Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: From struggling with identity to becoming an emerging leader

Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: From struggling with identity to becoming an emerging leader

What does it mean to be Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)? I have asked this a lot throughout my life.

Growing up, I struggled with my identity as an Asian American. And if I recalled all of my challenging experiences, this blog post would end up as a novel.

I’ve experienced racism, mostly happening in high school – the peak of social anxiety and teenage awkwardness.

During my freshman year, I transitioned from a private to public school; it was a difficult change to make at 15 years old. I only had a couple of friends, was introverted, and was the kid that wore Motley Crue and Iron Maiden T-shirts. My appearance was very different — sadly, making me a target to several classmates.

Rather than learn my name, my classmates gave me a nickname – “Asian.”

Yes, in a class and school that was predominately white, my nickname was my ethnicity. They looked at the color of my skin and gave me this nickname, and I went with it just so they’d like me. I didn’t understand the hurtful meaning behind It. Sometimes, I wish I could travel back to 2012, shake my 15-year-old self, and scream, “YOU IDIOT.”

At the end of freshman year, when everyone was signing yearbooks, people would sign mine as, “Hey Asian, have a great summer,” or “Hey Asian, you’re an awesome person!” Looking back, I recognized how this was so humiliating, sad and incredibly wrong.

Fast forward to my senior year of high school with me sitting in English class one day talking with a few friends, when I turned around to say hello to some other students. As I turned around, one of my classmates looked me in the eye and asked, “What are you looking at you-” I won’t finish that sentence here, but it ended with a derogatory term for a Vietnamese person. I’m Filipina and Japanese; yet regardless, no one deserves to be called such a name.

My experiences took a toll on how I engaged at school. After graduating high school and entering college, I kept a low profile. I had cool opportunities come to me, like photographing concerts and meeting with the bands that performed on stage (my first taste of public relations). I did these types of gigs from the end of my senior year of high school into college. Yet, I was still fearful people would make fun of me or be racist to me, so I kept my activities to myself. Being stereotyped my whole life was stressful enough, and I didn’t want to deal with it again. People expected me to be good at math or to become a doctor, so the only people who knew that I did photography were close friends – people I trusted and who supported me. I didn’t want to relive my trauma and be humiliated for doing something I love.

Throughout college, I fought with myself about who I was. As humans we make mistakes, and I sure made a lot of those while completing my undergrad. I hustled jobs, and classes, and wasn’t the best version of myself. What people saw was a mask and hidden behind it was a young woman struggling to find herself. It would take a few history courses and lots of cultural classes to open my eyes to my own culture.

While completing my degree in communications, I learned so much more about the AAPI community. I absorbed everything – from learning about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the stories of successful AAPI leaders today. My professors and peers opened my eyes to my culture and heritage, and after this breakthrough, I finally opened up to the world and started becoming the version of myself I longed to be.

I am a proud second-generation American and the first of my family in the United States to graduate from a university. I took pride in my chosen path – a career in public relations, and pursued it passionately, wearing many hats in my field such as event coordinator, project manager, crisis communication coordinator, and more. It was hard work, but it paid off once I was offered the opportunity to work with my Taft family.

Yet, I still ask myself the same question:

What does it mean to be AAPI?  And my answer is strong and proud.

As I reflect on AAPI month and its celebration, I ”see” and honor the many current and aspiring leaders of my community. I embrace this time, and any time, to embrace our culture and come together in solidarity with other communities of color and our allies. It’s a month of education and learning where together we can further explore and share our journey, our successes, how we want to progress and how we will continue to dismantle the perception/stereotypes that others have of our amazing culture.

As we acknowledge AAPI month, as a community supported by our allies, we know what we continue to advocate for, and why we do it…

For the people.

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