How to Organize Asian Americans – Notes from Two Generations

Asian Americans hold signs at a protest. (Photo credit: Flickr / Marcela McGreal)

By: Rinku Sen

First, realize that Asian America is a thing. Combine a bunch of smaller groups (who hated or ignored each other in their ancestral homelands) into one Big Constituency. Then your little community of Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Nepalis, Bhutanese, Samoans – come one, come all! –  can exercise power you haven’t totally built yet.

Call yourself Asian American.

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How Grace Lee Boggs Changed My Life (and Maybe Yours Too)

Grace Lee Boggs on a poster for CAAMFest 2014. (Photo credit: Flickr / Erica Mooney, https://www.flickr.com/photos/24325464@N06/)

By: Scott Kurashige

Twenty years ago, I wrote to Grace Lee Boggs completely out of the blue. She had no basis for knowing who I was or what I was involved in. In fact, I had only recently learned about Grace through the research of my friend, Jung Hee Choi.

In the spring of 1998, I was 27 years old and officially a PhD student at UCLA. However, I had little prospect or expectation that I would finish my degree or become a professor. Instead, my life revolved around student activism and community organizing. Foreshadowing the Trump counterrevolution at the national level, Pete Wilson’s terms as governor served as the last reactionary gasps of power from the white soon-to-be minority and the conservative political forces in California.

Similar to today, we activists were toiling 24/7 to organize protests and build the resistance. Communities of color led a series of massive, inspirational demonstrations in response to Propositions 187 (attack on immigrant rights), 209 (banning affirmative action), and 227 (outlawing bilingual education), as well as police brutality and assaults on workers rights. Nevertheless, we fretted that we were constantly on the defensive—not just from the Republicans in California but also from the Clinton administration’s pursuit of corporate globalization, mass incarceration, and neoliberal austerity measures.

I was convinced we needed a revolutionary movement; and I would do my part to ensure that Asian Americans would step up and join with other communities of color at the forefront of the struggle. Much of my time in this period was devoted to organizing two connected events held in Los Angeles in May 1998. The “Serve the People” Asian American community activism conference brought several hundred people to UCLA to recount the historical lessons of movement building and share strategies from contemporary organizing.

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1965 to Today: Moving Towards a Majority-Minority America

Handwritten letters and postcards in Chinese. (Photo Credit: Daniel / Flickr)

By: Alton Wang (@altonwang)

We often talk about the course of history as if it is distantly in our past. This might lead us to overlook the direct implications that historic decisions and events have had on our present. I think of this not only in the greater sense of global geopolitics or major social movements, but at the level of the individual.

I recently uncovered a letter that my dad had filed away. It was addressed to my grandfather from the Commander of United States Army Communications Command in Taiwan, and it was written shortly after the termination of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which had ensured American defense of Taiwan in case of invasion. My grandfather had worked for the U.S. Army as an electronic technician until U.S. forces began to pull away from the Taiwan Strait in 1979.

I’d long known that my grandfather had worked for the U.S. Army in some way, and that it was through this work that he was able to come to the United States; but holding this small slice of history in my hands, dated April 11, 1979, put it all in perspective. The yellowing paper—marked with the slashes of my own father’s handwriting—was an artifact from my family’s immigration story: In 1981, my father and grandparents immigrated to America.

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API Mental Health: Let’s Stop Talking Taboos and Start Talking Racism

Photo credit: Alexander Koromilas / Flickr

By: Jen Soriano (@lionswrite)

Editor’s Note: As of May 22, 2018 the author has modified this essay to include more Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) examples and statistics, thanks to a reader’s comments and resources on Pacific Islander erasure vs. visibility, disaggregation and inclusion.

I’m not (very) afraid to say it loud and clear: I am one of more than 2.2 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who live with a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, and I know I’m not alone.

2.2 million amounts to the entire population of Houston, Texas. It adds up to the entire U.S. population of Japanese-Americans and Korean-Americans combined.

I am one of 2.2 million and I know I’m not alone, especially in this political era where we breathe toxic stress-like fumes. In this trumped-up climate of racist fire and ICE, any one of us could face mental health challenges at any given moment, just as any one of us feeling well today could wake up tomorrow with a cold.

But this is not just another call for the destigmatization of mental illness in AAPI communities. Acceptance is important. But we need more. We also need a structural analysis of belonging, which is key to mental health, and how racism continually disrupts that basic need.

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On Being a Brown Asian: Expanding the Boundaries of Asian America

(Photo credit: Flickr/thestarshine)

By: Anisa Khalifa

During my last year of university, I decided to explore beyond my close-knit group of friends and join some new clubs while I still had the opportunity. During Clubs Week, when all the clubs on campus set up booths in the common areas, one that caught my attention was the Asian Students’ Society. When I walked up to their table, the girl there told me non-Asians were welcome.

“I’m Asian,” I told her. She blinked at me.

I still joined, paid the dues, and went to one event, because I become stubborn when I’m made to feel that I don’t belong somewhere. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one at that event who looked like me, and not one person among the hundreds of attendees did anything but politely look past me.

The experience stayed with me, because it drove home a point that until then had been a vague constant in my peripheral awareness: In North America, when we say “Asian,” we mean East Asian. (I went to school at the University of Toronto, but although Canada’s relationship with race differs from ours in important ways, they have generally treated their Asian diaspora similarly to the US—unlike, for example, the U.K, where “Asian” has historically referred primarily to South Asians.) As a brown Asian American of Pakistani descent who often gets mistaken for Arab, I am used to not being included in this category that I clearly belong to.

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