Jackie Bong Wright

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By Jackie Bong-Wright

A group of Asian Pacific American women has recently formed a Book Club in the Washington area. The Book Club is one of the many activities of the D.C. Chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women Forum (NAPAWF), an umbrella organization founded in 1996. NAPAWF is dedicated to forging a grassroots movement for social and economic justice and the political empowerment of Asian Pacific American women. NAPAWF has regional chapters in seven areas: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St Paul, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.


NAPAWF unites diverse communities through organizing, education, and advocacy, and works to connect state and local programs with a national vision of change. Members are working to articulate a progressive agenda in areas ranging from welfare reform and abortion rights to hate crimes and domestic violence. NAPAWF seeks to gain a voice to empower all Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) women. Its on-going work is described in a collection of Platform Papers on six issue areas, including civil rights, economic justice, educational access, ending violence against women, health, and immigrant and refugee rights.
In collaboration with Turning the Page and Politics and Prose, NAPAWF-DC’S education Committee has held numerous book-reading events with D.C. children and has donated sets of books to D.C. public schools from K-12, community centers, and literary organizations as a part of their “APA Books for DC Kids” book donation project. To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, NAPAWF-DC’s Education Committee launched a literary contest for APIA girls. The theme is “Raising the Voices of America’s APIA Girls: Self-expression Through the Written Word.” Committee members hope to encourage young girls to submit written works including poetry, haikus, and essays, and have a public reading some time in the near future.

Issues Discussed

NAPAWF-DC’s Book Club serves two purposes. The first is to identify, read, and discuss books worthy of donation to the libraries of DC public high schools as a means of enhancing and furthering its “APZ Books for DC Kids” book donation project. The second is to acquaint participants with the growing literature on the experience and history of Asian Americans and to raise awareness of issues important to NAPAWF-DC’s mission. A long-term goal is to have books written by and about APIA placed into mainstream curricula and reading lists of K-12.
Fiona Hsu, originally from Taiwan, has said that the NAPAWF-DC Education Committee, of which she is the Vice-Chair, wishes to raise enough funds to donate complete sets of novels to D.C. high schools that have asked for these books. Along with other book lovers, she was one of the Book Club pioneers, discussing issues raised in the works of some founding members. These included Warrior Lessons by Phoebe Eng, Asian American Dreams by Helen Zia, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and other books by Asian American authors.
Connie Chang, a Book Club founder and Chair of the Education Committee, sees the Book Club not only as a way to identify books of value to high school students, but also as a vehicle for learning more about the lives and experience of Asian Americans and for sharing personal histories. The potluck brunch meetings held the first Sunday of every month have allowed participants to exercise their voice as well deepen existing friendships and forge new ones. “It’s been a fantastic experience for us to be able to get together and talk about what matters to us on a deep level. The discussions we’ve had about what it means to a woman warrior and how to become one and growing up Asian American were stimulating. When we share our stories we both validate and add to our understanding of our lives as APIA women,” said Connie. To broaden their perspectives, she notes that members of the Book Club will intersperse reading books with viewing films and videos to find worthy material to donate to DC public high schools. The first video viewing will take place in June.
Ming Hsu, another Book Club member and a Harvard graduate, has been working for a non-profit organization in her area of interest. She mentioned race and gender as issues being tackled by feminist organizations, as well as voting rights, economic equality, language barriers, and domestic violence. Newcomers to this country, she noted, have to go through different emotional experiences to adjust and survive in a totally unfamiliar civic and legal system. Asian women have these and other challenges to overcome to reach their goals. The Book Club allows members to connect with their own experiences to books that deal with the most important issues facing Asian American women today.

Single or Dual Identity?

Aiko Joshi, born in Korea and raised in Japan, has been in the U.S. for the past 18 years. Now with the Department of Justice and a new Book Club participant, she sees “identity” as another important theme. Although she is an American citizen, she feels more comfortable identifying herself as Japanese or Korean. As a citizen, she said she has used her full American voting rights to voice her political opinions in favor of or against U.S. policies towards other countries, but culturally she relates more with Asia than America. Nevertheless, professionally, she says she is more comfortable working in a western environment ruled by law and enjoying freedom of expression.
Dara Stieplitz, on the contrary, said that she considered herself Asian American, not Laotian. She admits that she would feel lost if she had to go back to live in Laos, her country of origin. She was raised in Europe, received a French education, and traveled to different parts of the world. She said that she would be out of place back home speaking a language with which she is not familiar. Asked if she identifies herself as an American, she remarked that she identifies herself as an Asian American as a way of distinguishing herself from the rest of the population.
Kiran Ahuja, born in England, migrated to the U.S. when she was two. Returning to India, her homeland, at 24, she found that the elite, British-educated Indians she met regarded her as American. She is neither fluent in any of the Indian dialects, nor does she practice her family religion, Hinduism. She became acutely aware of the generation gap between older and younger people when family members back there worried about her marital status. She followed her own ambitions instead and selected a career she wanted to pursue. Raised in Savannah, Georgia, she finished her law degree at Spelman College, a historically black university. She identified herself as a person of color, and shares an apartment with Nancy, a Haitian American woman who hails from the same state. She likes to take part in APIA functions.

Emergence of an Asian American Identity

Ann Nguyen fled Vietnam when she was a child and settled among white Americans in Rhode Island. She speaks flawless English and saw herself as an American until she joined the Book Club and learned more about her roots and the history of Asian migration in the United States. It was an eye opener for her to learn that Helen Zia wrote in her book that a group of Filipinos settled in Louisiana in the 1700s, that the first Chinese was born in New York in 1825, and that Asian laborers were brought to the Americas to replace African slaves. When Ann learned more about Asian Americans’ demographics, tribulations, and achievements, she became more conscious of her “Asianness.”
Rebecca Wong, a young, active volunteer who sits on NAPAWF board, claims herself as Chinese American. But more often she calls herself Asian American, realizing the importance of unity with other Asian groups in the fight against ethnic, racial, generational, and class boundaries.
The issue of discrimination against Asian Americans has a long history, with laws that limited immigration to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. -DCSixty years ago, there were barely a half-million Asian Americans in the nation, making up less than 0.1 percent of the population, mostly living on the islands of Hawaii or in a few scattered Chinatowns across the mainland. Looking Asian meant for many looking foreign, alien, and un-American.
By the 1990s, the term “Asian American” came to define a more visible and resourceful grouping of 10 million Americans of Asian descent, making up 4 percent of the nation’s population. This awareness is a product of political mobilization, involvement, and a gradual social acceptance. In 1979, May 4-10 was proclaimed Asian American Heritage Week. In 1992, a public law recognized May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in perpetuity. This law is meant to celebrate and preserve Asian culture both at public and private events, and add to the historical mosaic of the nation.
The 2000 census showed that Asian Americans are a young population, with a median age of 31.2 years, four years younger than the general median population. Asian Americans are the fastest growing group in the country, constituting over six percent of college students. They have made remarkable progress in the work force, contributed a great deal to the country’s economic well-being, and have also sought elective office, winning over 300 elections in 1998. They have formed coalitions with Latino, black and native Americans in order to gain visibility and share experiences and commonalities. NAPAWF-DC Book Club members say they feel a common bond in their personal and historical experiences, and have learned a lot by discussing the unique issues raised in Asian books written by and about Asian Americans.