The Birthing of an Asian American Agency

Sharon Cebula

May Chen laughed to herself as she pulled more folding chairs out of the storage closet of the church hall she had rented(The event was at a restaurant in Cleveland. No fees charged). She could hear the melange of high-pitched voices from the big room down the hall, a cacophony of Asian tongues(Chinese dialects) all chattering at once, as senior citizens, volunteers, and family members clashed over spicy dishes of specialty foods and too few tables. She paused to wipe the thick lenses of her glasses on the hem of her cotton blouse. Volunteers were at their wit’s end, as elderly Laotians, Burmese and Thai women kept placing bowls of fragrant rice, vegetables and meat on the tables, with no regard for the system they had devised for judging the entrants. How am I going to keep this together? Chen wondered to herself; what is going to happen next? She knew she couldn’t turn anyone away and risk insulting them; she hoped the raffle prizes might help defuse the tension. With a deep breath, she placed her glasses back on her small pug nose, took up the folding chairs, and marched back into the hall to deal with the chaos.

* * *

In 1995, four professional women, all immigrants from Southeast Asia, saw neighbors and clients in their community in northeast Ohio struggling to assimilate to American culture. Underage marriages, spousal abuse, excessive drinking and drug use: these problems seemed to concentrate in the insular communities of people from China, Thailand, Laos,. Vietnam, and Cambodia. And though some help was available from existing bureaucracies, cultural and language barriers kept many Asians from getting it.

May Chen, a family and marriage counselor, an immigrant from Hong Kong was one of these women. She knew it would be daunting to learn how to write grants, how to work with governmental agencies for funding and support, how to compete with existing organizations that would see them as adversarial. But she also knew that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands in Ohio who were not getting the linguistic and material support they needed to thrive.

Chen grew up in Hong Kong, where her parents, both professors, took her with them when they built schools in refugee camps there. This was during the time of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution,” when hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens were terrorized, persecuted, and uprooted from cities into countryside “communes,” when famine and the unfettered brutality of the Red Guard decimated the population. Refugees flooded Hong Kong’s boarders in search of asylum. At the tender age of seven or eight, Chen got to see first-hand how difficult it is to start a new life after fleeing a war-torn country. Those images have stayed with her these fifty-some years.

Not long after seeing those camps in Hong Kong, Chen got to experience for herself some of the same challenges those refugees were going through when her family moved to the U.S. Her father’s first job in America was teaching at an all-black college in Texas. Many white colleges would not hire foreigners as professors at the time, regardless of their qualifications, so he was just happy to have an income to support his family. Jim Crow was still the reality in the south, and Chen encountered many additional barriers to her assimilation beyond the language and geography of a new country.

“At the time, the boundaries between white and black were well defined. As an Asian, it was difficult to identify where my boundaries were in the white and black world. For instance, the blacks at that time had to sit in the back of the bus and whites in the front. So where do I sit? Front or back or in the middle?”

This struggle to find where she fits in informs Chen’s attitude about the agencies and institutions that support immigrant communities. Providing a place to feel comfortable, and to be with others of similar culture and background, is a founding principle for ASIA, Inc. But Chen feels it is equally important for Asians to have a sense of belonging in their community at large. For this goal, she advocates visibility, inclusion, and parity of services offered to all immigrant groups.

* * *

The initial one-day health fair that started everything off was aimed at helping about 60 residents in the Akron area. Cooking(health and ethnic foods) seemed a natural way to bring Asians in, since it is such an integral part of Asian culture. Besides, one of the first things Chen remembers learining in America was how to make sandwiches and bake cakes and cookies. These were not at all regular food items in her home in Hong Kong. They were at once exotic for her and a means for empowerment, a way to feel more American.

The first obstacle May Chen and her colleagues faced was simply getting the word out about the fair to neighbors from over a dozen different countries, all of whom spoke different languages and had very different customs. One thing they all had in common, however, was a strong sense of self-reliance and pride. People from Asian cultures are often very concerned about “saving face” in public, which translates into an extreme aversion to asking for help when they have problems. Chen’s reaction to this cultural hurdle was to take the initiative, to go to them for help, rather than waiting for them to step forward.

This particular cultural difference prevents many Asians and Pacific Islanders from reaching out to agencies and institutions for help. Where western institutions frame the problem as the target population is under-using us, Chen looks at it as a charge to find new ways of reaching out to them.

“It has to do with our value of saving face,” she explains; “Needs and problems within a family or a community are to be faced stoically. To disclose our need for outside help is a sign of weakness and brings shame.”

So she and her colleagues invited their Asian neighbors to participate in a healthy cooking contest as a way to bring them all together and get the ball rolling. This way, there would be an obligation to respond to an invitation, as well as a sense of purpose and control for the participants.
Unfortunately, another characteristic of many Asian cultures is an aversion to appearing too eager. Most of the responses to the invitation were along the lines of I will have to see how I feel on the day of the event. Only a dozen people, all of them elderly, gave firm attendance responses, so Chen and her colleagues made preparations for that number of people. These contestants were told–through interpreters who sometimes had to really improvise to communicate, as there are so many different dialects within the various languages they speak– they could each bring two family members as well. Chen gathered tables, chairs, plates, volunteers to judge the entries, all the necessary items to make the contest and food-tasting pleasant and comfortable.

* * *

Asians tend to be stereotyped as a “model minority,” with most Americans assuming that all Asians in the U.S. are doctors or engineers, or at least training to fill those occupations. It usually comes as a surprise that so many refugees and new immigrants from Asia live at or below the poverty line in the U.S. There tends to be a large disparity between Asians who achieve this kind of social success and those who founder and are barely able to squeak by. Add to this the huge diversity within the Asian community itself, and the situation seems truly daunting.

“Many Asians know very little about other Asians. This stems from the fact that our community comprises 65 nationalities and over 100 languages. Much education of our own community needed to occur first to enlist participation.”

On the day of the event, Chen worried that no one would show up. She knew that Asians are very private people, that they tend to avoid situations where they think they will be singled out or made to feel embarrassed. She needn’t have worried. Along with the expected dozen contestants, fifteen unregistered cooks showed up. These guests did not announce themselves; they simply placed their dishes on the table with the others to be judged. These late-comers also brought family with them, much more than the two guests per entrant that had been suggested to them. Tables reserved for registered contestants were filled with unregistered guests; volunteers were thoroughly confused about which dish belonged to whom; near total chaos ensued. May Chen did not know whether to laugh or cry. She did not turn anyone away; she didn’t want to jeopardize her fledgeling agency. She simply told herself this program has potential, great potential.

So, with little more than determination, compassion, and hope, these four women banded together and created Asia Services In Action, or ASIA, Inc. Over the next seventeen years, ASIA, Inc., has grown from a one-day initiative, run by a small group of volunteers, into a nationally recognized institution with two main offices, statewide programs, and over 4,000 clients.

* * *

The Akron branch of ASIA, Inc., is located in a small one-story brick building on Carroll Street, about a ten minute walk from The University of Akron campus. It is flanked by an empty lot and a huge abandoned-looking warehouse, and faces the black-topped parking lot of the Akron Community Drug Board Foundation. Other highlights of the neighborhood include a junk yard, several two-story apartment buildings, more empty lots, and a Subway restaurant about two-tenths of a mile down the road, where it intersects with largely commercial East Market Street. Due to this rather bleak environment, the door inside the foyer of the organization is always locked; visitors are instructed to please ring the bell at right and take a moment to wipe your feet by a sign printed on computer paper and taped to the inside of the glass. The reception area just inside this foyer is richly decorated with tapestries of gold and green, trailing red tassels, sculptures of elephants and the Buddha in bronze and gold, small altars, bells, Chinese paper lanterns. The sounds of an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class, intermingled with typing and muffled phone rings, fills the carpeted hallway that bisects the long, narrow building.

“Okay? I will write it on the board,” says the short, middle-aged Asian woman at the front of the conference room where the class is taking place. She writes in blue marker on an oversized note pad on an easel. Eight or nine women, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-forties, sit around a huge table, comprised of nine plastic banquet tables shoved together and littered with everyday objects for naming: calculators, staplers, plastic jars of animal crackers and popcorn, a globe, a cup full of pencils. They all have dark hair and high, flat cheek bones; they speak haltingly and giggle a lot. To demonstrate the exercise, the teacher begins:

“Mai, please give the calculator to Mi Win.”

Mai identifies the calculator and takes it to Mi Win, who thanks her almost inaudibly; Mai then instructs Mi Win to give another object to another student, and so on. All of these students are from Southeast Asia, except for Rosa, who is from Mexico. She is joined late in the session by another Latina, Carolina from Venezuela. Most of these women have been in the U.S. for a year or less, except Mi Win, who came here in 1999.

Weak winter light pours in through the windows that line one wall of the conference room, under which two more plastic tables are loaded with an array of house plants and brochures with information on ESOL classes, tax preparation, Project Learn. The other walls are adorned with maps of the world and the U.S., a large paper fan painted with a pastoral scene, and a wooden sign carved with the word Asia and a row of Chinese characters. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee adds warmth to the bright, cheerful room.
Chen participates in the exercise for a few minutes, then waxes philosophic about the agency she helped form seventeen years ago.

“A renowned Asian family therapist once said to me that Asian families are like all other families, like some other families, and like no other families. This is so true! Asian families have special needs, just like all, some and no other families.”

While the national welfare rate was around 5% in the early nineties, that of refugee groups was closer to 30%. Teenagers in refugee families are much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than those in American-born families. Spousal abuse, underage marriage, homicide and suicide rates are all disproportionately higher among refugee populations than national averages. Chen was appalled by these disparities and knew there had to be a better way to meet the needs of her community. But when she approached mainstream resettlement agencies, like International Institute, about her concerns, she was told “we cannot be all things to all people.” She was dismayed but not discouraged.

Chen had been working for the International Institute in Akron for seven years when she and her friends decided to start their own agency. Originally part of the YWCA that offered chaperones for young women from Europe coming to the U.S. for jobs around the turn of the twentieth century, the International Institute evolved into a government-funded organization that serves immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Its strongest point might be its Refugee Resettlement program, which helps refugees from war-torn countries start over in America. Though the Institute offers English language classes, interpreters in over sixty languages, and classes aimed at citizenship, it seems to focus on the immediate needs of refugees: a first apartment, a first job, a first step toward a new life. It also focuses largely on assimilation to American culture, rather than preserving cultural heritage.

“To know where you are going, you must know where you come from,” were the words of fimmaker Ken Burns, who spoke at the graduation of May Chen’s son a few years ago. These words aptly describe the holistic approach to assimiliation at ASIA, Inc. ESOL and citizenship classes are balanced by ethnic food fairs and the International Festival(not dorrect-none has been organized yet) every fall, which show-cases the music, dance, clothing, and food from the many diverse countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. These kinds of cultural activities, linking the past to the present, are often what convince older immigrants to allow their children or grandchildren to participate in other, more occidental programs, like anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns.

Some years ago, Chen visited the International Institute in St. Louis, Missouri, and found it to be vastly different from its sister agency in Akron. In St. Louis, the Institute included(offered offices to their refugee groups) a common room that anyone in the community could use for meetings or parties, as well as an office of the City Health Department and of the Police Department. It was a veritable one-stop shop of accessibility for new immigrants! Unfortunately, the head of the Institute in Akron was not open to this vision of changes; but Chen was inspired.

One anecdote really illustrates the challenge of delivering assistance to people who are normatively opposed to asking for help–as well as the unique approach Chen uses to circumnavigate it. Chen received a phone call from Children’s Services: a young Asian boy had been treated at Akron Children’s Hospital for lead poisoning, but after his release, the family refused to continue his treatment or have the other children in the home tested for the same illness. Chen knew this had to be simple misunderstanding and miscommunication, so she reached out with the best tool she had: the home visit.

“I went to the home and visited with the woman, got to see how the family dynamic worked, how she interacted with her children–I think there were four of them–and found them all to be happy and getting along quite well. I knew I couldn’t bring up the testing right away and risk insulting her.”
After a few weeks of visiting, of building rapport and trust with the mother, Chen decided it was time to broach the subject.

“I know you want all your kids to be healthy,” Chen said to the mother; “don’t you think it’s time to take them to get tested for lead?”

“No!” was the woman’s terse reply.

It seems she and her husband felt lied to about the on-going nature of the treatment, felt the hospital visit had been a failure because it hadn’t solved the whole problem. Improper translation was most likely the culprit, but that kind of thing is difficult to determine without getting to know the family better. After a few more weeks of visiting and building trust, Chen tried a different approach.

“When you have a big problem,” she asked the mother, “who do you go to for advice?”

“Cousin in Medina!” was the immediate response.

So Chen contacted this cousin in Medina and explained the situation to him. The next time Chen saw the mother, she had gotten all of the children tested and was in full compliance with all of the follow-up treatment.

“People ultimately have the solutions to their own problems,” she says in her soft, gentle voice. “It’s not always good to say, ‘you need this or that.’ It’s a matter of respect. We can find our own solutions.”

It is this kind of organic, rhizomatic approach to assistance, rather than the linear, Western model, that Chen sees as the major difference between ASIA, Inc., and the International Institute. They are not so much in competition with each other as in symbiosis, filling gaps in assistance left by each other.
“We want to help more mainstream agencies understand how to reach out to Asian communities, how to better help and serve them.”

Where the International Institute might be more of a short-term, immediate-need agency, focusing on getting refugees out of harm’s way and through the first stages of resettlement, ASIA, Inc., works for assimilation on a continual, long-term basis. Chen’s real goal is empowering immigrants to be viable citizens. ASIA is a choice for them.

“At least in the hell [refugees] came from, they knew the language and the culture, they could maneuver geographically. Here they can do neither and it is up to agencies like ours to help them achieve at least that.”