By Juliet Fang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Last week, members and guests of the Rotary Club of Seattle #4 gathered in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to listen to local AAPI leaders discuss growing up and raising families in America, as well as the rise of AAPI voices in politics.
Featured panelists were Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, former Seattle City Council member David Della, King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion, and Seattle Mariners Vice President for People and Culture Katherine Cheng. Assunta Ng, a Chinese American community organizer and publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post, moderated the panel.
It began with a discussion of what it was like to grow up with Asian immigrant parents in an American environment. The panelists spoke of clashing cultural values between American and Asian ways of life that lead to family conflict. For example, Hobbs shared a story of how horrified his wife had been when she came across Hobbs’s Japanese mother feeding her young grandchild raw fish.
“My mom just calmly put the chopsticks down, looked at [my wife and I], and said that [the practices] of over 150 million Japanese over millennia can’t be wrong and proceeded to keep feeding our child,” Hobbs chuckled.
Meanwhile, Della experienced frustration with traditional Asian parenting rules.
“My parents were very old school,” he said. “You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, you always say thank you, you never talk back. I think there were a lot of clashes growing up because I tend to talk back and speak out of turn, and so we resolved that by me shutting up.”
Still, the panelists strive to teach their children many of the Asian values they learned growing up.
“I would want my children to really understand and appreciate our sense of community and how we come together and help one another out,” Manion said.
Della agreed, pointing out that he works to teach his children the values of family, community, and hard work, all of which were drilled into him at a young age.
“It’s a burden as a parent [to teach these things],” said Cheng. “But I think it’s really important for children to have these values the further we got removed from our culture by living here. My kids are half Caucasian so it’s even more important for me to instill in them values of the Asian community, such as respect for your elders and taking care of your community.”
All of the panelists agreed that they wanted to preserve their Asian culture for generations, especially since it took a while for many of them to come into their own unique Asian identities apart from being lumped under the broad category of “Asian American.” To this point, Manion shared a personal story of visiting Seattle when she was 11 and being recognized as Korean, and not just Oriental or Asian.
“It was the first time that I had that sense of identity that I could name and feel,” she recalled.
For Hobbs, his identity as a Japanese American made him a target for racial prejudice during his upbringing in Snohomish County.
“People would spray paint racial epitaphs in front of my house. I got beat up a lot and my mom would get harassed. During the time of the recession, people would stop our car and tell us that we were taking their jobs,” he said. “When I went to college, I started to participate in the Asian identity movement, which transferred into our community organizing a lot, such as preserving the Chinatown-International District.”
As Hobbs described, violence against the AAPI community is not new. In fact, it has only increased in frequency and severity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One positive aspect of this grim reality is that AAPI voices have become amplified in politics as more individuals agitate for change.
“The pandemic certainly galvanized our political voices,” says Cheng. “We’re never seen and heard because of our skin color and tendency to dismiss the attacks. Lots of people were also speaking out against the news coverage that focused on Black people attacking Asians, which was helpful since we’re trying to help each other, not create more conflict.”
Della agreed, emphasizing that younger voices are becoming increasingly more visible as a result of the pandemic. Hobbs added on to this by noting that the anti-Asian hate movement directed previously disparate Asian cultures towards one purpose, allowing the Asian community to become more unified.
“I think we finally realized it’s about time we’re heard and seen and representative of our communities,” said Cheng. Della added, “Anti-Asian hate and stereotypes have been barriers to our community in realizing the full potential of what we can bring to the table, and I think in reaction to what has happened, a lot more people have spoken about the issues of the Asian American community and resulted in AAPI individuals running for office and getting appointed into seats of power.”
At the same time, the panelists agree that more needs to be done during this surge in AAPI political power, especially regarding the idea that all Asian American members are recent immigrants, which neglects centuries of Asian contributions to America.
“We’re not teaching history in the way that’s fully representative of the Asian community in textbooks,” says Cheng.
Hobbs agreed, adding that “we need to talk more about our history and impact here in Washington state.” The Secretary of State’s office currently distributes books on the history and legacy of Washington state, which can help individuals learn more about the communities that have had an impact on Washington. The office is also focusing on increasing voter outreach and education to increase the political engagement of Asian individuals in Washington.
“We need to also improve understanding by building coalitions and relationships between Asian groups,” said Della. “We also need to improve our public relations and ensure that we are getting across the AAPI message in the media.”
Despite these calls for improvement, panelists all agree that this is a crucial moment in the rise of AAPI power in America.
“I feel that we have a deep sense of obligation to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and do the same,” said Manion. “Right now, Asian Americans are collectively claiming our power.”