By Simone Jacobson, APIASF Staff
“Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.”
If your parents are anything like mine, they taught you two basic skills for succeeding in life. Number one: work hard. Number two: be nice. Many Asian American children are taught this mantra—Work hard. Be nice.—and it is a useful one. We also learn to honor our families, practice discipline, and remain proud of who we are and where we come from. Our larger society believes that these values (instilled during our formative years as children) are the “magic keys” that unlock our potential, enabling us to achieving more than other ethnic groups. Though it is true that some AAPIs do very well, our AAPI communities also include some of the least educated and poorest in the nation today. In fact, AAPIs have the fastest growing poverty population of any racial or ethnic group. Where you come from, how your family came to the United States, and what English language skills your parents have (or lack) are just some of the factors that influence how long it takes us to thrive in American society.
Because of this folklore, our AAPI stories remain invisible. The “model minority myth” perpetuates the idea that all AAPIs are successful. It keeps getting told and retold until it is accepted as fact. The truth is that each AAPI story is unique, though we may share common experiences. So I challenge you to consider this: It is our collective responsibility (yours and mine, not some magical future unicorn who is braver than we think we are) to tell these stories. But why should we tell our own stories? Because they matter. Because if we don’t, someone else will. And because we never know who might be listening to us. I have learned that the person who hears my story could be someone influential. She could also be my future mentor, or someone simply relieved that I spoke up when she feared she lacked the strength.
My AAPI story starts with my mother. My mom came to the United States from Burma—a country with nearly 60 million people bordered by Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, and India—in the 1960s. She was 16, and she was only allowed to take one suitcase with her. I’ve often wondered if I had to make that difficult decision at age 16, what items would I take, and which ones would I leave behind? As you navigate your own difficult decisions, I encourage you to work hard and be nice like our parents taught us. But I also invite you to listen to that voice inside you that knows what is best for you. I believe that each of us must shut out the noise of others telling us what is “best” and instead ask ourselves, “What is best … for me?”
Sharing our unique stories is both a responsibility and a privilege, so I am counting on all of you to speak up and speak often. Every day, we have an opportunity to make an impact. Our kind thoughts lead to kind words. These kind words lead to meaningful actions. These meaningful actions become excellent habits. These excellent habits shape our strong characters. And this strong character enables us to fulfill our destiny. Today, I have shared just one tiny part of my AAPI story with you. But I have dedicated my life to writing, performing, and teaching about my experiences because I don’t know any other Burmese American writers. That makes me feel even more pressured (and more honored) to do this work. It took me awhile to value my own voice, but I know now that I don’t write for myself. I write for my ancestors. I write for you. I write for all of us.
What’s your story?
Pictured above: Simone (center) telling stories with G Yamazawa, Gowri K, Beau Sia, Adriel Luis, Michell Myers, and Sahra Nguyen at the AAPI LAPP Fest, Kennedy Center (2013).