In Celebration of Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, as the majority of the workers were Chinese immigrants.

In celebration of Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re spotlighting several EP staff who took some time with a few Q&A’s:

How does your identity inform your work in general, and/or at Education Pioneers?

ANNIE TOROManager, Regional Advancement | DC Area: I am multiracial/multiethnic. Growing up, I was told that: 1) as a girl, I was probably not good at math and science or good at sports; 2) as an Asian American, I was probably good at school, especially math and science, and probably docile; 3) as a Latina American, I was probably lazy, sassy, and overtly sexual. With all these stereotypes canceling each other out and criss-crossing, I learned at a young age to set my own path because I wasn’t one “thing” or identity. Now, when I enter a room, I tend to assume that every individual is just as smart or smarter than I am and is unique, no matter how similar or different we might look. My goal is to always make people feel like their real selves. I think this is one of EP’s strong points – we tend to do this across the board.

MELISSA WUChief Program Officer, Incoming CEO | Boston: I identify as much as biracial as I do Taiwanese or Asian, but I also have mixed feelings about that. I often wish I “belonged” more to my Taiwanese heritage, but also appreciate the perspective and fluency that belonging to multiple cultures has given me. I’m a daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant father and a white mother from rural Connecticut. I was always aware that I was different from my peers, growing up in a predominantly white community (and at a time when there was no way to express or document belonging to more than one race on forms like the Census). Not fully belonging anywhere gave me the opportunity to see and understand the way that privilege and dominant culture played out. This perspective allowed me to observe and feel deeply connected to the opportunity gap. It sparked and fed a desire to interrogate the systems and structures that perpetuate inequities, and to explore education as a powerful lever for equity.

Why is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month necessary?

NAYAN MOHAPATRA – EP Manager, Data & Analytics | New York: I think it is necessary for a few reasons. The first is I don’t think people truly comprehend the number of different groups that make up the Asian Pacific community. The second is that I think the view of Asian or Pacific Americans is very skewed, especially in the education space. The 2015 census claimed that Asian individuals (foreign born and native born) had the highest percentage of people over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet, that’s not the full story, as many Asian groups have some of the highest high school dropout rates in the country. I think any attempt to educate people on the vast cultures that fall under the umbrella of Asian – and how we are tied into the cultural melting pot that is the U.S. – is beneficial.

CLAUDINA YANG – EP Associate, Marketing & Communications | Boston: Asia Pacific spans many countries and cultures, and I think it’s important that we don’t conflate these disparate identities and that we continue to celebrate the diversity of stories out there. As it pertains to educational outcomes, it’s also important to note that many Southeast Asian populations in the U.S. are not only underrepresented but, in many instances, suffer from lower high school graduation and retention rates in their communities than any other group. Asian and Pacific Americans are still highly underrepresented in U.S. politics and in the media and that’s why we shouldn’t forget that they – we – are also proud people of color who deserve to have their stories told.

ANNIE: Authentic representation of people of Asian descent in the mainstream is severely lacking. Crazy Rich Asians (2018) will be the first major film since The Joy Luck Club (1993) to feature a leading cast made up entirely of people of Asian descent. The current series Fresh Off The Boat is the first sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994) to feature an Asian American family; Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project was the first sitcom since All-American Girl to have its central character be an Asian woman; and John Cho made history as the first Asian American man to play a romantic lead in the short-lived sitcom Selfie (2014). All of these firsts and history-making moments are happening just now, despite the fact that people of Asian descent have had a presence in the U.S. at least since the early 1800s. People of Asian descent have had difficulty entering into the American music industry (not for lack of trying) and are largely behind the scenes or are alternative/independent artists with minimal clout and radio-play. People like Awkwafina, Anderson Paak, and Zayn Malik are extremely rare. Bruno Mars is the most successful Asian American musician (he is half-Filipino), but one can’t help but question that if he used his actual given name, or if he presented more heavily as “Asian,” would he enjoy as much success?

What does education mean to you? How does that meaning intersect with your identity?

MELISSA: I grew up in a big and diverse extended family. My cousins (now as adults) foster horses, work in fashion, work construction, are economists and doctors and engineers. Those paths reflect different individual personalities, but were also strongly shaped by varied home and school contexts. I saw firsthand how a different school or community could shape your educational trajectory among a sample of nearly 20 first cousins with whom I share DNA and family culture.

I had the luck and privilege of having a path to Princeton and, while I worked hard to get there, I always knew that for each of my classmates there were numerous others who likely worked just as hard and were just as smart but who weren’t as lucky to be in a context where there was a clear path to college. My whole career has been in some way connected to that awareness of the role luck and privilege play in our society and I have focused on harnessing the power of education systems to advance equity. Now I’m lucky to be at EP and supporting the next generation of transformational leaders – at all levels – who can help us all realize the great promise of more equitable systems and outcomes.

ANNIE: My mother was sent away from her countryside hometown in Korea to attend a prestigious girls’ school in Seoul. She dreamt of getting a college degree in literature or art and traveling to learn more; however, despite the opportunities her high school afforded her, colleges and the people around her hadn’t caught up, and her options were limited. She chose to be a secretary and worked at a U.S. military base. Later, she moved to the U.S. and was at a loss; she was embarrassed about her accent and received prejudice from people around her. She told my father she wanted to study more and he helped her sign up for correspondence college courses. Over the span of nearly seven years, in addition to being a stay-at-home mom, she received her bachelor’s degree. She also gained confidence in her English over the years and is now a bank manager. My mom taught me that if I wasn’t good at something, the only solution was to practice and challenge myself. And how education, especially a college education, was the key to everything: it would open doors, it would make people listen, and it would give us respect from everyone, including ourselves.

Share about a role model in your life.

NAYAN: In my family, there are many role models who stress the importance of education and the change it can create for you, your family, and your environment. My grandfather grew up in Puri, Orissa, a small seaside village that was not the most progressive place in the world. As Puri began to grow as a city, my grandfather became interested in infrastructure and delivering clean water to the people of the village. He realized the best place to learn this was in the U.S. and he pursued degrees at engineering institutions in Philadelphia and Baltimore. I can’t imagine what that experience was like: he left his family on the other side of the world to move to a foreign land where he didn’t know anyone. He was able to make this sacrifice because of his educational curiosity and belief that if he pursued a higher degree, he could impact his community.

CLAUDINA: I come from a family of scholars, many of whom have been great role models to me. My father came from a small mountainous village in China and was one of the few members of his community to go to college. He then went on to study foreign languages and philosophy, which at the time was not an encouraged nor popular area of study. Now, as an academic in French comparative literature and continental philosophy in the U.S., I frequently wonder what his journey must have been like. I imagine he walked down an often lonely path, but he never gave up on following his passion. He relentlessly pursued his education during a political context that almost prevented him from finishing his studies and faced the stigma that a non-Frenchman could never understand or properly teach French literature. My dad did what he set out to do in a language and country that was not his own, and I think that is truly admirable.

ANNIE: My grandmother’s a tough Korean halmeoni (grandmother, old woman) who escaped after being captured by North Korean soldiers when she was only about 14. Later in life, she was one of the first women to use the Korean law in which spouses could be jailed for adultery. (My grandfather was a nice guy, but a notorious philanderer, and my grandmother eventually signed for his release, on the condition that he “behave himself.”) Until my grandmother – who made the newspaper because it was so rare for a woman to use that law against her husband – only men typically used that law against their wives. She held her head up high and always took control of any situation. It’s a quality she passed down to my mother and aunt, and something I like to think my mom passed down to me – the ability to be strong when times get tough, with dignity.

How do you celebrate your culture? How do you enjoy sharing your culture with others?

ANNIE: I really like to tell stories about my family’s hijinks and foibles.

CLAUDINA: Through food. Dumplings and noodles all day, every day. Food means family and it’s the way my parents remember home. Dumpling-making or hot pot is a group activity that often involves several people and we spend most of the day eating, cooking, and playing cards. Fun fact: the world’s largest human migration annually occurs during Chinese New Year. Several hundred million people in China move from point A to point B during the Lunar New Year, aka Spring Festival.

NAYAN: I would say through food and drink. Specifically drinks, as Indian sodas and beers have a unique taste, but I might be biased since these tastes are tied to my family trips to India. I think food and drink are key for me, as meals were the only time that everyone really gathered in my family (immediate and extended).