June 8

AAPI Heritage Month – A Conversation

AAPI Heritage Month – A Conversation

"I think what's important about culture and heritage is sharing it amongst others." - Diane Pham
"I grew up without seeing a lot of Asian representation, and I think it's really important to highlight some of our successes." - Anh Vong
"When we share stories, we reflect upon who we are and it makes us have meaningful conversations, feel safe, and also heal." - Vivian Feng

At Summer Search, sharing stories is everything to us.

Our students and mentors are always in conversation, talking about everything from the day-to-day details of life, to the "deeper" discussions on self-identity and where our young people see themselves in the world.

We recently shared the stories of two Summer Search alumni and their journeys to honor and reclaim their heritages through their artistic talents -- Maddie Lam and Khoa Martin Hoang.

Today, we're honored to share a conversation recorded in late May, for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Three Summer Search students from our AAPI communities -- Vivian, Diane, and Anh -- shared their stories and perspectives about the events of the past year, on their identities, and much more.

Vivian Feng

Vivian Feng

Diane Pham

Diane Pham

Anh Vong

Anh Vong

We invite you to watch the full conversation below and read through some highlights. 

Click the "CC" button to turn on the captions. If you're having trouble viewing it here, you can watch on our Vimeo.


Conversation Contents:

  • 0:00 - 14:50 -- Introduction / Pulse Check
  • 14:55 - 32:46 -- Reflections on the Past Year
  • 32:48 - 38:58 -- Closing Thoughts


Summer Searchers:

  • Vivian Feng -- Bay Area. First-year student at UC Berkeley.
  • Diane Pham -- Bay Area. First-year student at UCLA.
  • Anh Vong -- Bay Area. Graduating senior from Oakland High School.

Summer Search Staff:

  • Austin Lim -- Bay Area Post-Secondary Success Program Associate
  • Reyna Moreno -- Bay Area Program Associate
  • Brendan Hill -- National Marketing & Communications Manager
  • Lance Jones -- National Director of Marketing & Communications

Pulse Check - How Are You Doing?

We opened the conversation with what we call a "Pulse Check," a space to check-in with everyone on how they are doing. The answers ranged from excitement and relief with the semester/school year coming to a close, to reflections on the broader state of the country and world.

Austin Lim: "I'm personally feeling quite good, just like with things in the Bay Area reopening and the weather being great. But then sort of like, thinking about like the Asian part... looking over to South Asia and Southeast Asia where disparity between their (COVID) vaccination rates and ours... and just feeling how unfair and violent that is."

Diane Pham: "I feel like I'm at 90%. The 10% of me just feels very drained by school, and I just want to wrap up because it is the last stretch (of the semester). But also, I wanted to go on a walk, and it was around sunset time getting a little dark and I felt hesitant. But I still did it anyways because I wanted that walk, and I just didn't want the fact that, with whatever's happening to not let me allow myself to do the things that I love. With everything opening up, I want to be outside more, but I just want to be more cautious and safe."

Vivian Feng: "Lately I've been like really good. I'm done with school, with my first year so, that was nice because I don't have to take any more exams. I was just reflecting upon how much I overcame in the past year, first semester was so hard, I'm like, exceeding my expectations, academically and socially, and I think that's great for me."

Anh Vong: "Lately, I've been like getting really sad because, it's my senior year, just thinking about graduating and leaving everyone. It's just been very sad thinking about all the old memories and stuff, but I'm also excited to leave this school because I feel like this school has not treated us fairly. That's what's making me very excited to just go off in life and just go to college."

Dealing with Racism in School

Anh's comment about not being treated fairly in high school sparked a further discussion about experiencing racism and micro-aggressions in high school and college, and the frequent lack of support around reporting those issues. 

Anh: "My teacher she would always would have like a lot of comments about race, and it was kind of odd because she was a white woman talking about like race, as in it was her own personal experience in a way. She was like helping me with my project, and she was just kind of blaming all of the Chinese students for taking up all of the classes and AP classes... And then, she started talking about how, 'oh, I know it's in Asian cultures for these students to be like going into these classes.' She was (saying it was) like it was our culture and I was like, 'but that's not anyone's culture.' My parents don't even know what AP classes are, so that didn't make sense in my head.

"I didn't really call her out at the time, but I brought it up to my assistant principal. I brought in other students who also felt the same way, and then, it was kind of like nothing happened after, like they completely dismissed it. My assistant principal, she completely knew that I was not okay after I said I was not satisfied with this conversation that we had, and yeah, there was nothing that happened."

Diane: "I actually had a similar experience to you Anh. It was a white male teacher and this happened my in my second year of high school, almost four years ago. This teacher was very racist not only to Asian students but to Latinx students as well. My high school is predominantly black and Latinx, and he would just joke about race directly to the students. And I remember in the classroom, I was probably one of a few Asian students, but he would always ask me about whatever Asian (topic), I don't even remember, it was so dumb, and I honestly brushed it off but I'm thinking back about it now, and, wow I should have said something.

"When it comes to education and like institutions, a part of me always feels scared of people that have more power than me. I feel like I'm too young, and I don't feel justified for what I say sometimes. Well, honestly, that's just, I'm sorry for the language, that's such bullsh*t, like I don't care what age I am and I feel I should have spoken up, but I was a sophomore, and I should've have spoken up I didn't."

Vivian: "I also had a similar experience in high school with a history teacher. In class I'm usually quiet and I just do my work, and just because I'm Chinese, my teacher was like always calling me out, whenever nobody in the class answered a question. Whenever he called on me, I had to answer, and when I get it right, he would be like, 'see, this is an example of like what you should know and all that.' But there are sometimes where I didn't even know the answer and he would like call out my name, like giving me this look that I knew it. He was very stereotypical and like perpetuated the model of minority myth, and I didn't really realize it until after high school, I just knew at the time it was frustrating.

Reflections on the Past Year

We asked the group to share any thoughts and reflections from the last year, ranging from COVID, to the rise in anti-Asian racism and violence, to the election, and the desire to learn the "real" history of this country.

Diane: "First thing I thought about was (President) Biden's administration. He agreed with CDC on the statement of, 'you don't need to like mask anymore.' I don't necessarily agree with that, because you can't really tell who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated, and it just gives everybody like the idea, like, oh, COVID doesn't exist anymore. It's still really real, and as someone who actually had COVID, it hits me a little closer to home because I take it a little more seriously than some people. It just really frustrates me, because there's still a lot of really vulnerable populations in the community, or communities that might not have like accessibility to the vaccines, and it's just so unfair."

Vivian: "Adding on to the topic of elections, one thing high school teachers always told me, was voting is easy. I completely disagree, it's super hard, in the sense of I do not understand what these amendments mean, and I can read and write English. Reading it made me feel illiterate, even though I'm not, and if I do not have that language barrier, how is it for someone who speaks a different language and voting is not even accessible to everyone? Why don't they teach us that in school?

"About racial justice and social movements, I feel like history classes in high school did not teach me anything. In college alone, like one semester, I learned like so much in an English class rather than a history class. It makes me sad, because I wish I knew my own history, it takes me doing my own research to learn about things I care about, and I feel like that's what made me feel so disconnected from my early years in education, and I think a lot of other students can feel the same."

Anh: "I also feel very disconnected from my own culture. My family is from Vietnam, but they're Chinese, so I was very interested in learning about both, but I was kind of disappointed by history lessons, because as Lance said, it's very white (centered). We don't even consider the other point of view. The US makes it seem like (Americans) were always the heroes in the story, and like we didn't do anything wrong, but the US is so f***ed up. They've done so much f***ed up sh*t, that, I think it's better for students to learn about it so that we don't make the same mistakes, and believe that we're always right."

Talking About Cultural and Racial Identity

The conversation moved from history to identity, as the group reflected on labels, such as "Asian" and "Black" and how each person felt about those terms.

Lance: "You made me think of a question, like what does it mean to be Black, right? And even that word for me means something different because like, my grandmother is technically White. Every time I've been called the N-word, I want to have a comeback that says like, 'well, which part of me are you talking about?'

"What is Black, what is White? For me, Black is so many different things. So I wonder, for y'all, even the word Asian means so many different things, right. But when you hear that word, when you hear folks like me, who aren't Asian using it, like what do you think, what do you say, like how is it, like how are you defined or not defined by that word?"

Vivian: "For me, I think I have a lot of mixed feelings about the word now, after being more aware of the history behind it. I think this semester is the first time where I really learned where the term came from, specifically Asian American. It was actually coined by UC Berkeley students. It was a term to shift away from being called 'Orientals,' which was a racist colonial reference, and I didn't know that. Whenever people use the word 'Asians' they assume we're a monolith. It's not just Asians, it's also all People of Color can relate to this issue of being deemed a monolith. It's frustrating because we're all not the same, we all have different lived experiences, socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds, we have a lot of disparities that people do not recognize."

Diane: "I would agree with Vivian too, about the 'Asian Americans' (term). I can't believe I just figured out or learned about the real meaning of that term. Now, I'd rather introduce myself as Vietnamese American or Southeast Asian American, because I feel like the history behind those terms, like are more connected to who I am.

"Asian is a huge diaspora, like Black or Latinx, there's so many countries that fall under it. It just makes me sad, to think how a lot of people do use that term, because it doesn't do justice to all the other ethnic groups within it, because there's so many struggles or other disparities that those groups also encounter."



Anh: "At one point in my life, I used to think I'm not Asian enough because like, I didn't really, I don't really know my language or my history. I think you guys have heard of this term, 'Banana,' like you're yellow on the outside but you're White on the inside. That's kind of how I feel, like I train myself as Asian, but I don't even know my own history, my own language, and I can barely like speak with my family, and that's just like really sad.

"As Diane said, I would probably like introduce myself as a Chinese American just to like specify that because a lot of Southeast Asians / South Asians, they don't even get acknowledged as Asian. The Indian community, I know a lot of people who don't even consider them as Asian, and I thought that's kind of strange, because India is in Asia."

Reyna Moreno: "You know, I often reflect about the individual versus community. How society sometimes wants us to be individual, like you're definitely gonna be easier to target when you're alone, and so they like to keep you that way. But then, who is also like benefiting from like labeling us, like it makes me think about the US census, 'let me put you in a box.'  Who is doing this and for what benefit?"

Diane: "I think what's important about culture and heritage is sharing it amongst others. All these anti-Asian hate crimes or whatever may going on, I think, it's important that we come together and, you know recognize that we're not alone. That's just something that I think about when it comes to cultures, sharing culture with others around you."

Vivian: "I think it's important, like Diane said to share stories. I think when we share stories, we reflect upon who we are and it makes us have meaningful conversations, and feel safe and also heal from like that, intergenerational trauma that we all obviously have. And remembering to be intersectional in everything that we do, I think oftentimes we pin people against each other. This is really not the oppression Olympics."

Anh: "I grew up without seeing a lot of Asian representation, and I think it's really important to highlight some of our successes, like highlight all of the politicians who are making change. Like Jean Quan, she was our previous mayor, and she has done a lot in the Oakland community. I think it's really important to highlight some people like that, because last summer was when I first learned about her, and she was our mayor."


Thank you to Vivian, Diane, and Anh, as well as Austin and Reyna, for your time, your perspectives, and your stories.  Stay tuned for more. The conversations continue...

Video edited by Edgar Garcia, Summer Search Bay Area Alumnus.

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