May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month here in the US and Asian Heritage Month in Canada, so we decided to focus Voices this month on the Asian experience.
We spoke with several NetMotion employees to learn what it was like growing up in Asian families. What we discovered were a lot of shared experiences and commonalities, but it was remarkable how different we all are. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we all have our own individual perspective on what it’s like to be Asian in North America, but in a world where it’s easy to be categorized or viewed through a lens of stereotypes, it’s important to point out that everyone has a different opinion. My experience will never be your experience.
Being an Asian American myself, I feel that any discussion about race needs to include the good and positive, as well as the bad and sometimes uncomfortable. That is particularly true this year, with the effects of the pandemic and economic uncertainty bringing a tragic increase in hate crimes against Asians in our communities.
A ‘model’ minority?
The Asian experience in the US has been long, and sometimes fraught. As generation after generation immigrated to the US to make a new beginning, they have been met with varying degrees of acceptance. At times they have felt welcomed, while at other times they have encountered apprehension and even open animosity.
Asian people started arriving in the US in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Some have come to the US to escape persecution or poverty in their home countries, while others merely wanted a better life for themselves and their children. Today, much of the immigration from Asia is driven by education and job opportunities.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate the amazing diversity within Asia. We come from a long list of countries that includes China, Korea, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Pacific Island nations such as Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tonga. Together, these nations represent dozens of languages, rich ethnic traditions, a multitude of unique foods, long and storied histories and vibrant cultures.
In general, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have tried to retain parts of their history and culture while also working very hard to assimilate into North American life. Due to the general success that we’ve seen among AAPI communities, we’ve often been labeled a “model minority.” While this label sounds flattering on the surface, I see it as quite a controversial term. In short, it invalidates the many socioeconomic struggles and racist encounters that our AAPI communities have endured. To dive into this would take many more paragraphs, so I leave you with this article from The Washington Post.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a particularly long history of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean immigration, stretching back well over a century. Recent political and social unrest, heightened by the pandemic and economic uncertainty, have caused a sense of déjà vu for many people of Asian heritage. It certainly hasn’t always been easy to be an Asian living in America. Consider this:
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
There’s a popular and well-known phrase in the US Declaration of Independence that mentions “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So, it isn’t a stretch to realize that the Asian families who moved to the United States did so because of a shared dream. A hope that hard work would be rewarded with opportunity and success. Although history is not repeating in quite such an extreme way this time around, there are definitely worrying trends. Yes, a new bill to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans passed with bipartisan support, however anti-Asian American violence has continued to escalate.
A lot of this is being fueled by ignorance. People are acting out and targeting completely innocent strangers because they ‘look Chinese.’ It angers me that I have to worry about my family and Asian friends going out, just in case they are threatened or attacked. No one should have to live like this, and yet many of us are. We’re living through a very dark, very scary time.
I’m proud of my Chinese heritage, and proud to be an American. I’m also a huge believer in championing equality and inclusion for all minorities in our society, and not just when it’s the popular thing to do. After all, no matter what we look like on the outside, we all strive for acceptance and opportunity, and that’s exactly the kind of nation the United States should be.
On that note, let’s hear from some of our colleagues.
Jenifer Wallis, Sales
My dad was Filipino. He was from the Philippines and raised there. And he came to the US and met my mom when he was finishing up his residency. As I was growing up, my dad taught us a lot about Filipino food and traditions. He really wanted to pass that along to us, even though he didn’t fly back to the Philippines very often.
The interesting thing is that we grew up in a really small town of about 3,000 people in Southern Illinois, and we were the only minority and the only kids of any kind of color.
In my experience, we were taught not to make waves, not to complain or stand out. That you shouldn’t attract attention to yourself. Just work hard and excel. The recent hate crimes against people of Asian descent highlight that we still have narrow-minded people in our society.Jenifer Wallis
I was shocked when President Trump kept calling Covid the Hong Kong flu or China virus. To me, that was yet another false narrative that helped justify hate crimes, and gave people the freedom to do and say the crazy things that they’ve been doing. What personally bothers me about this is that my relatives, my sisters, my aunts, my cousins, they are all squarely in the targeted demographic. It makes me really mad.
On a positive note, one thing that I see changing a little bit is representation in movies and on TV. When I was growing up, I gravitated to characters like Pocahontas. She isn’t Asian, of course, but I loved her because she looked more like me. It was rare to find Asian heroines in pop culture until we got to the late 1990s with movies like Mulan. I think that kind of exposure has been really great because it allows us to see how similar we are while also celebrating each other.
I think there’s also a welcome shift that’s happening among the younger generation. My daughter is a quarter Filipino, and she doesn’t seem to be facing the same kind of racism or stigma that I witnessed first-hand at the same age. That’s an awesome change. I’d like to say that it no longer exists, but at least it appears to be far less of an issue for her. I really hope that we keep going down this path to being more accepting of people with diverse backgrounds.
Kevin Luk, Accounting
I grew up in Hong Kong watching a lot of movies and learning about American culture through shows like South Park 😉 . Eventually I moved to Canada to continue my education and found myself in an extremely international crowd. My roommate at that point was German, and in addition to Canadians, I was surrounded by students from many countries, including the US and Korea.
What I’ve found is that prejudice comes in many shapes and forms. Even within Hong Kong, there was a lot of prejudice directed toward the mainland Chinese people. That discrimination is despite the fact that we are the same race but from other regions of China. So from my perspective, racism isn’t just caused by looking different; it’s caused by fear or from not understanding people from different backgrounds.Kevin Luk
One of the only bad experiences I’ve personally ever had was when I was around 10 years old. I was put in a children’s club with around 100 other kids. My English wasn’t very good at the time, but there were a couple of European kids who wanted to fight with me because I’m Asian. They just thought that I knew Kung Fu, even though I had no martial arts background.
Other than that, I’ve rarely had any bad experiences regarding my race. Fortunately, I’ve found people to be very respectful.
And finally, one of our colleagues from Japan, who has a completely unique perspective of growing up in Japan with both Japanese and Brazilian heritage.
Indira Pinheiro Furuta, Marketing
My experience growing up was similar to Jen’s. But I would say it was the other way around, because in my case I was the subject of racism because I didn’t look Asian enough as a ‘half’ child living in Japan. It was pretty hard growing up, but on the bright side I would say that it helped me to appreciate the things that are truly unique about myself. When I entered high school at around 15 years old, I noticed that the culture in Japan started to change a lot. Being half started to become more popular and was represented more often in a positive light on TV. It was a turning point for me.
Looking back, I can see how much Japanese people mistrusted foreigners. Even now there’s a pervasive sentiment that whenever a crime is committed, a foreigner might be behind it. Even going to some stores, you sometimes see signs only in Portuguese or Chinese saying that you’re not supposed to steal or shoplift, or that police are patrolling the store. The fact that those signs aren’t written in Japanese, too, seems very racist.
For me, being half means that you have to straddle two or more cultures. It’s hard to do that, and sometimes it’s not very successful. You may end up not seeming Asian enough or Latina enough, and there are pressures to conform in certain ways. It can feel like you’re stuck in-between but not fully accepted by either side.Indira Pinheiro Furuta
One thing I will say is that I’m glad my parents forced me to learn Portuguese. I didn’t value it at the time, but now that I’m older, it not only gives me an extra skill, it also keeps me connected to my heritage and has become part of my identity.