A Real American

Contributed by special guest writer, Brandon Cruz, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

 While growing up on Guam, I never really took the time to think about what my race and ethnicity meant to me. I was very comfortable because I identified as Chamorro, part of the majority race on Guam. Wherever I went, I felt like I belonged and could connect easily to others around me.

Attending college in the States, I expected that a lot of people wouldn’t know much about Guam, much less Chamorrros. Given the location of the island and its lack of media representation, I knew that I would have to answer a lot of questions about my island and my culture. Raised as a military child in the Department of Defense education system on Guam, I was taught how to formally explain the island and my racial background. However, it didn’t occur to me that the shift of demographics, from Guam to this new mainland environment, would change the expectations and assumptions that others brought to the conversation.

Initially, I really enjoyed telling people about my background and where I had come from. Many students showed a genuine curiosity in my stories and I felt like I was able to be myself around this new group of people. It also helped that I have an extreme sense of pride in my cultural roots and I didn’t encounter anyone who seemed disinterested in what I was saying. But, as I continued to interact with people here in Portland, I began to notice that the questions and assumptions that some have about islanders are pretty ridiculous, to say the least.

Some people praise my English. Some ask if I had worn “real” clothes before and just generally question whether my island is a “civilized” community. On top of the assumptions that people have about islander communities, I am also really bothered when people assume I am a member of the Latinx, Asian, or Native American communities and treat me in ways that reflect their assumptions of those groups as well. A common assumption that others have of me is that I am a Latinx man, which is either said explicitly or when they greet me in Spanish. I am often faced with the discomfort of navigating out of those situations, especially when I realize I am being engaged because they think I’m of that other race.

But of all the assumptions I encounter, I really dislike the one that disbelieves that those of us born on Guam are “real” Americans. Many people ask me if I am a legal citizen and many places do not accept Guam ID as a proper form of valid identification. Many of us from Guam have to carry our passports around to prove our American citizenship. I am continuously asked to validate my presence here in the United States. I am baffled and frustrated.

BIO:   Brandon Cruz is a member of the field team at APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Born and raised on the island of Guam, Brandon came to Portland to complete a degree in social work and psychology at the University of Portland. He identifies as a native Chamorro and is interested in creating systemic changes, mental health, and the relations between territories and the US. During his free time, Brandon enjoys playing guitar, hiking, spending time with friends, and exploring the food scene in Portland.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.


America, the Beautiful?

Contributed by special guest writer, Robin Ye, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

One summer, I had the privilege of observing U.S. Naturalization ceremonies as part of my work with the New Americans Voter Project, an APANO co-sponsored program. On the blistering August day at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building at NW 14th and Overton (Portland, OR), I was in a room full of 33 immigrants from 17 different countries. They had already been woven into the American and Oregon fabric but now chose to affirm their status as “U.S. citizens” under the eyes of the law and government.

Normally, a naturalization ceremony should be celebrated and inspire awe and pride in this experiment called America. I felt hopeful and inspired by the waving of little American flags as their families waited to capture the special moment for their loved ones. My own Chinese family was naturalized in 2006 (I am the only U.S.-born member of my entire lineage) and it was an exciting moment for us all. But what I felt in addition, as I watched the recent ceremony, were feelings of tension, sadness, and internal conflict – conflict that hadn’t previously existed.

I used to be unequivocally proud to be American. Chalk it up to naiveté, or maybe idealized belief that our best times are still ahead of us, but I truly believed that despite America’s imperfections, there was endless possibility in America, in its diversity, in what its diversity could accomplish in our democracy. I believed that diversity was embraced – was our destiny, our greatest strength to be cherished, not disdained.

Lately, however, it hurts my heart that the more I learn about my country, the more I grapple with the underlying question: Am I proud to be an American? Afterall, my Chinese parents would not be where they are now without the kindness they found in Huntsville, Alabama upon immigrating in 1992. How much credit can I give to a country who helped my uncle emigrate from China to Canada in 2014, inspired by the society he saw on an academic exchange in Rolla, Missouri?

If my pride is based on how inclusive and accepting my country is, is not the fundamental question then: “Is America a welcoming place?

For me and many others, the results of the 2016 elections shocked the moral conscience of America (for some, but not nearly enough) but it was anything but shocking: after all, this is not the first time a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, classist, anti-immigrant tyrant has been elected to the White House. But what hurt the most was that it felt like a rejection of the incredible, diverse people that color my life as well as who I am and what I stand for, too. I was heartbroken. I was hurt in an unspeakable way, a feeling that something once thought unshakeable had been unmasked as something fragile, something delicate. It revealed how little (if at all) our society has grappled with our complicated history and not yet found avenues for being better. It exposed that we have a much longer way to go than we thought.

We are all made to feel like outsiders at some point. In Portland, some of us are even made to feel like outsiders in our own hometowns. I carry the burden of feeling like I represent my race, my ethnicity, my people’s past and present. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of the inane debating over the legitimacy and existence of immigrants, over who gets to be included in society, over the worth of human beings. I’m tired of hearing “well-intentioned” rhetoric denouncing the current hate and vitriol in our society as “Un-American” or somehow against American values and principles, as if our country’s history isn’t rife with examples of unwavering hate. The good does not wash away the bad and vice versa. But xenophobia and prejudice is as American as America can get.

For those in the ceremony, to what set of responsibilities, histories, and privileges did these New Americans just swear an oath of allegiance? As I sat there nervously clapping, did it pain other Americans as much as it did me that these immigrants were pledging support to a government that does not want them? I’m sure the immigrants were aware of this complicated dilemma – is there not something inherently progressive and accepting about immigrants who leave behind their lives and culture to adopt new ones in the U.S.? Are immigrants not the most accepting and understanding people of other peoples and cultures, the most realistic and sober-minded when it comes to the challenges and hardships that accompany dreams of a better life?

At the end of the day, these New Americans were smiling and proud of their accomplishment. They announced their name to the audience, their origin countries, and, if so inspired, gave a remark about what that moment meant for them. Some even registered to vote!

Maybe this tension, this conflict, is a central part of the American experience. America is both a welcoming and unwelcoming place, but we engage and fight in this never-ending struggle for who is included in our society. If America isn’t a welcoming place, then America is a place that doesn’t see the beauty of its multicultural potential. If America is a welcoming place, then diverse identities will be embraced, not merely tolerated. Immigrant Americans would not be half their original culture and half American, or half anything, but twice as much. “Oh you speak with an accent? That’s wonderful! That must mean you speak more than one language.” Being a “New American” means becoming a part of a larger struggle and assuming an even bigger part of the American inheritance. Becoming a New American means taking a rightful space in the political process to shape our nation. If we don’t, then what kind of world will greet future generations? If we do, then what is possible?

In America, future generations will be darker and more beautiful than ever before — what will you do to ensure that they’ll belong?

Robin Ye is the Lead Political Organizer at APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon). He is Chinese-American and the only member of his entire family born in the United States. Robin grew up in Beaverton, Oregon and attended high school at the International School of Beaverton.

Robin is an organizer by trade and a policy wonk and political junkie at heart. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and Human Rights (minor) from the University of Chicago in 2016. He has a passion for civic engagement, social justice and electoral politics.

Robin has worked as a political organizer on statewide campaigns in Oregon and was a healthcare union organizer at SEIU Local 49 before joining APANO, working statewide to help workers form their unions for better pay and benefits. He currently manages APANO’s growing c4 political program, helping build Asian and Pacific Islander political power in Oregon. He has also spent time interning at the Environmental Protection Agency, Chicago Public Schools, and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s office.

In his free time, Robin is an avid sports fan and enjoys eating, hiking, cats, podcasts, writing, and comedy.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.


2nd Annual East Portland Arts & Literary Festival (EPALF)

Friday, October 19, 2018 | 6pm-9pm &

Saturday, October 20, 2018 | 10am-9:30pm

PCC Southeast, 2305 SE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR 97216

EPALF IS BACK! Join us for the 2nd Annual East Portland Arts & Literary Festival on October 19-20, 2018 at PCC Southeast, hosted by APANO’s Arts & Media Project. Presented in conjunction with IntersectFest at PICA, EPALF elevates the voices of Portland’s artists of color. Through main stage performances, interactive workshops, an epic book & craft fair, kid-friendly activities, and more, EPALF will explore themes of healing, health, and wellness in alignment with this year’s MicCheck! series. All are welcome to this eastside festival boasting the quirkiest acronym around — for the record, it’s pronounced ee-palf — and get ready for a full weekend celebrating artists of color in our community! Suggested donation is $5, and no one will be turned away from lack of funds. RSVP at bit.ly/epalf18rsvp and share the Facebook event at bit.ly/epalf18.

This event is part of MicCheck!, a summer cultural event series organized by the Arts & Media Project (AMP) at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. MicCheck! utilizes the arts to illuminate pressing issues affecting Asians and Pacific Islanders and multiracial communities of color. Visit www.apano.org/mic-check to learn more.


EPALF is no ordinary arts festival. The festival with the quirkiest acronym around has big goals to shift narratives, representation, and access to arts and culture in Portland. EPALF strives to:

  • Honor and center artists of color: Artists of color have been historically underrepresented in art history and dominant arts institutions. EPALF provides a distinct space by and for artists and cultural workers of color to share their stories and expressions, intentionally cultivating relationships between Asians, Pacific Islanders, and multiracial communities of color.
  • Address real community concerns: Centering mental health, healing, and wellness — in alignment with MicCheck!’s 2018 theme, selected by members of APANO’s Arts & Media Project — EPALF kickstarts conversations on issues that impact our communities now. For example, due to barriers such as language, limited access to care, and strong cultural values of self-reliance and fear of shame, APIs are three times less likely to seek mental health help than white Americans.
  • Invest directly in East Portland’s creative economy: East Portland has been chronically under-resourced — major arts institutions such as museums, performing arts venues, and other arts hubs are overwhelmingly located in downtown Portland, a 45-minute bus ride away from our community. EPALF financially supports local artists, cultural workers, and small businesses, including driving traffic to restaurants and other enterprises in the Jade District.
  • Transform dominant narratives about East Portland: Many damaging perceptions about East Portland — such as that it is inherently unsafe and that it is a urban wasteland — continue to threaten its opportunities for growth. EPALF creates a vibrant setting to counter some of these perceptions and break down barriers to its financial and social growth.


The In-Between World

Contributed by special guest writer, Ivy Major-McDowall, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

I remember celebrating Chinese New Year. While my friends didn’t celebrate it, my family made it special. Dennis, my dad, came home early from work, and my godparents, Anne and Donald, drove down from Vancouver. Kristy, my mom, laid out a red tablecloth on top of Grandma’s oval, claw-foot oak table, a 100-year-old heirloom. On this day, our house transformed. Mom hung crimson paper bearing Chinese characters laced in gold, which colored a formerly empty wall. Knot ornaments, the traditional bell, and a paper dragon coiled the dining room curtain rod. The entryway smelled of incense. We ate red barbeque pork slices with hot mustard, stir-fry chicken, red bean paste buns, yakisoba noodles with cashews and red bell peppers. The next day it was over. Where the red had been, now lay a white lace tablecloth. Mom sat at the table, reading Wilson’s 100 Cupboards. Beneath her feet, down in the garage, Dad tinkered underneath his 1930s Ford hot rod. Channel 8 played in the background as I ate my favorite TV dinner, chicken alfredo and garlic bread. With fork and knife in hand, this was home. Because chopsticks never felt right between my fingers. We only used them once a year and then tucked them away in a kitchen drawer, buried underneath plastic forks and knives, oven mitts and hot mats. And I never knew what the Chinese characters meant either. They would appear for one day a year and then disappear into a box.

My name is Ivy and I was born in Fuzhou, Jiangxi, China. I don’t know who I am or where I came from – and I wasn’t left a note. The orphanage gave me the name “Fu-HuiHong.” When Mom came to get me, I was being raised by an old Chinese woman in a humble room. And I cried when she took me away. At seven-months-old, I was whisked away to America and lived in Beaverton, Oregon for the next 18 years. When I talk about my identity, I say it in a roundabout way because I don’t even know how to explain it to myself. When I look in the mirror for too long, I get confused and dismayed. I remember high school, the questions about who I am or what I am and the constant pressure to give an answer. And I give one. It satisfies people, while I feel reduced. How do I explain what it means to be me? How do I describe what it feels like to look in the mirror and not even register my face as Chinese? How do I tell people that I feel foreign to myself at times?  I have so much more to say and so much more to give.

My story makes me laugh and brings me to tears; it is both hopeful and confusing, authentic and foreign. Someday, I hope that I can better articulate it, honor it, and present it in its fullness. For now, I’ll seek to not define it, and instead, cherish its complexity and blur the line between the world and me.

Bio: Ivy is a member of the Field Team of APANO, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. She recently graduated from Willamette University with a bachelor’s degree in politics, history, and a minor in American ethnic studies (AES). During her time at Willamette, she was a library student manager, the university archives intern, a mentor to first year students, and a Sexual Assault Response Ally (SARA) on her campus. She also interned for State Representative Susan McLain and later became her legislative assistant for the 2018 session. For her theses, Ivy wrote about her passions for social justice by highlighting Chinese exclusion in Oregon and the politics of the #MeToo movement. She hopes to continue work in non-profit, helping to promote social justice, civic engagement, and empowerment. She currently volunteers at the Center for Hope and Safety in Salem, Oregon.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Mashed Potatoes and Nian Gao

Contributed by special guest writer, Ava Kamb, in collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

I have a complicated relationship with food. I grew up eating Thanksgiving dinners that included turkey and stuffing, steak and mashed potatoes, stir-fries, nian gao (sticky rice cake), and fried eggs with soy sauce. I never thought twice about it. I never defined one meal or another as American food or Chinese food, just distinct dishes that each of my parents made, sometimes together.

At some point, though, I started to see that certain dishes were special. Not special in a celebratory sort of way but special in that they somehow signified to others that “this is different.” Sometimes it was trendy. Sometimes it was strange and exotic. Sometimes it sparked conversations about identity, family, and history, and that’s what I began to see food as: a way of creating myself through my favorite foods, of expressing myself through the conjunction of foods that surround me and that I find comfort in today.

Communal meals, for me, have always been about sharing stories. The different flavors, ingredients, and ceremonies of eating become an opening for me to express the intricacies of my mixed-race identity in America and abroad. Food is deeply embedded in both my personal and larger histories, and the simple exchange of sharing a meal becomes the framework for a relationship in which boundaries can be tested and new bonds formed. Depending on whom I am eating with, I can connect with them over common memories of a certain recipe or use a particular meal as a springboard for a conversation about myself and my heritage.

All food is weighted with memory and meaning. It often resonates with histories of colonialism and subjugation, or trade and fusion cuisine, or questions about expertise and who gets to be the authority on whether something is “authentic” or “gourmet.” These fraught histories and politics interact with the deeply intimate and personal experience of sharing meals with others. On my part, deciding to share a particular meal can be an exercise in vulnerability and trust. As I create myself through food, so do I create and recreate my relationships with others. The choice to share my favorite meal with another person involves engaging with the tenderness of my identity on my own terms. It becomes a point at which I can bond with another person through shared experience.

I find that food helps me connect with my existing communities and form new ones. Through the act of eating, I engage with myself and my heritage, my culture, my life experiences, family, identity, and relationships with others. Far from a simple and necessary act, sharing meals allows me to make and remake myself and my place in the world, alongside people I care about.

Bio: Ava Kamb is a member of the field team at APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, she spent most of her life in the California Bay Area before coming up to Portland to complete a degree in religion at Reed College. She is mixed-race and has always been interested in multifaceted identities and the blurring of boundaries. In her free time, she enjoys watching documentaries, traveling, and exploring Portland and the Pacific Northwest.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. They use their collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating for communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, vibrant spaces are created where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. APANO strives to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within communities. Learn more about APANO on their  website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Embracing the Hyphen

Contributed by special guest writer, Elai Kobayashi-Solomon, in collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

My last name is the nightmare of substitute teachers. Kobayashi-Solomon. It doesn’t fit on the back of a soccer jersey, and it takes what feels like an eternity to scrawl out all 17 letters when I’m signing a document. There have been plenty of times when I’ve wished, for the sake of convenience, that I could delete the hyphen and simply call myself Elai Kobayashi or Elai Solomon.

Nevertheless, I am Elai Kobayashi-Solomon. And, as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to realize that the seemingly innocuous hyphen which rests between the two halves of my last name is symbolic of my experiences as an Asian-American growing up in Chicago and attending college in Portland.

I was born in a small town just outside Tokyo to parents who had struggled to find a place to call home. My mother, who was born and raised in Japan, left her family behind and immigrated to the United States in search of bigger and better things when she was 23-years-old. My father, born in Houston, never felt comfortable in the conservative religious household in which he was raised, and he left the lone-star state for Tokyo in his mid-20s. They met in Japan, and, upon having me, decided to merge their last names into a single larger one which reflected their two distinct cultural identities: Kobayashi-Solomon.

My family moved to the United States when I was roughly three-years-old, and I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence in a suburb of Chicago. Growing up, I constantly struggled to reconcile my Japanese and American identities, which often seemed completely separated by the hyphen that lay between them. On the one hand, raised in the United States, I attended public schools that were majority white, watched American television shows, and read about American news and politics. But on the other hand, I spoke Japanese with my mom, attended Japanese Saturday School, and was more comfortable eating with chopsticks than a fork and knife. I had the clear sense that I wasn’t completely American or completely Japanese, and there were times when I felt as though I was hopelessly caught between two cultures while never being entirely part of either.

Recently, though, my outlook has changed. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it has to do with my trip to Japan a couple summers ago. Or maybe it was triggered by my new life as a college student in Portland, a city without much of a Japanese community, especially compared to that of the Chicagoland area. Walking through the bustling streets of downtown Tokyo in the summer of 2016, I felt simultaneously at home and alien. It had been several years since I had visited Japan, and I felt a deep, visceral attachment to both the city and the people who passed me on the streets. However, as I glanced at posters of celebrities I didn’t recognize and caught snippets of slang that I didn’t understand, I was also acutely aware that I was not too different from the hordes of tourists who arrive each year, marveling at unfamiliar cityscapes and cultural customs. My experiences in Portland have been in many ways similar. Without Japanese friends, acquaintances and family members to speak to, I could, if I wanted to, become Elai the American college student. However, before I even realized it, I felt myself being drawn towards elements of my Japanese background and heritage, whether it was via my work for APANO or the late-night ramen trips I sometimes make with friends.

When I was in high school, these experiences may have led to feelings of isolation, confusion, and separation. But, thrust into a new environment with plenty of time to reflect, I realize that it needn’t be so. True, I may never feel totally at home walking into a Japanese konnbini or watching the Superbowl with friends. But, if I was simply Elai the American, I would have never had the opportunity to attain fluency in a foreign language, fly across the Pacific Ocean to stay with my obaachan, or learn kendo from a Japanese sword-fighting instructor. And if I was just Elai the Japanese, I wouldn’t be sitting here now attending a liberal arts college (non-existent in Japan) alongside many valued friends and peers. The hyphen sitting between “Kobayashi” and “Solomon” doesn’t have to be an impenetrable wall, forcing me into a binary choice between Japanese and American, neither of which I feel comfortable completely adopting. Rather, the hyphen is a bridge — an open connection that lets me combine and explore elements of both my Japanese and American identities, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Author Bio: Elai is the Cultural Work & Placekeeping Intern at APANO. Born in Tokyo, Japan, Elai moved to the United States when he was three-years-old and was raised in Chicago, Illinois. Currently, Elai is an English major at Reed College. Through his internship at APANO, Elai hopes to learn more about nonprofit and social justice organizing, a field which he wishes to pursue in the future. In his free time, Elai enjoys reading, listening to podcasts, playing soccer, and writing for Reed’s student newspaper.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. They use their collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating for communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, vibrant spaces are created where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. APANO strives to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within communities. Learn more about APANO on their  website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.


Oregon Literary Arts Announcement: Oregon Writers of Color Fellowship application deadline is July 9, 2018

The Writers of Color Fellowship is intended to fund writers of color to
initiate, develop, or complete a literary project in poetry, fiction,
literary nonfiction, drama, or young readers literature. One Writers of
Color Fellowship will be offered each year. All applications for the Writers
of Color Fellowship will also be considered for an Oregon Literary
Fellowship. Self-identified writers of color who are current, full-time
Oregon residents and who meet the eligibility requirements for Oregon
Literary Fellowships are eligible to apply. Full guidelines can be found at
http://www.literary-arts.org/what-we-do/oba-home/fellowships/fellowships/. Contact Susan Moore with questions, Susan@literary-arts.org, or 503-227-2583 ext 107.

Where I Came From

Contributed by Anthology artist and writer, Roberta May Wong

The day was sunny and bright. I was moving briskly through downtown Portland, Oregon. “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!” said a low, gruff voice as I walked past the bus stop next to Portland’s Art Museum. I stopped mid-stride, immobile. Multiple thoughts and emotions dashed through my mind before I spun around and faced the fortyish, disheveled man. I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Are you talking to me?”

He would not look at me. Could only mutter under his breath.

I asked him, “And what ocean did your ancestor cross to be here?”

Mumble mumble was all I heard, followed by more indistinguishable replies.

I told him if he knew his history he would know that we all come from somewhere else, and, by his criteria, only indigenous people really belong in the United States.

This was not yesterday. This was over thirty years ago, in the early ‘80s. But whether then or now, how can anyone have an intelligent conversation when ignorance prevails? To what degree must I consider the mental health, intellect, prejudices or biases that skew the validity of contrary opinions?

One can only know one’s own truth. As a First Generation, American-Born Chinese I know my history. I know who I am. In the ‘60s, Ethnic Studies programs developed in the academic communities of San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkely. But Asian American Studies had yet to be offered in Oregon when I attended Portland State University in the ‘70s. To learn about the Chinese experience in early America required independent research. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Asian-American scholars were producing publications documenting the social and political realities of Chinese immigrants. My growing collection of Asian American books began to fill the void, providing an historical context to my ancestors’ lives. I never asked my parents about their experience as immigrants, and I never met my grandfather who died in 1947. This made me more attentive to family conversations and stories of the past. I came to appreciate and value family connections and collaborations as I witnessed my family’s strong work ethic and honest labor in manifesting their American Dream.

My Parent's Wedding Day Mah Yook Fong (Helen Wong) and Wong Gang Foon (Francis Wong) April 27, 1931

My Parent’s Wedding Day
Mah Yook Fong (Helen Wong) and Wong Gang Foon (Francis Wong)
April 27, 1931

My parents’ immigration stories differ from those of my paternal grandfather, Wong Soon Yook. Between 1882 and 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Acts prohibited or restricted Chinese immigration to America. However, as a merchant, my grandfather was exempted and allowed entry in 1926. By 1930, he established his grocery store, Tuck Lung Company (Prosperity with Integrity) in Portland’s Chinatown and arranged for his two sons to join him. Arriving as teenagers, the sons attended Atkinson Grade School through the fifth grade in NW Portland. They learned their basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. They worked hard, stocking shelves and delivering groceries, and learned to operate the business as they acclimated to a new life. I heard tales of how they carried 50-pound bags of rice up the long flight of stairs to the kitchen of Hung Far Low and how they learned to cook from the chefs at the Republic Café and Hung Far Low. They gained life skills and learned the social norms of Portland’s lively Chinese community, once the second largest on the west coast in the 1900s. The brothers returned to China in 1934 when my grandmother arranged brides for each of her sons. This was a common practice, but their time as newlyweds was limited. They returned to the States without their wives because a 1904 immigration law prohibited merchant wives from entering the U.S. Twelve years would pass before my parents would reunite. As a World War II serviceman, my father became a new citizen, allowing his young family to immigrate after the war. My mother had given birth to twins in China, so she arrived at Angel Island with her sons. In 1947, they each became Resident Aliens with “green cards.”

My Grandfather and his Children: Right to left: my mother, my father (#2 son), #2 Aunt, #1 Aunt with daughter, #3 Uncle, Grandfather, #1 Uncle and his wife

My Grandfather and his Children:
Right to left: my mother, my father (#2 son), #2 Aunt, #1 Aunt with daughter, #3 Uncle, Grandfather, #1 Uncle and his wife

My grandfather, a resident of the American Hotel on NW 2nd & Flanders, had already settled my uncle with his family in 1941. My father’s family followed six years later, settling in a second floor apartment above them. Within the year, my grandfather passed away, my uncle and his family moved to North Dakota, and my parents bought a house in Southeast Portland. By this time, many Chinese were allowed to purchase property and live beyond Chinatown. Southeast Portland was home to many immigrant families, veterans with new wives from European and Asian nations, as well as returning Japanese Issei, Nisei, and Sansei families who had been victims of the WW II Japanese Incarceration. Chinese families with similar immigration paths as my family’s and many African American families completed our neighborhood.

My parents grew their family, adding five girls in order to have one more boy. Decades later I learned that our elder twin, at age four, had died in China of pneumonia. His papers had been given to another village boy to become a “paper son.” My “paper brother,” a veteran of the Korean War and later a career postal worker, eventually disclosed and corrected his status so he could sponsor his own mother and brother to America. My “blood” brother, upon finishing high school, enrolled in college. When charged tuition as a foreign student, he quickly realized he needed to change his status and took his citizenship test. Two years into his studies, his path took a detour. He quit school to help run the grocery store while our father recuperated from an injury. In time he took over the business, moving it to a larger space down the street, adding a café for our father to manage, and with my mother and siblings’ participation, the family business became central to our lives. Everyday after school we would take the Rose City bus (now Tri-Met) into Chinatown.

In the ‘60s, diversity was not commonly used to reference the racial composition of a community, but our SE Portland neighborhood was considerably diverse for that time, and Asian students were well represented. However, being one of four persons of color in my fifth-grade classroom did not shield me from racism. My first experience of an overt racist attack was while playing a map game. Standing before the class with my opponent, our teacher called out the names of cities around the world and the first to point out its location on the map was the winner. My opponent lost and exclaimed: “CHINK!” My teacher, Mr. Howard, was visibly angry and quick to react, removing the boy from the classroom while classmates gasped at the offense. I stood silent at the blackboard. Even at that young age, I knew I was not at fault for his ignorance.

* Self-portrait 2018 Ap_2058Roberta May Wong is a conceptual/installation artist from Portland, Oregon. Recent exhibitions include: Friends of Lin Bo, a Three-Person Exhibit at Artist Repertory Theatre (2017); We the People, Group show at Blackfish Gallery (2017) and I-Ching Revolution: 101, an Installation at Indivisible (2016). Past exhibitions: Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, Portland, OR; The Wing Luke Asian Museum’s touring exhibition “Beyond Talk: Redrawing Race” at The Wing Luke Asian Museum, South Seattle Community College of Art and Phinney Center Art Gallery (2005), Seattle, WA; Evergreen State College, WA; Portland Community College, Sylvania Campus, Portland, OR; Autzen Gallery, Portland State University, Portland, OR; New Zone Gallery, Eugene, OR; Hillsboro Cultural Center, Hillsboro, OR; and NW Artists’ Workshop, Portland, Oregon.

Wong’s artwork is published in Where Are You From? An Anthology of Asian American Writing, Thymos, Portland, OR, 2012; Myth and Ideology Study Guide: Surviving Myths, Deakin University, Australia, 1990 & 2000 and The Forbidden Stitch: An Anthology of Asian American Women Artists, published by Calyx, Corvallis, Oregon (American Book Award, 1990).

A native of Portland, Oregon, Wong was Gallery Director at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (1985-1988 and 1995-2004), a multicultural, multidisciplinary, nonprofit art organization in Portland, OR. Independently and professionally, Wong promoted, exhibited and advocated for the visibility and economic opportunity of ethnic and cultural artists. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sculpture from Portland State University, 1983.


Being American

Contributed by special guest author, Anne Hawkins

Anne's grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Anne’s grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents. Most afternoons, after lunch, my grandfather took a break from his gardening to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball on television. He would get up from the couch when the National Anthem played, and he watched the game with a can of Pepsi in hand. From Hawaii, my grandfather didn’t have a local team to cheer for, and it only made sense to him that he should root for the players who had been nicknamed, “America’s Team.” It made sense to me too. After all, everything about my grandfather was just so “American.” He drove a Buick. He watched John Wayne movies. He even claimed his favorite dessert was apple pie. And yet, I know that if my grandfather, the son of Japanese immigrants, walked down the street in almost any city in the United States, people would wonder where he was from. And if he’d said, “America,” they would have responded, “No, but where are you really from?”

I grew up feeling angry, both at this knowledge and because my grandfather himself seemed to harbor no animosity about the situation. After everything that had happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, I felt like his behavior made him an apologist for our government. But, whenever I told him that eating apple pie wasn’t going to save him, he simply reminded me that he ate apple pie because he loved it.

When I was in high school, Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in figure skating. I had no interest in figure skating, but seeing her photograph on magazine covers mattered. After all, there was nothing more American than winning an Olympic gold medal. Then one day while at a friend’s house, I spied one of those magazines on a coffee table. Another classmate looked over and wondered aloud, “Why would they put her on the cover?” I exclaimed, “Because she won the gold medal!” My classmate responded, “But why do they care if someone who isn’t from the US team wins a gold medal?” I realized that it never occurred to her that someone who looked like Kristi Yamaguchi could actually be an American. Recent comments about Asian-American athletes during the Sochi Winter Games revealed the same prejudice — over two decades later. These incidents served to reinforce the point I’d been trying to make to my grandfather; it doesn’t matter how truly American you are, if you look a certain way, you’ll never belong.

9780545690980_mresThis past week, I read the book Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss to my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughters, all of whom have recently become very interested in America’s Pastime. Barbed Wire Baseball tells the story of Kenichi “Zeni” Zenmura, a Japanese-American baseball player. Zeni played baseball in the Fresno Nisei League and the Fresno Twilight League. He played exhibition games alongside Babe Ruth. But none of this saved him from being interned at Gila River in Arizona during the war. The desolate conditions of the prison camp made Zeni feel, “as if he were shrinking into a tiny hard ball.” In an effort to make the camp feel more like home, Zeni took on the arduous task of building a baseball field. He organized daily games, bringing happiness and hope to people whose lives had otherwise been turned upside down.

This book sparked great conversations between me and my children about the camps —  why people were sent to them, what people lost by going to them, and why in the face of issues as serious as racism it might be important to hold onto the love of a game. We talked about how angry people in the camps must have felt about the injustices perpetrated upon them and how it would have been very easy to allow that anger to fester. I wondered if Zeni ever hated baseball or felt like it had betrayed him. We marveled at the incredible resilience ordinary people exhibit under extraordinary circumstances.

Like seeing Kristi Yamaguchi’s face on the cover of Time Magazine, Zeni’s story ignited a sense of pride in me. Sports are a metaphor for the human spirit. They’re about triumph over adversity and attaining success based entirely on hard-work and merit. On the field it doesn’t matter what we look like; all that matters is how we play the game. Zeni was only five feet tall, but he built a baseball field in the desert, and he brought hope to thousands of people. At the end of the book, he’s playing in a game at the camp, and the author writes, “He felt ten feet tall, playing the game he loved so much. Nothing would ever make him feel small again.”

Zeni worked hard to build his field, but in the end he played the game because he loved it. As the author wrote, “When Zeni had a ball or bat in his hand he felt like a giant.” When he hit a homerun, “he felt completely free, as airy and light as the ball he had sent flying.” While who we are necessarily includes how others have viewed and treated us, ultimately it is how we view and treat ourselves that matters the most. You have to do what you love in order to save your own spirit. And while there are days that I allow my anger to fester —  when I do think that fighting and speaking out are the answer — I know that to survive I also have to do what my grandfather told me to do so many years ago: simply enjoy that piece of apple pie.

Anne HawkinsBio:  Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. Her happiest childhood memories are of time spent with her grandparents, and her favorite moments now are watching her own children build the same kinds of memories with their grandparents. She is always on the look-out for children’s books featuring Asian-American characters. Recommendations welcome: annehawk@yahoo.com.

Bring Your Whole Self to this World

Contributed by special guest writer, Robin Ye

My grandfather was a poor rural farmer during the height of Maoist Communist China – he died not too far from where he raised his four children. His youngest son, my dad, left for college in Beijing at age 16, after testing amongst the best in his Province. The first of his family to leave town and attend college, he became a physicist and fighter jet engineer, working in a country in which I, as a second child, could never have been born.

The American chapter of my family began a quarter century ago. My father moved to Huntsville, Alabama in the early 1990’s to pursue a master’s degree in the United States. My parents credit the massacres at Tiananmen Square as the moment they decided to leave. They had watched as all seven of my father’s college roommates had emigrated across the Pacific. My dad was the last one to join them. My mom was more skeptical about leaving China and her family; it was my father’s dream and not hers. But I think she knew that promise awaited in the States, so she followed him with my then 4-year-old sister one year later. My mom was a pioneer in her own right. The daughter of a community physician and an engineer, my army brat mother would raise two kids and complete an additional engineering degree at South Puget Sound Community College to prove her U.S. credentials’ acumen, finishing at the top of her class. She went on to work a successful career as an immigrant, English-as-a-second-language, woman-of-color software engineer. She spent over eleven years of that career at Intel.

Although I appreciated my parents’ boldness in coming to the U.S., I didn’t always want this skin I was born into. Being told that your home smells funny, that your eyes are too small and slanty, that your English is pretty good for a chink, that your family should “go back to where they came from,” that there’s no way you know anything about American sports because you’re Asian, that you’re too different to be equal – those things hurt. You internalize so many of those words, the shame of growing up different in Portland – you learn to operate as a second-class citizen. You accept that who you are and where you come from is a flaw, not a feature, not something you should widely broadcast or ever fully embrace. My experiences growing up taught me that being Chinese was less than desirable. I don’t think I fully owned this Chinese part of myself until I left home for school in Chicago. I realized I didn’t want to leave behind the legacy my parents gave me, the Chinese upbringing that they gifted me. I cry with anger when I think about all the times I wanted to reject the culture that my parents reluctantly left behind, the customs that they held onto to remind themselves of who they are and where they came from.

Robin, his mother, sister Cissey, and father at Cissey's doctorate graduation

Robin, his mother, sister Cissey, and his father at Cissey’s doctorate graduation

My parents now tell me how proud they are of me for following my true passions for politics and social justice, even when they themselves had initially opposed and disagreed with my choice. But the truth is, I haven’t always overcome the naysayers or been comfortable with who I am. But my parents have shown me throughout my life what it means to hold true to who you are – that there need not be a trade-off between being American and being Chinese, of being who you are and who you want to be. My parents are the most progressive people I know — packing up their life mid-career to move to a faraway place with a completely different culture, embracing the unknown and people the likes of which they had never seen before. I want to tell them every day how much I love them and respect them for all they have done in their incredible lives.

I wish, when I was growing up, I had known someone who had once felt some of my insecurities who could have mentored and guided me. Someone who had figured out how to exist in this third world, caught between the two worlds of not being “American” enough to feel comfortable and not being Chinese enough to feel authentic. I wish I had had someone in my life who understood the devastating racism and xenophobia that exists in our world and how to not let it wreck you – to be proud of what makes you different, to bring your whole self to this world. I wish someone had looked into my small, black, slanted eyes and told me that everyone is a little different and the world wouldn’t be as beautiful without all of us in it. My biggest regret is not exploring the Chinese part of me more fully. I cringe at the thought I might have signaled to my loving parents that I was anything less than proud of the Chinese heritage they bestowed upon me. I regret ever desiring to be white, to be anything other than who I am. After the last election, my fear was heightened that Chinese children would grow up in America thinking they were unimportant, unworthy, lesser – that they didn’t belong. That they believed they had to surrender something about themselves for acceptance from others that they could never truly gain. I want to do everything I can to tell them that that is not the case. That they are special. That the only persons they ever need to convince are themselves.

Robin YeBio: Robin Ye currently works a Field Organizer at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), helping to build political power for Asians and Pacific Islanders through policy advocacy and community organizing. He is Chinese-American and the only member of his entire family born in the United States. Robin grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, graduated from the International School of Beaverton before moving to Chicago to study Public Policy and Human Rights at the University of Chicago. He is also a proud member of the APAICS family (Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies).

In his free time, Robin enjoys hiking, cats, podcasts, BBQ, comedy, and is an avid Portland Thorns, Timbers, and Trail Blazers basketball fan.

Living in the World Authentically

Contributed by special guest writer, Weston Koyama  小山ヱストン

rainy-portlandHow does one live in the world authentically? I tell people I’m an Oregonian, but in truth I was born in California. But I don’t remember any of that because we moved when I was a toddler to Ohio. At age 7, my family moved again to Connecticut and again at age 9 back to California and once more again to Oregon at age 12 in 2003. I’ve lived in Oregon since that time and because my ancestors are from Oregon having immigrated here from Japan in 1915, I usually say that I am from Oregon. But there were still times when I felt inauthentic. At Portland State University, I developed the habit of carrying an umbrella with me. My friends would tease, “Only Californians carry umbrellas.” So then, what does it mean to live authentically as an Oregonian? Or as a Japanese American? Or as an American? I’ve since come to take pride in my uniqueness as an umbrella-wielding youngster in Portland and with that pride I’ve discovered something else about identity. Living in the world authentically is not about foregoing umbrellas or passing litmus tests; living in the world authentically is about owning your identity by taking pride in exactly who you are.

I struggled to take pride in my ethnicity as a Japanese American as a young boy. Growing up in mostly white communities, my peers often asked me, “Why is your English so good?” and “Can you say something in Chinese?” I was much too young to come up with witty comebacks to their ignorant remarks and often felt unable to say anything at all. On the one hand, I wanted to fit in and be seen as an authentic American, just like everyone else. On the other hand, I wanted to please my interlocutor but never felt Chinese enough to say something cogent about China or even Asia for that matter. Of course, I’m not Chinese, but to a fellow seven-year-old I’m just a foreigner despite being a fourth generation American whose ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1915. Unable to blend in as an “authentic” American or as an “authentic” Asian person, I felt utterly detached from my peers because I didn’t possess the confidence or the vocabulary to defend my identity.

How does one start to own their identity? I think owning one’s identity starts with understanding the vocabulary needed to articulate and defend one’s self from prejudices and stereotypes projected on to us by others. Even as a young college student my vocabulary was limited to protestations about my Americanness. “No,” I would state firmly, “I do not know Japanese any more than a fourth generation German American knows German.” But these protestations felt exhausting and unsatisfying. They felt exhausting because of how often I would have to repeat them. They felt unsatisfying because as much as I wanted to be seen as a pure American, I knew deep down that my Asian face would always mark me as a foreigner. European Americans abandon their heritage language in exchange for being seen as normal Americans. My parents and I had abandoned the Japanese language and culture in exchange for nothing at all. I didn’t have the vocabulary to state plainly, “I don’t know Japanese, but that is because of decades of oppressive forces that stripped my family of its culture.” I didn’t have the pride to say, “Nonetheless, I am proud to be Japanese American.”

Cultivating a vocabulary necessary to take pride in one’s identity is at times difficult. At first it can feel like you’re a faker. But just like us umbrella-wielding Oregonians prove that there is no one right way to be an Oregonian, there is likewise no one right way to be American or Japanese American. I can tell you that the single most effective way to develop one’s vocabulary around Japanese American identity is through studying one’s cultural heritage. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of studying the Japanese language, but for me it did. Along my language learning journey, I’ve discovered many different ways of doing being Japanese American. I studied my family’s incarceration experience at Minidoka and pieced together my great-grandfather’s story as one of the first Japanese American dentists in Portland. The sacrifices of my ancestors serve as a powerful source of affirmation and hence of vocabulary for articulating my identity.

Regardless of whether your family immigrated to the United States recently or a century ago like mine, studying one’s heritage and history cultivates a vocabulary. With this vocabulary, one might state confidently, “My family was forced to speak only English and not Japanese because to speak Japanese would make you the target of hatred,” or “No one in my family speaks Japanese anymore, but I’m learning my heritage language to connect with a piece of my culture that has been lost due to oppression.” With vocabulary comes pride. The ability to state confidently, “I am a fourth generation Japanese American,” fundamentally changed the way I walk in this world. I no longer feel detached from my peers. I feel grounded by roots that stretch back to Japan and speak to enormous courage and sacrifice to get me to where I am today. And with my vocabulary I feel empowered to educate my peers so that they might make fewer assumptions about people like me in the future.

I started this essay with a question: How does one live in this world authentically? The answer is surprisingly simple. To live in the world authentically means to take ownership of our identities. Rather than cower to the notion that all Oregonians tough out the rain without an umbrella, I decided that I would take pride in my family’s roots in Oregon notwithstanding my umbrella collection. And likewise, though my knowledge about my ancestry is not perfect or complete, I know enough to understand the struggles they went through. I feel grounded enough to push back against the assumption that Asians are automatically foreigners because of their face. With my voice and vocabulary, I am empowered to speak to exactly who I am. And I will always be proud of who I am.

Weston Koyama

Bio: Weston Koyama, a fourth generation Oregonian and Japanese American, seeks to articulate the nuances of the human experience through the written word. Weston’s writing touches on his experiences living and studying in Oregon as he explores the many different ways of being Asian American in contemporary society. His current project involves articulating how the trauma caused by Japanese American incarceration during World War II continues to affect present generations. Weston hopes to someday publish his work for a larger audience. Currently, Weston studies at the University of Oregon School of Law where he is a J.D. candidate in the class of 2019. Weston is the first Minoru Yasui Fellow at the University of Oregon in addition to serving as a Wayne Morse Fellow. He also currently serves as co-president of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at the University of Oregon. His other interests include disability activism, piano, and computer technology.

Fighting for Identity

simon-tam-at-the-supreme-courtContributed by Anthology author, Simon Tam

It’s Monday morning. June 19, 2017. After working fifteen-hour days everyday for a month straight, I’m bleary with exhaustion. It is one of the few remaining days that the Supreme Court could possibly publish their decision on my case. Fifty-fifty chance it happens this morning.

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s tweet is before my eyes: SCOTUS Rules in Favor of The Slants. I open my email and see my attorney’s one word note with the decision attached. “Congratulations.”

I’m shaking as I open the file, trying to work my way through the dense legal opinion written by Justice Alito. I want to know how the court is divided, what they actually say, how my life’s work is judged by the nation’s highest court. I’m only a few pages in when a ring erupts the silence. It’s a reporter trying to get the scoop. It is only minutes after the high court’s decision. They ask me the obvious question:

“How do you feel?”

I stammer out something that sounds like a canned speech, including being “humbled and thrilled,” though I’m not feeling anything at all. I hang up and text my publicist. Supreme court ruled in our favor. I publish a statement on the Slants’ website and social media. It’s been about thirty minutes since the decision was released and I’m already at about 2,000 messages.

I am setting up interviews every ten minutes for the next ten hours, but most of my calls are interrupted by other reporters who are “breaking” the story. And it does feel broken: I quickly scan the news and see how every major media outlet begins reporting on the issue: “Washington Redskins Win Supreme Court Decision,” “Redskins Score Major Victory in Supreme Court Case,” “Offensive Speech Now OK Says Supreme Court.” I click on the only headline that mentions the band’s name and a photo of the Redskins’ football helmet appears on my screen.

For years, I had dreamed of the moment of vindication. I imagined how it would feel to be a part of the legacy of social justice, even if it was only through an obscure part of law. Just a few months earlier, I had a dream where the Supreme Court ruled in our favor. In that scenario, the curiosity about our David vs. Goliath case led people to look at how the law was being applied: inconsistently, subjectively, and improperly. People weren’t talking about football teams; instead, they were finally paying attention to the narrative of the marginalized. Of course, it was only a dream.

Simon Tam, a member of the band The Slants, speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Simon Tam, a member of the band The Slants, speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court.

The euphoria that I was expecting was instead replaced with dread and disgust. The press had re-framed our struggle and the major concepts about liberty into a narrative around a racist football team. I didn’t feel vindication for our victory; I felt a deep sense of injustice. I felt far more responsibility to provide an answer to the flurry of tweets from a number of Native American activists.

There’s no doubt that these individuals were expressing their dismay at what they perceived as delivering victory on a silver platter to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. And it was me, Simon Tam, who had delivered the head of John the Baptist to Herod Antipas. In a flurry of tweets, I was accused of being a native-born person of color perpetuating the work of colonizers. They characterized this decision on trademark registration law as the floodgate for hate speech. They intimated that I single-handedly doomed all efforts to remove mascots from pro sports.

I tried to address some of the concerns by offering clarity around our process and how trademark laws work. I tried to express how the law I’d been fighting had allowed the government the ability to deny rights based on people’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I even explained that I’d met with over 140 social justice groups, including numerous confederated tribal leaders. I sincerely wanted to engage with empathy. But my engagement on Twitter only seemed to create greater fury, more harsh personal accusations of bad will and selfish motivations.

I felt frustration, confusion, and sadness.

Almost eight years of my life – about 2,800 days – had been poured into this battle for self-identity. And now that it is over, I realize that the fight isn’t really over. I have learned the following lessons:

First, there is a difference between an ethical standard and a legal one. While we’d like to think that what is legal is also right, we know that the enforcement of the law allows more room for the privileged, for dominant groups to abuse laws. In this instance, if we were to give the government power to discern the difference between marginalized identities being re-appropriated and those abusing speech, we are extremely naive in thinking that they have the ability or interest in doing so. They’ve repeatedly failed, which is why the law was used primarily against people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Second, we have to seriously question whether or not the battleground for these kinds of issues should be waged at the desks of examining attorneys at the Trademark Office: does a trademark registration (or lack of) actually address racism? I would say not. And if the law is being used against marginalized communities, that type of institutionalized discrimination creates greater harm than trademark registrations. What the media – and most people – don’t understand is that if the campaign to get the Washington football team’s trademark registration was successful, it still wouldn’t force the team name to change. In fact, it wouldn’t even hurt them because they have so much trademark equity (brand usage, resources), they would still have 100% protection over their trademark. Is symbolic victory that doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of getting the team name to change worth the dehumanizing process of suppressing re-appropriation movements of the marginalized? I would argue that it is not.

We have to think about our end goal of justice: what does it look like? Instead of focusing on punishing the wicked, such as the Washington football team, true equity is creating more options in our society for those who have the fewest. Otherwise, we’re so blinded with the former activity that we are willing to accept the collateral damage being experienced by the marginalized. If the government truly cared about fighting against racism through the Trademark Office, why didn’t they begin by cancelling registrations for the KKK, Stormfront, or other known white supremacist groups? Why did they choose to wage this battle against The Slants, Dykes on Bikes (lesbian motorcycle group), HEEB Media (Jewish magazine), and others engaged in anti-discrimination work? As the marginalized, our biggest struggles are not against harmful language – people will always find ways to abuse and twist words – our biggest challenges are against institutionalized and systemic discrimination, such as outdated processes that do not allow our communities to progress.


SimonTan250KB Jan2016Bio:  Simon Tam is an author, musician, entrepreneur, and activist. He is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. His work in the arts has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across 200 countries including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, BBC, NPR, TIME Magazine, and Rolling Stone.

He was named a champion of diverse issues by the White House and worked with President Barack Obama’s campaign to fight bullying. He recently helped expand freedom of speech through winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case in constitutional and trademark law (Matal v. Tam).

Simon has been a keynote speaker, performer, and presenter at TEDx, SXSW, Comic-Con, The Department of Defense, Stanford University, and over 1,200 events across North America, Europe, and Asia. He has set a world record by appearing on the TEDx stage 12 times.

He designed one of the first college-accredited social media programs in the United States. Bloomberg Businessweek called him a “Social Media Rockstar.” Forbes says his resume is a “paragon of completeness.”   cover2

Recently, he was recognized as a Freedom Fighter by the Roosevelt Rough Writers, named Citizen of the Year from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Portland Lodge, Portland Rising Star from the Light a Fire Awards, received a Distinguished Alum Award from Marylhurst University, and the Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association.

He serves as board chair for the APANO United Communities Fund and member/advisor for multiple nonprofit organizations dedicated to social justice and the arts.

You can find Simon’s appearances, writing, and current projects at www.simontam.org