendo of rising hate gradually built up over the years. As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, we talked to some members of the AAPI community who acknowledge our history, the effect of additional scrutiny since the advent of Covid, and help us see ways to heal and support each other.
Florence Chang, executive vice president and COO of MultiCare Health System, saw the pain and anxiety many of her Asian colleagues, friends, and communities felt, and recognized those feelings as her own after the Atlanta shootings.
“I worried for my parents, relatives, and adult children’s safety and—for the first time—asked them not to go out at night,” Chang said.
She admits she resisted speaking or even thinking about these events for fear of awakening painful memories. “But these heartbreaking incidents and the wellbeing of my fellow Asian American colleagues, friends, and family members has been weighing heavily on me…I realized my silence would not help others, or myself. Only speaking up would do that,” she said.
The United States’ first ever Chinese American governor, Gary Locke, was very disturbed to see the rise in blatant racism over the last four years.
“It was equally tough to see it directed at members of our community,” Locke said. “At the same time, the solidarity from many racial and civil rights groups has been heartening. At a recent Stop AAPI Hate rally in Seattle, I saw people of all ages and backgrounds carrying ‘Hate is a Virus’ signs. When we see hatred and discrimination flare up against any group, we each have a responsibility to respond and express solidarity,” he said.
CEO of Geoteaming, John Chen, also feels that terms like the ‘China Virus’ coming straight from top leadership gave many people who harbored similar thoughts the power to be more vocal.
“If there is racism in America, it brought it to the forefront,” Chen said. “Over the last year, the few times I did go out, I felt scrutinized. I had to spend a lot of brain power thinking about who’s watching or judging me. That’s a side effect, a lot of us spend time on high alert,” he said. “I appreciate that I have not experienced acts of hate, but I’m having to watch other people deal with them. I’m on alert all the time because I know it can happen to me,” he added.
These events take Chen back in time to Stockton, California, where there were not a lot of Asians.
“It was a farming community and being Asian there was different. I didn’t realize till later that as a child, I took the ‘easier path’ of assimilation but got picked on because I was Asian,” he said.
Cut to three years ago where he was walking around Bellevue library when “two teenagers started pulling the ‘ching chong’ China stuff at me. I was older, so I pulled out my cell phone and said, ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ and they ran,” Chen said.
For poet and author E.J. Koh, grief and rage are multi-layered, and often ignored.
“For community leaders and teachers, students and activists, families and friends, it’s vital to process all that’s going on by asking for space if you need it, letting people know the boundaries of your labor and emotions,” Koh said.
“You have every right to say so.”
Locke was touched by many friends from around the country and world checking in to see how he was doing and express their disgust at the anti-Asian violence.
“I’m proud of the way my colleagues and students at Bellevue College have rallied in support of the AAPI community, not just on campus but nationwide,” he said. Locke is the president of Bellevue College.
Chang, on the other hand, was grateful for loving family, friends, and colleagues who asked how she was doing and with whom she could have open conversations as she processed her raw emotions.
“In March, I shared my story of coming to America from Taiwan at the age of 15 and my experiences with racism with fellow leaders at MultiCare. I felt liberated by the vulnerability that came with it,” Chang said. “I received responses from many of my fellow Asian American colleagues and it acted as an invitation to be okay to embrace painful memories, to care for each other, and to talk about what we can do to change things for our own children and grandchildren.”
Koh finds a sense of hope in Asian Pacific American literature, film, and art.
“Asian Pacific American writers, artists, directors, musicians, and those who work across languages and histories, who ask questions about a global humanity, create imaginative possibilities of a future,” Koh said.
Chen, on the other hand, takes refuge in his family history.
“My grandfather was a paper son. That is an experience that not only touched me but our entire family, including my kids,” Chen said.
The Chinese Immigration Act of 1882 excluded the Chinese, except the elite, from entering the United States. “At the time, there were people and papers who created the sentiment that the Chinese were taking all the jobs and they lobbied and got a law passed against Chinese,” Chen said. “Today is almost an echo of the immigration issues of the time.”
When the San Francisco courthouse burned down during the 1906 earthquake and destroyed public birth documents, it created a loophole for businesspersons or merchants whose sons could become naturalized citizens.
“It was an enterprising experience for immigrants who wanted to come here. Many Chinese said, ‘I got five or six kids and declared them sons on paper,” Chen said.
“What really touches me is that every day I spend in this country, doing what I do is built on the shoulders of my grandfather taking this huge, somewhat unnecessary, risk,” Chen said.
With AAPI Heritage Month earmarked to celebrate AAPI contributions and achievements, May presents an opportunity to learn and take pride in the community’s history while making our own mark on the present.
A question Koh claims she has had on her mind was asked by a student to another writer.
“It was a question about where to find the joy of being Asian Pacific American,” she said. “There is something here I find compelling and important, something I want to put into practice––to share the joy of being who you are,” she added.
Locke said, “[Bellevue College]’s Asian Pacific Islander Student Association is putting on a series of virtual events open to not just the campus, but also to the general public.” Locke will speak virtually at numerous events and forums across the country during this month.
In collaboration with MultiCare’s Center for Health Equity & Wellness, Chang explains that the organization will share more about health disparities faced by the AAPI community, as well as providing information on how to be an advocate for the AAPI community in May.
“We are also collaborating with our employee-led Belonging Advisory Council—which was created to represent the diversity of our organization and the communities we serve—to develop and share a resource kit focused on responding to hate crimes or triggering or traumatic events,” Chang said.
MultiCare is bringing COVID-19 vaccines directly to the AAPI community in Tacoma by holding several pop-up clinics at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center.
“We want to do what we can to remove some barriers to vaccination in our local community,” Chang said.
This will be Chen’s fifth year with the AAPI Heritage Month festival committee.
“I was proud to produce it digitally on Sunday, May 2. We highlight the music, culture of the different Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and even food to support some chefs and restaurants that have been hurting,” he said.
“Through the rest of the month, we will be posting something on Facebook every day. This is a really great way to help our culture,” Chen said.
As a member of the AAPI community, there is a lot we as a community can do all month long.
“Let’s start by talking about it! Let’s embrace the difficult memories and be willing to be vulnerable and share our story with the hope and belief that by speaking up, we can change the experience for generations to come,” Chang said.
She feels that something as simple as a text or a phone call to check in with a loved one can be an important way to help each other process the current environment and reflect on the pride we have for our culture.
It’s a sentiment Chen echoes.
“I stopped thinking of it as AAPI Heritage Month. I observe and post things on the group throughout the year. For instance: how Chinese doctors in the U.S. helped create vaccines,” he said.
Chen reminds us that AAPI represents over 50 cultures and 100 languages.
“People forget this and that all these cultures can come together and become an even bigger group,” he said. As for the easiest way, “Go to facebook.com/APIheritage or Instagram to learn and experience our culture.”
Locke feels it’s important to make time to share and celebrate our culture and history within our own families and with our friends.
“Between digital technology and the hustle of modern life, sometimes we don’t prioritize passing on our stories and traditions,” he said. “Too much is lost between generations.” Celebrating our diversity and recognizing that America’s strength and greatness comes from its diversity of peoples and cultures are critical to combatting hate and discrimination,” Locke said.
As for how non-Asian members can be allies, Koh makes an important point. She quotes Claudia Rankine: “Awareness has to happen in rooms where everyone’s white, since those rooms are already in place.”
“Socialization keeps people ignorant of their ignorance,” Koh said. “Talking about racism and xenophobia in spaces where decisions are made every day affecting lives through policy, surveillance, neglect is of the utmost importance,” she said.
It’s something Locke espouses.
“Increase your awareness of the many elements and challenges within the AAPI community and speak out against harassment, violence, discrimination, and stereotyping directed at any and all groups,” he said.
Chang suggests a three-pronged approach. “Check in with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and community members who are feeling pain and anxiety to help them feel seen, valued, and safe,” she said. “You may not know what to say or how to help, but just walk alongside them to show that you care.”
Next, Chang wants people to educate themselves to recognize unconscious bias and racism and use their voices to spark change when they see it. And lastly, “Learn more about Asian American history, including the discrimination and violence many in our community have experienced through the Japanese internment camps or the Chinese Exclusion Act,” she said.
Chen brings up the book The Anatomy of Organized Hate: Stories of Former White Supremacists – and America’s Struggle to Understand the Hate Movement, by his friend Lonnie Lusardo.
“He talks about former haters who go on to become allies of the people they hated. And the #1 factor is making a friend,” he said.
“It’s the easiest thing you can do. Meet somebody who is Asian, learn their culture, it’s the first thing you can do to understand,” Chen recommends. “That could solve a lot of the world’s problems. You learn you have more in common, and I hope one day we have fewer problems and more solutions.”
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.