Are we powerful enough? Empowering Asian voices in America

Society & Culture

“Only by knowing our history, knowing what we contribute, and knowing how we want to shape this country can we help it achieve the ideals it says it aspires to instead of reaching back to its darkest moments,” says Chris Kwok, Board Director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York.

a panel on asian american empowerment

We’re providing highlights from a roundtable discussion on April 22nd on what needs to happen for Asians to become more powerful and visible in America — in business, politics, and culture. Our panelists included Anna Mok, Partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP and President of Ascend; Richard Park, MD, Founder of CityMD and CEO of Rendr Physicians; Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, documentary filmmaker and Director of Finding Yingying; and Chris Kwok, Board Director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York. This discussion was moderated by Anla Cheng, CEO of The Serica Initiative and SupChina. You can watch the full discussion here. (Interviews have been edited for clarity and length).

Serica: Some say that “Asian Americans have become successful in America, but not powerful.” Asian Americans have long been perceived as hardworking, but quiet, meek, and easy to take advantage of. These stereotypes have especially come to the fore in the recent spike in anti-AAPI violence. What is the definition of power in your mind and, from your perspective, are we powerful enough?

Chris Kwok: I think political power is the ability to shape the society around you to the needs of the community that you’re in. But there’s also economic power. Asian-Americans have done exceptionally well, but within the Asian American community, we have the largest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Our success is lifted up in society but it obscures the plight of those that need help.

Anna Mok: I look at power as a way to make change. I believe we all have power because we actually all have an ability to drive change, regardless of where we are in life. Being able to use our current position to the benefit of others and the greater good is power.

Richard Park: As a kid growing up, I was taught to defer, to wait my turn, not to speak unless I was spoken to. But that only works when everyone follows those rules. This is a different country with a different culture, and it’s different from what we did. If you have an opinion, no one’s going to wait for you to speak. To be powerful in America you need to participate, take an active role, and speak your mind.

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi: I think the most important thing is having a voice and having the power and the ability to redefine the image of who we are in this country.

Serica: SupChina is all about covering China in every angle possible. A lot of readers have asked us what is your connection between China and AAPI hate. Chris, as a historian, how do you see the rise in China’s economic and political power relate to the recent surge in anti-AAPI hate in the U.S.?

Chris: If you look at American history, when the Chinese first came to America in large numbers, in 1875 something called the Page Act was passed, which bars all Mongolian women from coming to the U.S. because it sees all Chinese women as prostitutes. We see very early on the fusing of Chinese women with that sexualized fetish, and it becomes fused into law. And then it extends throughout history as America fights wars in Vietnam and Korea in Japan to all of Asia. How the law reacts and how society reacts to Chinese eventually expands to almost all other Asians, so anti-AAPI hate is intrinsically tied to anti-China legislation in this country.

Serica: Anna, how has China’s deteriorating relationship with the U.S. affected all the pan-Asian businesses and business leaders that you deal with?

Anna: Companies know that they can’t ignore China as part of their Asia strategy. They realize pragmatically that they have to work together. But I think the geopolitical environment we find ourselves in is very challenging especially for those of us of Asian descent, because there is no way for us to decouple people’s perceptions of us as Asian Americans from people’s perceptions of the role of China. The U.S. competes with lots of other countries for economic power, but why do we only change that competition with China? The question is not that we shouldn’t have competition with China, it’s that why, when an Asian country is growing and has economic power, do we suddenly turn to a negative set of opinions against the people of that country.

Serica: Richard, how has the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China affecting your Chinese immigrant patients and your business?

Richard: America is a wonderful melting pot, and there’s no place like the United States in my mind. But it doesn’t have perfect answers for everyone. For a subset of these 95,000 Chinese speaking patients, no one’s going to provide an answer for that. So we have to take care of our own, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Serica: Jenny, you are from mainland China, and so you see things very differently from us. How do you see the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China affecting your work?

Jenny: I think a lot of universities consider international students, and especially Chinese students, as cash cows. Over the last few decades, Chinese students have been arriving in greater numbers, and some local residents in majority-white college towns sometimes feel that Chinese students are taking over. There is a new narrative that is emerging of Chinese students as national threats or spies, and many students I’ve talked with are having a really difficult time. So I’ve become more aware of my own safety right now. As an Asian female filmmaker, I’m interested in any story about the Chinese community and the Asian American community in the U.S. and about stories in China. When I’m telling stories, I always try to figure out what’s my perspective and how the audience will react, whether they will challenge my identity and which side I’m with. I speak for truth and I don’t really take sides. It’s about the story itself, but there are concrete challenges right now telling any stories about the U.S. and China.

Anna: It begs the question of how public we should show our Asian side, and whether people will make assumptions about us as a result? Ascend does a lot of work with companies and one of the interesting things is that a lot of AAPIs do not want to disclose their ethnicity or race. People aren’t sure how much they should show their Asian identity in the workplace and that negatively impacts how we show up and whether we feel we can speak up.

Chris: The answer I would suggest is to really lean into our Asian American identity and our history. When we know what happened, we can talk about how it’s connected to what’s happening right now and suggest a better path for the future. Geopolitics has always affected the Asian experience in America. We need to work together to tell that story. Only by knowing our history, knowing what we contribute, and knowing how we want to shape this country can we help it achieve the ideals it says it aspires to instead of reaching back to its darkest moments.

Serica: Richard, your own upbringing reflects the diversity of AAPI experiences. How does the model minority myth help, or harm, the perception of Asian experience in America?

Richard: Like all things, it’s a little bit of both. This concept of quiet suffering is actually quite attractive. It’s a strength to suffer in silence and not complain, and I don’t want to lose that. That being said, perhaps we suffer more than we ought to. We don’t get the same support because we don’t demand it. The average Medicaid expenditure in NYC is probably $6,500 per patient, and Asians probably spend about $4,000. That’s a huge disparity.

Chris: We deserve our share of social services and medical care because we’re citizens and we pay taxes. The government should serve us in a way that perhaps we haven’t expected and that we haven’t asked for previously. I’m worried about mental health for Asian Americans coming out of this pandemic. We don’t have a lot of mental health professionals who are culturally and linguistically competent. And we don’t have a lot of community advocates who can tell what we need to do to go to the government, or the state, or the city to serve those needs.

Anna: As AAPIs, given that we come from 50-plus countries in terms of country of origin, sometimes we are so focused on what is different about us, we forget that in places like the U.S. there is strength in coming together around our shared issues. It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but there are certain issues that transcend us as individuals and that we can move further along on the political agenda and in society because it leads to greater good for all. I think this coming together is what’s a bit lacking in our community in the U.S. right now. There is a lot to learn from other movements, whether it’s the LGBTQ movement or the Women’s movement or Civil Rights. Those communities are equally diverse in different ways as ours, and I think that’s an important thing for us as a community to reflect on and strive for.

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