The Asian Affinity student group at Spence hosted an assembly to commemorate the second annual Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month.
Seniors Navya R., Annie T. and Racheal L., who helped organize the assembly focused on Asian identity in schools and workplace, led conversations with six Asian and Asian American panelists: Judy Kim ’89, Amanda Tarnate ’07, Kaitlin Gu ’12, Mitsuki Nishimoto ’13, Arti Singh and Carolyn Hsu.
The student moderators asked panelists a broad range of questions, including the impact of their Asian heritage on their high school and college experiences, how their experiences differed between school and the workplace and how Spence students can work to create a more equitable environment at school and their future workplaces.
One common theme that emerged was the importance of being a role model and using one’s privilege to help pave the way forward for people that are underrepresented in a given field.
Kim, who currently serves as a judge and was the first Korean American elected in New York State to Civil Court, remarked that as someone who “ended up in places where not a lot of Asian Americans have gone,” she feels a sense of responsibility to mentor diverse young people beginning legal careers.
Nishimoto, who works on the management team at Bloomberg Philanthropies, similarly emphasized the importance of “recognizing your own privilege and also thinking of ways to elevate others and others’ voices.”
Other panelists highlighted the need to make connections and build relationships across cultural, religious and socio-economic boundaries. Gu, a software engineer at Google whose background is Chinese American, advised students to “just be there for each other and support each other,” regardless of one’s race or cultural identity.
“Connecting with other people” is key, “no matter what your race or religion is,” said Arti Singh, who works at the United Nations on programs to eradicate poverty, and whose background is Indian, Thai and American. She added, “Just put yourself out there. Share your experiences, because sometimes people don’t ask because they’re shy, not because they don’t want to know…they may ask you silly things, but it’s the start.”
Nishimoto shared that, “listening to others and empathizing” is essential, as is “being comfortable with discomfort and knowing that you might say the wrong thing.”
Tarnate, a Filipino-American working at the advertising technology startup Taboola, urged students to “be very encouraging…welcoming and accepting” to all women in the workplace, regardless of their backgrounds.
Panelists also shared insights about the importance of Asian and Asian American representation in school. Taking an Asian literature course at Spence was “the first time I was able to read about my identity in a class, which was really powerful to me,” Nishimoto recalled.
Gu had similar experiences while she was attending school. “Being in white spaces or not seeing a lot of Asian American representation was pretty hard,” Gu emphasized, noting that later on, “seeing more representation and learning more about Asian American literature was super helpful and impactful.”
Another key theme of the discussions was encountering assumptions and stereotypes about Asian people.
“There is no way you can hide from your identity,” Kim remarked. She shared that her first memory of thinking about her identity was when a friend in elementary school asked her, “What are you?” and assumed she was Chinese or Japanese rather than Korean.
Hsu, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Shanghai after 1949, noted that her mother taught her to embrace her identity, particularly after she received comments from her classmates about her “slanted eyes” and “yellow skin” while she was attending an international school in Thailand. With her mother’s encouragement, she gained confidence and self-awareness that served her well throughout her career, from the moment she entered the workforce in finance and retail, to decades later when she started her own baby wear company. Regardless of stereotypes others may believe, Hsu encouraged students to “have your own beliefs and believe in yourself.”
Many thanks to the students from Asian Affinity for bringing a diverse array of platforms and perspectives to Spence in continued celebration of APIDA Heritage Month.