Stories Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked WittKieffer employees to submit stories about lived experiences relating to the Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander community that inspired them or illustrated the richness of these cultures. We received many submissions from WittKieffer employees who were more than happy to share thoughtful vignettes. Enjoy these stories below as we recognize and celebrate Asian Pacific Americans and Asian culture.

Imran Ali, M.D., Senior Associate, Healthcare Practice

As a first generation Asian American, my identity and relationship with my Indian ethnicity is slightly amorphous, but is slowly taking shape as I grow older. Even though I was born and spent some time in Upstate New York, I’ve had the privilege of living across multiple continents and understanding different cultures and embedding those experiences into my own world view and philosophy. Ironically, it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago in 2002 that I learned about my own Indian culture. It was here that I was surrounded by individuals from the sub-continent. In Chicago, I got to experience the diversity of my culture, learning about the different regions, dialects, traditions and intricacies of India and our neighbors to the North in Pakistan. 

Most importantly, what I learned is a story of immigrants and the universal experiences that our families have endured which has shaped my own identity as an Indian American. My father, or as I call him, Baba, came to this country in the seventies, driving a taxi cab and eating Campbell’s Soup daily all while earning a master’s degree at Saint Louis University. Mummy became a school teacher and lived in regions of the U.S. where she had no family support. Many others have or are still going through these obstacles today. 

It wasn’t until my thirties and ultimately Baba’s passing that I began to develop an understanding of my parents’ continuous sacrifices. They worked tirelessly so that my siblings and I could get a free education while they lived in modesty. My parents taught me humility and the need for continuous servitude to others. They wanted to bestow a better life for us and never put their needs above their children. Even though my siblings and I are all grown and independent, Mummy has followed in Baba’s footsteps and continued serving as a role model, participating in philanthropy, community service and dedicating her time to family. Even though it’s been two years since Baba left us, his example stays strong and the bond he created with me is permanent, but the memory of his passing still remains a small but significant infarct in my heart. 

Through my own lens, I am most proud of my culture’s commitment to family and selflessness. To many in India and Pakistan, these values are “genetically ingrained” within us. While there are other numerous traditions and cultural philosophies that have been passed down for many decades and across the Atlantic, the example of how my parents lived is the most crucial dimension to my own self-identity and pride in my heritage. My hope is to never lose this knowledge and to continue to embody this way of life, eventually passing it down to the next generation.

Shelley Arakawa, Consultant, Education Practice

I’m a 4th generation Japanese-American and grew up in Hawaii, where most of my family still resides.

My paternal great-grandfather, Zempan Arakawa, emigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii to work on the sugar cane plantations. Nineteen years old and under 100 pounds, he was deemed too small to do the heavy fieldwork, and was assigned to be a water boy. At night, he taught himself how to sew and began making denim lunch bags, heavy cloth footwear and work gloves for the field workers. When his plantation contract expired, he opened a small tailor shop, which later developed into a general store, kind of a local-style Target, called Arakawas. Being a store of and for the community was a guiding principle throughout Arakawas’ 86-year history. Zempan was an immigrant and always remembered how hard it was to make ends meet. He stocked the shelves with items that were necessities for the community, and created plans for plantation workers to buy what they needed and pay later. Years after Zempan’s death, I tried to convince my grandfather to raise our price for rice cookers because I had seen them being sold for much more in other stores. I told him we could increase our margins. He responded, “That’s not the point.”

My maternal grandfather, Etsuo Sayama, went to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and obtained a degree in sugar technology. He was the only Asian graduate from his program to get a job with the sugar company. All others were White. He was thrilled for the opportunity, but later discovered he was being paid far less than his White counterparts. Barely able to afford dormitory housing and unable to send any money to his parents, he told his supervisor he needed to leave and was immediately blackballed from the sugar industry. He joined the Army Corps of Engineers. The department fielded baseball teams. Every unit had a team. My grandfather was a pitcher. He bore a striking resemblance to the Japanese emperor, and when he was on the mound, army troops yelled, “Hey, Hirohito!” When Pearl Harbor was bombed, my grandfather showed up for work to assist with the cleanup. He was told to go home because he was wearing blue and there was a rumor that Japanese paratroopers in blue clothes were landing in the city and the soldiers were on edge. He went home, changed his clothes then returned to work.

Okage sama de is a Japanese phrase that means “I am what I am because of you.” I am keenly aware that the privilege I enjoy today is largely due to the struggles my ancestors navigated. And, I’ve always been grateful for the commitment to community and sense of purpose that they demonstrated and instilled in their descendants.

Sandra Chu, Senior Associate, Education Practice

I am a second, or perhaps 1.5 generation Chinese American—depending on which grandparent’s immigration story is taken into account. There are many things that make me proud of my heritage, not the least of which is that my family’s immigrant story connects me to between 4 and 5 million Chinese Americans (24% of all Asians in the U.S.). It also is a story most people in the U.S. can share. My family’s experiences are places to find common ground, peace and unity—something I remind myself of in these recent years of increased Asian hate and violence and of which I reminded myself after the brutal beating and murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.

The Chinese American story is a recent one, beginning in 1850 with the gold rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Once the railroad was completed and hostilities against Chinese immigrants were at an all-time high, the U.S. shut its borders to Chinese Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned all Chinese immigration to the U.S. for a period of 63 years (1882-1945), creating barriers European immigrants did not experience and preventing Chinese families from reuniting or growing. Despite this, my family has had the privilege of being able to honor their ethnic roots while building new lives in the U.S. Our family has been one that has been dedicated to teaching, public service and patriotism.

My family arrived in the U.S. through Ellis Island. We lived in New York City’s Chinatown for our first generation, an area that more than 100,000 Chinese Americans still call home. My childhood was punctuated with visits to my paternal grandmother who spoke no English and who we believe was a mail-order bride. Some of my uncles graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School at a time when there were only seven Chinese students in attendance, and then took trains to Chinese school each afternoon. Once they had families of their own, this generation of Chinese Americans began breaking ground, moving to the suburbs and purchasing homes in neighborhoods that did not exclude them from home ownership.  

My familial role models have been numerous, from my great uncle who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the U.S. during World War II, and finds his final resting place in Arlington after a career in CIA where he worked on infrared technology and its application to overhead reconnaissance; to my maternal great grandmother who graced the Chinese and American stages as an actress and singer in the Chinese Opera; to my maternal great grandmother who dedicated her adult life to teaching and serving Chinese immigrants in Hawai’i by founding a church school whose narthex bears her name today; to my maternal grandfather who earned a gold medal playing basketball (!) in the Pan-Asian Games. 

My mother and her two sisters devoted their lives to K-12 education, subconsciously following the lead of pioneer and activist Mary Tape who legally desegregated California public schools 70 years ahead of Brown v. Board. My mother retired as the first Chinese American woman to be named a district Assistant Superintendent on Long Island in New York state and her two sisters spent more than 60 years combined teaching third graders and high school students. Their accomplishments came about despite racial discrimination, harassment and occasional violence against our families. These role models and others in my immediate and extended families have given me the confidence and wings to fly wherever I wish—prior to working at WittKieffer I spent 25 years as one of four Asian American head coaches in collegiate rowing in the U.S. in a field of over 220.

World War II made it difficult for many Chinese families to preserve their heritage because our families were often mistaken for Japanese and placed in internment camps or mistreated. We assimilated as quickly as possible, losing our language and many of our customs. Luckily, there are parts of my culture that I am happy to experience and share with others: Sunday Dim Sum, dragon dances, moon cakes and lychee, jasmine black tea, my favorite Cantonese delicacies, my family’s herbal remedies and the traditions of hong bao at the lunar New Year. 

It is my hope that my story goes beyond eggrolls and firecrackers: that the Chinese American experience can be admired for what it is—a recent reminder of how the United States were forged, and three generations of contributions to the infrastructure of our nation.

For colleagues who wish to learn more about the Asian American experience, I highly recommend the PBS documentary Asian Americans.

Vineeth (Vinny) Gossain, Consultant, Physician Integration and Leadership Practice

If Asian Pacific Heritage Month is to pay tribute to generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history I must think of my father who immigrated to the United States in 1967 with $8 in his pocket. He took a leap of faith to leave his home and pursue his passion for medicine. My father reached many milestones in academic medicine, but perhaps his biggest achievement was providing his children and grandchildren endless opportunities to pursue their own dreams in the U.S.  

He wanted to give us a better life, but also maintain the values of hard work, importance of family, humility and the Indian culture in the U.S. The significance of community and celebrations are important in the Indian community. From an early age, cultural celebrations were plentiful and often forced upon us. Something I did not fully appreciate then, was these gatherings were outlets for support for immigrant parents. It allowed the community to share their experiences, gain peace of mind and learn from one other in a safe environment.

Today, my parents are my heritage. Their culture, selflessness and life journey are embedded in my own culturally diverse family. As we celebrate Asian American Heritage appreciate those who came here to enrich their lives, but also make the lives of others better. My father never intended to stay in the U.S., but we are glad he did. The ability to embrace diversity of thought, culture and community are things we should not take for granted. Celebrate and appreciate each other’s uniqueness because each of us has an important story to tell.    

Natalie Song, Associate, Education Practice

I was born and raised in China. My parents firmly believed that knowledge comes from books, but more importantly, from experience. Therefore, at the age of 18, they sent me to the U.S. for college by myself. Back then (the early 2000s), China had just started opening up. There were very few non-Chinese living in China and they normally lived in the expat communities. So growing up, I had barely seen or interacted with people who were not Chinese. Thus, as you can imagine, when I first arrived in Miami, I asked a fair amount of VERY ignorant questions. “Do you curl your hair every day?” I once asked my Cuban classmate, who has beautiful natural curls. Because by then, I had not met anyone who had naturally curly hair. I just remembered my mom spending hours sitting on that hideous salon chair with a big bubble on her head to achieve some curls that will disappear in a few weeks.

On the other hand, I was also asked some fairly ignorant questions. Once in class, after I introduced myself, one of my classmates asked, “How did you get here?” “I flew,” I replied. “Like in an airplane?” she followed up. I nodded nervously, not knowing what surprised her. Years later, I thought to myself, I should have said I flew a dragon, which would have been a much better story.

Even with all my stupid questions, I was welcomed with open arms. I made friends not only from America but from all over the world. They taught me their culture, their language and their food. I truly learned something new every day (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians” also taught me to speak like a real American teenager…). In return, I was proud to share my culture with the community. During my sophomore year, I founded the Chinese Students Association and hosted the first-ever Lunar New Year Celebration on campus. We passed out hand-made dumplings and taught our friends how to write their names in Chinese in a classroom. 15 years later, the Lunar New Year celebration is one of the largest cultural events at the University of Miami. Thousands of students attend the celebration each year to watch the lion dance, drink boba tea and receive the good luck hong bao (red envelope). 

I guess my story is about acceptance, openness and building bridges. I see myself as a connector for those who want to learn about my culture. I also see myself as a global citizen who is constantly learning and being a student of the world. After all these years, I finally understand what my parents meant by knowledge comes from books, but more importantly, from experience (读万卷书不如行万里路). To end, please allow me to quote Ted Lasso, “Be curious, not judgmental.”