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Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which is recognized nationally each May, is a time of many different perspectives and feelings. It’s a time to celebrate the many diverse cultures of Asian Americans (AA) and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). It’s a time to take action against the anti-Asian racism that still exists. And, for people who aren’t in the AA or NHPI community, it’s a time to listen, learn and show respect. (To that end, we’ve compiled a list of resources for this month and beyond.)  

We asked some of our colleagues to share their experiences and perspectives about how they honor this month, what their heritage means to them, and what their favorite cultural traditions are. Here’s what they had to say. 

Meini Li on a video chat with her aunt, mom and grandma.

Meini Li, Assistant Director for Corporate and Foundation Relations, UW Medicine Advancement

“Settling in my fourth year working as a front-line fundraiser, part of me wants to celebrate how far I’ve come — from being an international student experiencing cultural shock shopping at QFC the first time, to the person I am today negotiating terms and closing gifts for medical education and research. 

While I embrace and welcome the growth, I can never ignore the connections I missed and the sacrifice my family had to make for me to pursue my dreams in the U.S. This year marks the third year not being able to see my parents in person. Thanks to modern technology, video calls helped to bridge the massive gap and learning to cook Chinese food virtually from my mom was one of my favorite pandemic memories. 

It’s a privilege to provide fundraising support to faculty that are leading equity work in the community. Seeing and connecting with BIPOC colleagues always brings me a huge sense of belonging. Moving forward, I’d love to continue the effort to eliminate bias against Asians and crush the model minority myth so that my AAPI colleagues can feel more seen, heard and valued as who they are.” 

Christine Chan

Christine Chan, Director for Philanthropy, UW Medicine Advancement

“I am the proud daughter of a Chinese refugee and an immigrant. My dad escaped persecution by the Communist party by swimming from China to Hong Kong. He immigrated to New York City and then opened a restaurant in Florida. During summers, I made dim sum, bussed tables and worked the takeout counter while listening to the stories of the staff — all of whom were immigrants who sacrificed so that their children could have educational opportunities.  

It was never a question that I would go to college. I received my BA from the UW and have worked as a fundraiser at UW Medicine Advancement for the past eight years. I partner with our amazing donors and volunteers to advance the mission of UW Medicine. I appreciate that the importance of health, honoring the memories of loved ones, and giving back to the community are themes that transcend cultures.   

To support Asian Americans in the workplace, please continue to hire, develop and promote AAPI at all levels of leadership. Across our nation’s workforce, Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to be promoted to management. To support Asian Americans in our communities, you can patronize Asian-owned businesses. My extended family, who continues to own and work at restaurants in the International District, have struggled throughout the pandemic and recent wave of violence.” 

Lisa Im

Lisa Im, CMA, Medical Assistant, UW Medical Center – Northwest

“I’ve been working in healthcare for seven years. I am the first generation, first-born child and first grandchild. I listened to stories of how my grandpa had decided to take my grandma and their six children to the United States. They left their home country Cambodia for a place unknown to live the American dream. I also am the first in my family to work in healthcare. I watched my aunts and uncles go to school to work in business. I tried to take that same route, but I didn’t find any passion in crunching numbers. I decided to take a leap of faith after working in retail for so long. I wanted to help people but didn’t know where to start until I found a medical assistant program. I did my externship in women’s health and ever since I have fallen in love with patient care. 

Growing up Asian American I saw that I looked different, my food was different, I spoke differently. I can remember being put in ESL classes because I knew the word plate in Cambodian instead of responding in English; this confused me. I had to explain how I did not grow up speaking English until I started kindergarten. That’s when I learned not everyone is bilingual.  

There are many cultures here in America. It is important to see diversity when walking into a healthcare facility. There have been countless times when I was the only minority in a room and my colleagues were white. There have been times when I’ve roomed Asian American patients and can see how at ease they become when they see that I look like them. When COVID-19 first happened and the Stop Asian Hate movement started, it affected me in a way that I had to realize, although I was born in America and I still get asked, “Where are you from?” I molded myself to be able to speak English perfectly because I didn’t want to be judged or not be given an opportunity because of how I looked or spoke.  

The older I get the more I hold my culture close and practice traditions with my family. My grandpa passed away when I was 10 and I often think, ‘Will he be proud in the route that I took?’ In Cambodian culture it’s important to put your family first and take care of each other. I can only imagine how scary it was for my family to immigrate here but they’ve built a life here in America and in return we work very hard to make our ancestors proud. I’ve learned so much from working in healthcare, and I continue to learn every day in my field. My hope is that people do not judge someone before you get to know them. America is a melting pot of people who come from different countries to live a better life.” 

Meilan Huang

Meilan Huang, MSIS, MSW, Senior Computer Specialist, Harborview Medical Center

“‘Do you think you can find a job in Seattle, mom?’ was a question from my son who just graduated from college, his mysterious facial expression adding, ‘You are already over 50 and looking for relocation, are you crazy?’ Although in fact feeling intimidated and uncertain, I responded, ‘Yes, I will. I have special skills and good work ethics. Opportunities are for people who are ready. It’s my belief 30 years ago and it still is now!’ A few months later, in early 2020, I joined the Harborview family from the Great Lakes state.   

Fast backward to 1990 summer when I first arrived in Michigan from Taiwan to pursue my graduate study. ‘Wow, what a huge and gorgeous country! No wonder it’s called ‘Mei (beautiful) Guo (country),’ I exclaimed with great excitement. Little did I know that I would stay and start my own family in this wonderful country where now I call home. Both my sons were born and raised here.  

More than once, people asked, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Uh, America.’ ‘No, no, no, where are you from?’ ‘Uh, Ann Arbor, Michigan.’ ‘Oh, I see, your young gentlemen are from Michigan, but how about you, where are you from?’ ( I just want to have a meal, why you care where I am from!!??) ‘OK. I am originally from Taiwan.’ ‘Oh, Thailand. I know Thailand. I like Pad Thai!’ … Sigh.  

Embarrassing to admit, the true reason why I like classical music so much is that it does not have lyrics. No language barrier for me in the melody world. It’s the music that accompanied and comforted me during those tough and cold study days and nights. Over the years, through music, arts, food and Mother Nature, where words are usually not the most important, my children and I have found some common grounds to communicate and exchange ideas and traditions.   

Furthermore, through these media, I have found myself some emotion outlets and regain the strengths to overcome life struggles. I finally realized English capability or accent is simply a small facet of me, and I should not let it define the true me. My vocabularies may be limited, but I can think and my imaginations are not limited; I may be quiet, yet I have voice and enthusiastic passions for the society and world. Ultimately, I am a human, an ordinary yet unique person trying to live earnestly in the universe. 

Now I say: ‘Dear Son, Seattle is not just for young people like you. Look what I have found beyond Ding Tai Feng and bubble tea! What a beautiful city in my country!’” 

Michelle Kimura

Michelle Kimura, MS3, Psychiatry, UW Medical Center – Northwest 

“I feel so honored to be a part of this year’s Asian/Pacific Heritage celebration. It brings me joy to be a part of this AAPI community and to be a part of the larger community of humanity. I frequently find my own personal balance in life through connecting with old friends and making new ones. It’s through this process of grounding, reflection and support with others that gives me a healthy degree of fulfillment during all the challenges that we are facing. As an assistant nursing manager working on the adult psychiatric unit, it has been a challenging time and I am grateful for the strong work ethics my parents have instilled in me.    

I learned from a young age that working hard in everything you do was an expectation in the Japanese culture. My father worked many late nights and there would be days that I would not see him growing up. My parents taught me to be loyal and hardworking in any job position. We also moved to Japan from California when I was 12 years old to take care of my mother’s grandparents since she was an only child. In Japan, this was a cultural expectation to care for the elderly. So, I take great pride in caring for our geriatric patients on our unit.   

One healthy connection and sense of community that I feel is a big part of my heritage is food. When I spoke recently with my two sisters, I asked them both what it means to them to be Japanese and they both instantly responded, ‘Food!’ As I laughed, I began to realize how much food can be such a strong part of our cultural identity. It was this way in my home growing up that my mother spoke to us through amazing, consistent and delicious meals. My mother was a quiet person, and her love language was always making sure we had good food to eat. When traveling in Japan, you frequently will see the whole first floor of large department stores dedicated to clean, bright display counters called depachika’s housing an incredible array of beautifully prepared culinary delights. It’s truly a sight to see and taste. I highly recommend placing a trip to Japan on your bucket list.     

One of my humble dreams for the future is that I can help instill hope in our younger Asian generations. There will be obstacles and conflict, they have always been there and to some degree, they always will be. Yet I believe the art of success resides in finding a healthy perspective, acting in a positive direction and through kind persistence you can affect change for the better into your own future. I am hoping I can imprint these same values in to my three wonderful children. We all deserve a seat at the table of success, no matter what nationality you are, and I invite you to join us.

As an Assistant Nursing Manager working on the adult psychiatric unit at UW Medical Center – Northwest campus, it has been a challenging time and I am grateful for the strong work ethics my parents have instilled in me and the team who showed up daily.” 

Nancy Colobong Smith

Nancy Colobong Smith, MN, ARNP, CNN, UW Medical Center – Montlake  

“I have my elevator speech down. ‘I am born and raised in Seattle. My parents came to the U.S. individually as professionals, an accountant and a doctor, from the Philippines. They met in Seattle, married and started a family. I am an advanced practice nurse.’ I learned my elevator speech from my mother. I did not realize until I was older that it was our way of writing our own story, our identity, before other people did it for us. Before someone had a chance to make judgements about our speech, education or how we look.   

I have said ‘born and raised in Seattle’ so often as a way to fit in that at times I have been told, ‘I don’t see color when I talk to you.’ People think it is a compliment. Although they did not have malicious intent, the impact is the same. They appreciate the part of me that is assimilated. They don’t see the proud history of my hard-working family, my cultural values, my love of complex Asian flavored food, and the nuances that make me an individual.   

I used to try to prove to my Lola that I am still Filipina. I would tell her at least I still understand Tagalog, Bicol and Ilocano (Filipino dialects) although I cannot speak the language. At the same time, I had to prove to my classmates and colleagues that I can be more like them, more vocal and assertive. It is exhausting trying to be seen. In participating in the UW Medical Center Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, I am learning to find my voice and to appreciate all facets of my identity so that I can help others who are still trying to find their voice. My hope is that my mixed-raced, young adult children will be able to openly embrace all their identities and feel represented.                

I grew up in a multigenerational household. My parents were one of the first on both sides of the family to be established in the United States, so we were the support for immigrating Lolo and Lola (grandfather and grandmother), Titos and Titas (uncles and aunts) and cousins. Since I was born in Seattle, my Lola called me the American baby. When I went to school in a primarily Caucasian, Catholic school, I did not feel American. I just felt different. My parents could not help me with my U.S. history homework or know what snacks the other kids had in their lunches. When I decided to become a nurse, my extended family — who are primarily nurses, teachers and engineers — said, ‘You already live in the U.S., why become a nurse?’  

Healthcare has always been a passion for me. When I became a nephrology nurse, I realized that the diseases that most often lead to kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, run rampant in my family and community. Caring and advocating for kidney health feels like another way to advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion in our systems. Kidney disease is quiet, slow progressing and impacts approximately 1 in 10 people in the United States. When you look at who is at risk (people of color, people with chronic conditions, people of all ages), it is people like me. It would be great to have more representation in healthcare at all levels — at the bedside, in the clinics, in leadership. The communities we serve should be able to see themselves in the people who care for them.” 

Editor’s Note: Responses were lightly edited for length, clarity and style.