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AAPI, AAPI History Month, Education, Heritage

A Conversation with Asian American & Pacific Islander Deepgrammers

BY Sam Zegas  | May 26 2021

A core part of why we show up to work at Deepgram every day is that we believe every voice should be heard and understood. We know that the way we speak and express ourselves is deeply connected to the cultural ties we share with friends and family — and we’re here to celebrate that. This year, we’re marking Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month by talking with six Asian American & Pacific Islander Deepgrammers about what it means to be connected to their roots. Join us on this exploration of what it means to have an AAPI voice at Deepgram! 

Let’s meet the group:

Natalie
Head of Product

I’m half Chinese, from my mom’s side. I’m actually second-generation though because my Gung Gung (grandpa) came over when he was 8 years old and grew up in Utah working in restaurants. He was a paper son, someone who immigrated to the U.S. with fraudulent documentation to get around the near-total exclusion of Chinese immigration following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He later got his citizenship when he served in the Korean war. I never met my grandma because she passed before I was born, but my grandpa brought her to the U.S. after his time in the Marines. I don’t know much about her other than that she fled from the Japanese during WWII and was quite educated for her time and gender.

Keith
Head of Product Marketing

I was born in Hong Kong and came to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was 2 years old. Growing up, my dad owned an arts and crafts store in San Francisco’s Chinatown and I spent a lot of time in the San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns. I still have relatives in Hong Kong but the San Francisco Bay Area is the only place I’ve ever thought of as home.

 

Tammy (Anh Thu)
Head of Talent

I am full Vietnamese. My mom is from Saigon and my dad is from Hanoi. My mom escaped the Vietnam War by a boat and spent a year in Thailand in a refugee camp. The refugee boats did not guarantee safe passage and only had limited food and water. My mom was separated from her parents and unfortunately, my grandparents lost their lives at the hands of pirates. My dad emigrated here when he was 16 and studied at the University of San Francisco. He dedicated his life to sponsoring his siblings and their families to come to the U.S.

 

Marshall
Customer Success Manager

I was born in Hong Kong but came to the U.S. when I was 2. Because I immigrated at such a young age, I never fully integrated with my Asian heritage and mostly assimilated into American culture. My parents dedicated themselves to bringing me and my brother to the U.S. to avoid the CCP. Growing up, my parents were already well-traveled due to their fashion export business and didn’t have issues migrating to California.

Minh
Solutions Engineer

My family and I were born in Vietnam. In Vietnam, it is common for family members to live together under one roof and visit the homes of friends and family without prior appointments. This culture lived on in the Vietnamese-American community when our family immigrated to the U.S. As a child, I enjoyed the spontaneous visits to our home, sitting on the laps of dear friends and family, and exchanging stories over green tea and dried fruit snacks (though I wouldn’t fully appreciate imbibing green tea until much later in life!)

Sofia
Sales Development Representative

I was born and raised in the Bay Area, but both my parents grew up in Manila, Philippines. They both speak Tagalog fluently, but they only speak English to each other and the rest of my family if we’re visiting the Philippines. We are extremely bonded with our Filipino culture and go back to visit my grandparents at least every couple of years and attend our massive (500+ people) family reunion in Cebu every 5 years, where you will not be caught alive without a full plate of food in hand. After taking an ancestry test a couple of years ago, I found out that I am ~20% genetically Filipino, which made me think a lot about what it means to “belong” to a culture since I’ve always been so closely tied to that part of my heritage.

What personal values do you draw from your Asian American roots?

Minh: For me, it can be tough to firmly grasp a sense of identity and pride for a country I departed from as a refugee when I was less than 2 years of age. My father was drafted into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and climbed to the rank of officer. After suffering several shrapnel wounds in combat, the medics patched him up and sent him back to the front lines. Following the Fall of Saigon, my father was submitted to years in the re-education camps before rejoining society. While the men served in the war, the women took up the mantle of managing the household and the crops. The war wasn’t easy for non-combatants either, as many were displaced from their homes. My family sought refuge in the United States so that my brothers and I would never know the same tragedies of loss. To me, the history of my family forms my roots — and being Vietnamese is to carry out the same duties as our ancestors: to persevere in the face of improbable odds, to look out for our fellow brothers and sisters, to shoulder collective responsibility, and to share the fruits of our labor.

Marshall: For me, it’s about the value of strong family bonds to closer and more distant relatives.

Tammy: Both my parents came here with no money, no family, and no knowledge of English, and were able to establish a family and home. They’ve worked their entire lives to get to where they are today and to provide for three children. They’ve taught me that sacrifice, discipline, and hard work are the key to success and that we are very fortunate to be in a land of opportunity.

Keith: When my parents arrived here, my dad luckily had a job lined up with his uncle, who ran a butcher shop in the Mission District of San Francisco. At first, we lived in an apartment near Oakland Chinatown while we saved enough money to buy an apartment building, then later moved to a single-family home. Growing up, we had one old car, walked to Chinatown for groceries, and never ate out. We always seemed to be trying to save money but we were never without. Our fun was getting together with relatives and playing with my cousins. This upbringing taught me a dedication to family, to always strive to be better, to save money, and to always look for discounts or wait for a sale.

Natalie: For me, it’s the importance of family, and of making your family, team, or group proud through your accomplishments and effort. It’s also about demonstrating your love for someone through your actions more than your words.

Sofia: For me, I learned about the importance of bonding with family. Growing up, I was always introduced to second, third, and fourth cousins! To this day, my mom is still a family tree wizard and always considered even my most distant relatives to be a “tita/o” or a cousin.

What languages are spoken in your family? If you speak that language, who do you speak it with, and what feels most natural to talk about in that language?

Natalie: Some of my relatives can still speak Cantonese, but that wasn’t passed on to me. My grandparents didn’t speak in Cantonese much with my mom or her brothers because they saw themselves as American. At the time, “being American” meant speaking primarily in English. Looking at it today, that severance has actually made it harder for my mom, myself, and my sister to have ties to the community. Whereas at one point my family may have been proud of integrating into American society, today we fail to be “Asian enough” because we can’t speak the language.

Marshall: My family speaks Cantonese. I barely speak the language but am able to speak broken Cantonese with my distant relatives. There is a language barrier with my grandmother, who is still in Hong Kong. My mother has to help with translation when I speak with my grandmother. My parents, uncles and aunts are located all across the world, speak fluent English, and speak to each other in a mix of Cantonese and English. My mother and father still speak to me only in Cantonese to help me practice my language skills.

Sofia: My parents speak Tagalog, but I probably only understand 10% of what they say. We primarily speak English at home, but I love using Tagalog words to describe situations or feelings that don’t exist in the English dictionary.

Minh: When our family arrived in the US, none of us spoke English. But regardless of age, each of us studied English and furthered our education in the States. As a result, in my family, we speak with each other in a mix of Vietnamese and English. Several of my non-Vietnamese-speaking friends have commented on how the Vietnamese language can sound very intense or harsh. As a Vietnamese-American, I can understand that perspective, and as an English/Vietnamese/Spanish speaker, I could be persuaded to believe English sounds more “neutral.” It would be difficult to generalize about the Vietnamese language, but in my experience, spoken poetry and music in Vietnamese can deliver more powerful and stronger sentiments than works in English.

Tammy: As a first-generation Vietnamese-American, I don’t speak Vietnamese very well but can understand when my mom speaks to me. My mom’s primary language is still Vietnamese. Growing up, my parents focused on assimilating to American culture, so I was never enrolled in Vietnamese classes. This has led to a large language barrier, as I only know words that come up regularly in conversations with my mom. In hindsight, I understand why they chose that path for me, but I do wish I could communicate better with my mom and Vietnamese-speaking relatives.

Keith: I speak broken Cantonese, mostly with my mom and relatives. I understand 90% of what is said in Cantonese but because I spend most of my time speaking English, I sometimes have trouble responding with the right Cantonese words. Over time, forgetting Cantonese words makes it harder to communicate with my mom and relatives. When I do speak Cantonese though, we generally talk about family and how everyone else is doing, so I can cover those conversation topics well.

What message about being AAPI in America today do you want people to hear?

Marshall: Asian Americans identify strongly with American culture, just as much as with our heritage culture. We have also suffered from racism and discrimination, labor exploitation, and other forms of oppression in America. Like all peoples, our parents worked and sacrificed to give their children a better life. We identify with this land and our neighbors as much as any other Americans, and we take great care in respecting each other. It’s been difficult to see how Asians have recently been unjustly targeted for causing a pandemic that could have been lessened if we — as a whole society — had all just behaved in each other’s interest.

Keith: “American” is not an ethnicity, it is a feeling, a belief. “American” describes a belief in democracy, the freedom to be who you are, and the freedom to succeed. Asian Americans don’t feel any different than other Americans. We have the same goals, needs, wants, and future plans. We want the opportunity to better ourselves and create better lives for our children. Just because we are the descendants of people from another country doesn’t mean we agree with what that country is doing today. For example, I’m afraid to go back to Hong Kong because democracy is being suppressed there and I don’t trust the Chinese government.

Tammy: Some people stereotype Asians as a “model minority.” The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that all Asians are smart or musically talented, that they have Tiger Moms who force them to study all day and effeminate fathers who work in STEM. Even though some aspects of these stereotypes are positive, all stereotypes work against the struggle for racial justice. Asian Americans are not what the model minority myth represents them to be. Furthermore, we should recognize the struggles that Asian Americans overcame to make a home in the U.S. They endured racism and a long arduous journey to America, they worked hard for their families — but today, they have been made the scapegoat of a global pandemic. Not every Asian is the same, but every group went through its own hardship on the path to America: from Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Vietnam War. We should recognize and honor each kind of experience for its unique contribution to what it means to be Asian American.

Minh: Many people think of Vietnam as having one homogenous culture, but I’ve always thought of Vietnam as a melting pot. Formed from the early peoples of South China (sharing similar legends and mythology), colonized as French Indochina (Vietnamese crepes and sandwiches served on baguette — yes please!), and scattered across the globe following the Vietnam War, pockets of Vietnamese culture are a bit “here and there,” and have assimilated into countless other cultures around the world. Finally, we all know Vietnamese restaurants serve delicious Vietnamese food. But for authentic, genuine Vietnamese cuisine, befriend your local Vietnamese-American and get yourselves invited into their home and kitchen!

A mirror to American society: what AAPI voices teach us

From these conversations, a few themes about AAPI identities shine through. First, AAPI is a broad category of ethnicities tied together by common experiences on the journey to becoming American. The Asia-Pacific region includes hundreds — if not thousands — of distinct communities and cultures, many of which are represented in the United States. From these diverse origins, the common thread in the AAPI experience is that many immigrants endured significant hardships before, during, and after their journey to America. The experience of immigrating and making a new life in the U.S. is a foundational part of American identity that ties together hundreds of millions of Americans with immigrant heritage. Across America’s history of immigration and assimilation, AAPI experiences stand out for their perseverance through wars, overtly racist immigration policies, and struggles to assimilate — all to form the uniquely vibrant communities in the U.S. that we know today.

Second, AAPI Deepgrammers talk about common themes in their cultural values: the importance of family ties, the value of hard work and achievement, and a respect for personal sacrifice. These values, too, are fundamentally connected to the experience of immigrants, not just in AAPI communities but among all people who leave home to make a new life in a far-away place. These values are deeply American. They represent the traits that are necessary to survive and thrive after making the momentous decision to start a new life in the United States.

Finally, Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders aren’t a minority set apart from other Americans. They have been part of this American experiment alongside other groups for hundreds of years, and their experiences today contribute to the core definition of what it means to be American. The wave of anti-Asian discrimination that grew out of the coronavirus pandemic may have tested the ties that hold us together, but we will overcome it — and emerge stronger.

We hope you enjoyed these stories from Asian American Deepgrammers as much as we do, and whatever your heritage, we hope you find ways to connect with AAPI history this month!

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