Finding Yourself and Your Cause
By: Ellen Chen
My personal identity as an Asian American has always been a personal struggle for me but it disappeared when I started giving back to the community.
As an Asian American born in the city of Odessa, Texas (home of the Permian Panthers featured in Friday Night Lights), I was part of a newly immigrated family that had moved there from Taiwan to try their hands at the restaurant business. Knowing nothing about the industry, my family—parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and all--took the plunge and settled into their new trailer park home.
Looking back, I can’t say that I recall any poignant memories of racism from my youth but the fact that I was an Asian American growing up in Texas was always very clear to me. Mandarin was the only language spoken in our home and done so at the expense of my parents becoming fully fluent in English.
My family eventually moved to Irvine and the first day of high school was an eye opener for me. I remember approaching a group of nice Caucasian girls at lunchtime and asking to join them. Even though they welcomed me into their group, I noticed, after looking around, that most ethnicities sat segregated on different parts of the campus. It was in high school that my mix of friends dwindled and, slowly, that carried over to college and shaped my connections afterwards. It wasn’t as though I purposely sought this out. Rather, it was a by-product of environmental influences. I quickly lost my Texan accent and replaced “ya’ll” with “you guys.”
Moving to Southern California was a cultural shock, to say the least. Spending my childhood in Texas did not prepare me for life in an area with such a large, diverse, and concentrated Asian-American population. Before California, the only Filipinos I had encountered were the household caretakers in Taiwan. New words were added to my vocabulary: Hmong, Samoan, and Chiu Chow. However, it wasn’t just the people I was exposed to but also the cuisines. My taste buds came alive learning what Thai, Indian, and Korean foods were. I had eaten tofu before but never like the way it was prepared in soondubu nor had I ever tasted grilled meats such as mouth-watering Korean BBQ.
As I encounter more and more people socially and professionally, I find that I will, more often than not, be asked about my ethnicity within the first few minutes of the conversation. My reaction is usually disbelief and I respond with “full Chinese” and not half of whatever they were thinking. Apparently, I look mixed. Actually, my parents are from Taiwan and grandparents are from China. Having said that, I do realize that people also ask me about my ethnicity because I tell them that I am not Taiwanese, Chinese from the main land, or from Hong Kong as there are clear distinctions of each. Believe it or not, I’ve actually gone through phases where I’ve tried to dye my hair darker in the hopes of avoiding these questions altogether. Yet, despite my “identity crisis” and regardless of what group I end up being categorized into, my heart has always belonged to Asian American-related causes.
My involvement with the API community began two years ago when I decided that it was time for me to start doing community service again after taking a break since college. I found getting involved again to be an easy transition because I joined an organization that all of my friends were already a part of--the Asian Professional Exchange (APEX). I joined as Chair of Community Service (APEX Cares) and felt as though I was picking up right where I left off. Additionally, the consistently high quality of events and reputation of this hardworking, 100% volunteer board added that much more value to my joining. Even though most of the events were held in Los Angeles, I made an effort to go to almost every one of them, enduring rush hour traffic in order to meet as many people as possible so that I could not only increase the size of my network but also quickly learn how else I could help. During this time, I was introduced to the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA) and was immediately drawn to their youth education programs because of my belief that growing up with a strong foundation makes all the difference. Last year, I took on the role of Director of Orange County Programs for APEX in order to help bring our mission of providing networking, professional development and community service opportunities to the OC. At the same time, I became involved with the Orange County Chapter of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a national organization focused on empowering the API community. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I assumed the position of OCA OC Chapter President after only a few short months with the group.
Driven to outreach and expand, the amount of work I put in was returned double to me in terms of experience. APEX was giving me the leadership development, social interaction, and personnel management skills that I wouldn’t be able to obtain elsewhere. OCA, a national organization, provided me with a different perspective on organizational behavior and decision-making. I was dedicating most of my free time and resources to non-profit work and thought the next natural step would be for me to take on more responsibility as APEX’s Vice President of Orange County Operations. However, once again, an unexpected opportunity arose. Nominations for the APEX Presidency were cast last September—a rare occurrence since elections are normally held later in the year. My name was submitted, and given only a couple of weeks’ notice, I had a big life decision to make for the next two years. I didn’t feel I was as ready as I could have been, nor, quite honestly, did I feel like I had enough experience to lead such an amazing group, but my peers believed in me. Up until the very last minute, I was torn: how would I tell my already supportive family that I would spend even more time volunteering? How would I manage to balance all of my other obligations? How would I find enough energy to concentrate on myself and my relationships? Then I asked myself, "If not now, when," and reminded myself that everything happens for a reason. So I took a leap of faith and seized the opportunity. I was elected President by end of September and started my term immediately. To this day, I’m still astonished by how much I've experienced in the little more than two years since starting with APEX. I wouldn't have it any other way, though, and am excited to continue this fast pace going forward. By the end of my term, my goal is for APEX to be a resource of information among the community and foster collaboration amongst all groups.
It may not surprise you to hear that I constantly get asked what my source of motivation is to do all of this, unpaid and with so much travel between OC and LA involved. My answer is this: I believe that more of us can be a good example for others and each of us can give back to society in whatever way YOU feel is meaningful. If it’s your time, then go volunteer and have fun. If it’s your money, then donate but make sure you know how the money is going to be used. Me? I want to use my resources to connect people and organizations and make a greater impact through collaboration for the causes I'm most passionate about, the Asian American community and youth education. Last, my constant personal reminder in life is to be kind and of service to others. What's yours?