Finding yourself and your Cause

By Ellen Chen

My personal identity as an Asian American has always been a personal struggle for me but it disappeared when my efforts became concentrated on giving back to the community.

As an Asian American born in the city of Odessa, Texas (home of the Permian Panthers featured in Friday Night Lights), I was part of a newly immigrated family that came there to enter the restaurant business.  Knowing nothing about this industry, my grandparents, along with all their five children and my mother, settled into a new trailer park home from Taiwan.

I can’t say that I recall any poignant memories of racism but the fact that I was Asian American was always very clear. Mandarin was the only language spoken at home at the expense of my parents’ sacrifice of being fully immersed in English.

My family eventually moved to Irvine and the first day of high school was an eye opener for me.  I remember lunchtime approaching and asking a group of nice Caucasian girls to join them.  Even though they welcomed me into their group, I noticed after looking around that most ethnicities sat together in different parts of campus.  It was in high school where my mixture of friendships dwindled and slowly that carried over to college and shaped my connections after.  It wasn’t as though I purposely sought this out but it was a by-product of environmental influences.  I quickly lost my Texan accent and replaced “ya’ll” with “you guys.”

Moving to Southern California was a cultural shock.  It never prepared me for the diversity of Asian Americans so concentrated in a single area.  Before, the only Filipinos I encountered were the household caretakers in Taiwan.  New words were added to my vocabulary: Hmong, Samoan, Chiu Chow.  It wasn’t just the people but also the cuisines.  My taste buds were exposed to Thai, Indian, and Korean food.  I’ve had tofu before but never like the way it was prepared in soondubu or grilled meat in a meal like mouth-watering bbq.

As I encounter more and more people socially and professionally, within the first few minutes of conversation, I will more likely than not, be asked about my ethnicity.  Usually met with disbelief, I respond, “full Chinese,” not half of whatever they were thinking.  My parents are from Taiwan, grandparents from China and since apparently I look mixed.  I’ve actually gone through phases where I tried to dye my hair darker in hopes that I deter that question.  I realize they ask about ethnicity more than nationality since I clarify that I am not Taiwanese and I am not Chinese from the mainland nor from Hong Kong since there are clear distinctions from each, but regardless of what group I was categorized into, my heart always belonged to Asian American related causes.

My involvement with the API community arose when I decided that it was time for me to start community service again after college.  Having taken a break from organized activities, I found it an easy transition to join Asian Professional Exchange (APEX) as Chair of APEX Cares, the community service arm of the organization, because all my friends were already part of the board.  The strong bonds of friendship, consistent high quality of events, and reputation of this hardworking 100% volunteer based board added that much more value to joining.  Being from Orange County and since most events were located in Los Angeles, I made it an effort to go to almost every event through rush hour traffic in order to meet as many people as I could to increase not only my network but quickly learn how else I could help.  During this time, I was introduced to Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA) and I immediately was drawn to their youth education programs.  I believe a strong foundation while growing up makes all the difference.  Since I was from Orange County, I became Director for OC Programs to bring the APEX mission of networking, professional development and community service opportunities to this area.  I also became involved with the Orange County Chapter of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a national organization focused on empowering the API community.  Within a few short months, I assumed the position of President due to circumstances at hand.

Driven to outreach and expand, the amount of work I put in was returned in double for the experience. APEX gives me the leadership development, social interaction, personnel management skills that I wouldn’t be able to obtain elsewhere.  OCA provided a different perspective since it was a national organization.  I dedicated most of my free time and resources to non-profit work and thought the next step naturally would be taking on more as APEX Vice President of Orange County Operations.  However, an unexpected opportunity arose.  Nominations for Presidency were cast in September, which is a rare occurrence since elections normally are held later in the year.  Only given a couple of weeks’ notice, I had a big life decision to make for the next 2 years.  I didn’t feel I was as ready as I could be nor have enough experience to lead such an amazing group but my peers believed in me.  Up until the very last minute, I was torn: how would I tell my already supportive family that I would spend even more time on volunteering?  How would I manage to balance all my other obligations?  How would I find enough energy to concentrate on myself and my relationships?  I took a leap of faith and seized this open opportunity because everything happens for a reason.  I asked myself, if not now, when?  I was elected President by end of September and started my term immediately.  To this day, it still astonishes me how much has happened in two short years of meeting this group.  By the end of my term, my goal for APEX is to be a resource of information among the community and to collaborate amongst all the groups.

Constantly, I get asked what my source of motivation is to do all this, unpaid and with so much travel involved.  I believe that more of us can set good examples for others and give back to society in whatever way they feel meaningful.  If it’s time, then volunteer and have fun.  If it’s money, then donate but make sure you know how the money is going to be used.  My passion just happens to align with the Asian American community and with youth education.  I want to use my resources to connect and make a greater impact by collaboration.  My constant personal reminder in life is to be kind and of service to others.  What’s yours?