In May 0f 1992, Congress declared May as Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. It was an extension of their resolution to establish APA Heritage Week 14 years before. It is a special time to raise awareness about the APA communities' history and culture. It is also a time to re-ignite pride within the communities by celebrating the many achievements and galvanizing the APA community around issues, causes and challenges within our communities. While there are many good things about APA Heritage Month, I honestly have mixed feelings about a month set aside to focus on a specific ethnic group. For me every month is APA month! When you are an APA you confront the challenges of mis-information, ignorance and just sheer discrimination all of the time.
I am an Asian Crossover. No I am not talking about a new car that is part SUV and part sports coupe. Nor I am alluding to Jeremy Lin's sweet ankle breaking dribble move. I have been an APA who has worked in "mainstream" places and organizations for my whole career. I have been many times in my professional and personal career, the "first APA to lead/head" and organization, the "first APA" on a board or the "highest ranking APA" in very large organizations and industries. No brag here just fact—plus I am pretty old 🙂 It actually is more a source of embarrassment to me that we have to use these labels even in 2012! Sadly we do, because we still have a long ways to go. My point is that I decided early on that I had an obligation, nee, a duty to help everyone, especially my "round eye" colleagues to be more sensitized to APA issues. I have also helped those organizations and industries engage more APA talent and customers. In general, you become the local Google search engine for APA questions and referrals. It is really tough representing millions of APAs and billions of Asians! 🙂
But being an Asian Crossover has its price and costs. Some in the APA community consider you a "sell-out" or even a banana—-yellow on the outside and white on the inside. (Asians are really good at copying others—clearly inspired by the Oreo designation in the African American community) I have been called a sell-out several times. But I knew who I was and who I was trying to become.
Being an Asian Crossover is a role that I do not shy away from. I decided I would bite my tongue and help as many others understand me and other APA communities no matter what was said or happened. I chose to become a bridge of understanding, with a specific focus on non-Asians. I always wanted to share what I have learned with the APA community–push APA talent to rise. But I learned there also needs to be a pulling force from the top of organizations, which is overwhelmingly non-Asian. Being a crossover means you have to do the pushing and the pulling.
This mindset enabled me enter new worlds with a purpose. To be very comfortable being the only person of color and usually the only Asian in the room. 25 years ago I was asked by KPCC, the NPR affiliate here in LA, to do an "Asian" show. KPCC was very interested in reaching the burgeoning Asian population in southern California, especially in the San Gabriel Valley. I told them that the only way they would reach these new Asians was by doing Asian language programming, starting with Mandarin. A couple years before I played a small part in launching the Jade Channel, a new cable tv channel with an array of Mandarin programming. I had a series of awkward conversations with the KPCC execs, about the challenges these new immigrants were having to assimilate and the high levels of discrimination they were already facing. Finally I told them I would do an "Asian" show focused on raising the awareness of non-Asians. I told them I would call it Asian Understanding. They were so pleased because they got their "Asian show". So for 10 years and 455 live shows I designed Asian Understanding as a crossover talk show, building bridges to the new and venerable APA communities through the arts, news, and personalities.
How do you take the bananas you are given and make a great banana milkshake? 🙂
Last Friday I was honored to be the keynote speaker at Southern California Edison's APA Heritage luncheon. All SCE's execs were in attendance, as well as SCE's APA partners, a smattering of SCE employees. It was a very formal and elegant luncheon filled with music, inspirational awards, and of course wonderful food. My speech themes followed my path as an Asian Crossover. To build bridges of understanding. To connect APAs with other communities. To strengthen our connection to our common destiny.
Here is an excerpt from my speech: Download SCE APA Heritage Final 5.4.12:
The greatest limitation to our advancement is our own imagination, our own concept of ourselves. We impose many constraints on ourselves. Yes there is discrimination, prejudice, racism and stereotyping. Sad to say these are omni present forces that can hold us back. But we must rise above these enemies of our growth and ambitions by becoming stronger. We have to grow to be more visible, more assertive, and better leaders. We cannot wait to be recognized, to be invited, we must seize our opportunities.
This is our time. Right now. To remember our ancestors to appreciate our opportunities. But what will we do to honor them?
It's not about me it is about we—our destinies are tied to one another
We have to live a life of passion and compassion.
We have lead by example and live our legacy.
We are many but are we much? We have much for which to be grateful. But what will we do to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What will each of us do to make sure our kids understand the roots of their past and give them the wings to their future?
Each of us can crossover to other communities to build bridges between and amongst our communities of interest. And to discover new communities, new people, and new things along the way. This is the lifestyle of networking and mentoring. To connect to your own identities and to connect with others.
So I mark this 20th anniversary of APA Heritage Month, inspired by what has come before us and challenged by the road ahead. Any chance to remind myself of who I am and what I stand for is a great month. But next month and the month after are just as important times to use our uniqueness to connect our commonalities to strengthen our communities.
Thanks for reading. John