Why I want to help you share your Asian/Pacific American family’s stories this May

Stephen Lee
5 min readApr 30, 2021

--

I appreciate all the attention in recent months to violence against Asian Americans.

And I appreciate the annual, official recognition of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

But I also think we can do better.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (Asian/Pacific Americans for short) now represent more than 5 percent of the United States population, a massive increase since the 1960s. We come from more than 20 countries of origin, and our families often sacrificed a lot to come here. And we have gone further than our parents and grandparents could have expected.

How our numbers increased as restrictions ended. Sources include Census data, Senate.gov, and Jia Lynn Lang’s One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965

My mother came from South Korea in the 1960s thanks to her sister, who had gotten married to a Russian-born U.S. citizen. She wanted all of her children to become doctors, just like my father was. I eventually got around to asking her why. “Because we were immigrants and I did not think you could succeed in America as anything other than a doctor or engineer,” she said.

She underestimated America and she underestimated us.

Many Asian Americans did start off as doctors and engineers in the 1960s and 1970s, because that is what the immigration laws preferred. But we did not stay in those fields, and America has proven more welcoming and open than my mother expected.

My brothers and I all got doctorate degrees, just not medical ones. We all became lawyers, and I even represented you and this great country for 11 years as a federal prosecutor. “Stephen Lee for the United States,” I said when I appeared in court, feeling every time a little extra pride and weight because of my parents.

We grew up in a mostly white area (I was the only non-blond kid on my elementary-school soccer team), and I spoke so little Korean growing up that I only learned the Korean word for “friend” from a college friend who was not Asian American. My two brothers married women who were not Asian American, and I happened to marry someone who happens to be Korean American, much to my mother’s shock and delight (my wife’s too, most of the time!).

My family’s experience has little to do with the Atlanta shootings or a politician’s slurs or Vincent Chin or the Japanese-American incarceration. Yes, we’ve faced discrimination, slights and micro-aggressions — I bristle every time that I get asked, “Where are you from” and the typical follow-up, “No, where are you really from.”

But our experience, like many Asian/Pacific Americans’ experience, is that of people who made epic journeys and sacrifices in order to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Here. In America. As Americans.

And then as Asian/Pacific Americans (or Asian Americans, Korean Americans, etc.).

I don’t think we talk about this enough or take pride in this enough.

And that’s what I want to do something about this year, and that’s what I want you to join me in.

I know a lot about my family’s heritage because I’ve interviewed my mother, my in-laws, and my late stepfather multiple times (I was a reporter before becoming a prosecutor). I lost access to huge parts of my family’s heritage when my father passed away when I was 16 years old, but I’ve reconstructed some through my mother (and also through my mother-in-law, thanks to a “coincidence bombshell” that you may have heard about on This American Life).

My father soon after he arrived in the United States

As a result, I have lots of great stories that I plan to share this year as part of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Not in a family history that I probably will never finish and that few people probably would read, but on social media so that I can reach you and other people, including people who might never go looking for Asian-American issues but might appreciate them if suggested by some algorithms (likes, shares and retweets matter!). Stories about:

  • My father, who gave up everything to become an American, including legally changing his name because people kept mispronouncing it, and died before he could see if it would work out,
  • My mother, who raised four kids on her own and then became a missionary and a leader in her church, and
  • My stepfather, who came to the United States thanks to a kind American G.I. and whose stories sounded so crazy that I fact-checked him before giving him my blessing (he did actually play high-school football on Staten Island in the 1950s).

Sharing these stories, I believe, is a better way of celebrating our heritage, this month, and this moment than just another office lunch or corporate platitude.

You probably know similar family stories that you could share as well. I encourage you to do so. Please join me by using the hashtag #ourapaheritage

And if you don’t know those stories yet, I encourage you to learn them now.

Celebrate this Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month this year, especially this year, by interviewing your parents and grandparents. You’ve probably thought about doing this someday but keep putting it off. Let’s do it now or get your kids to do it for you! You’ll get a few good Zoom calls out of it, and I am sure that you will learn something new that you did not know before.

If you need help doing so, please check out the resources that I’ve prepared and that are available online for free at ourapaheritage.com

Or maybe I’ll do it with you! I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the 20+ years that I’ve been a reporter, a prosecutor and/or a lawyer (including a sitting vice president of the United States, an Academy Award-winning actress, and many, many criminals). I’d like to try interviewing one person for each day of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and then sharing their stories throughout the month. Just send me an email at slee@ourapaheritage.com about your parent or grandparent, and I might interview them with you.

I am the son of two great people who came here from Korea in the 1960s, and I want you to know more about them and how they became Americans. And I want more Americans to know more about the great Americans that you call Mom and Dad, Uma and Apa, and so on.

Please join me in sharing our stories this May.

Thanks, and good luck.

Stephen Lee is a lawyer in Chicago who used to be a newspaper reporter and a federal prosecutor. He can be reached at slee@ourapaheritage.com

--

--

Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at stephenleelaw.com