Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Young people take over Chinese American Council of Colorado’s annual fuddy-duddy fundraiser, talk about identity
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Young people take over Chinese American Council of Colorado’s annual fuddy-duddy fundraiser, talk about identity

The Chinese American Council of Colorado usually hosts an annual year-end banquet in December, at which the umbrella organization notes the accomplishments of its many subsidiary community groups and projects, from the Chinese Language School to the annual Double 10 Celebration (to mark the founding of the Republic of China, currently in Taiwan), and recruiting volunteers for the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival to hosting free health screenings for the community. They even sponsor the Rocky Mountain Chinese Society of Science and Engineering.

The CACC’s year-end banquet usually is held at Palace Seafood restaurant, the place where 90% of Asian community banquets are held, and they’re usually the typical, staid events where everyone gets dressed up and claps politely at the awards and speeches.

Last year’s CACC banquet raised the issue of inspiring the next generation of leaders, and the organizations has taken that advice to heart.

This weekend, the CACC eschewed the usual banquet format for a more informal afternoon event at a ballroom at the Colorado Free University in the old Lowry Air Force Base complex, with food donated by several local Chinese restaurants. And instead of a stuffy affair run by the grownups, the event was organized and hosted by the Chinese Youth Foundation, highlighted by a pretty interesting panel of young Chinese Americans speaking out about their often conflicted identities.

Given the energy but the inexperience of youth, the event was a bit ragtag and disorganized, especially at the beginning. And for an old fart Asian American like me, there
were a couple of inexplicable lapses: No tea served (no soda or alcohol either, just water out of two-gallon jugs) and… no chopsticks! OK, so maybe chopsticks are old-school, but most of the audience was as old-school as me, or older, and it just feels wrong to be eating Chinese food — even though it’s American Chinese food — and California rolls with plastic forks.

The silent auction remained from the old-school days, though the offerings were a bit thin (my opinion). I bid the minimum for a gift certificate at Truong An gifts on South Federal’s Asian district, so I know where I’ll go for my stocking stuffers. But there wasn’t much else that I felt compelled to try for. I did pay $5 for an extra handful of raffle tickets, but didn’t win anything there. Still, it’s all for a good cause….

The program included a standard-issue speech by CACC president Gwen Young about the many projects sponsored by the group during the year, and community awards to CACC leaders Tai Dan Hsu and Nai Li Yee.

Next up were performances that showcased the range of cultural riches sponsored under the CACC umbrella: Adorable little kids from the Denver Montclair International School dancing and singing traditional Chinese folksongs; a pair of older guys showing off their hip-hop dance chops; several pre-teens living the model minority stereotype of classical music phenoms; and a talented young woman, Elva He, singing Chinese pop songs.

But the highlight for me was the panel of eight young Chinese Americans, speaking about their identity. It was a diverse group, including mixed-race Chinese, ABCs (American Born Chinese) as well as Chinese born in Taiwan or mainland China. Most attended public schools in the U.S. but one attended a private school. Some were Buddhist, some Christian. One, Joe Jefferson, grew up in a family that runs a popular American Chinese restaurant on South Broadway, Twin Dragon, that I used to love 25 years ago. One works in politics. One has been radicalized by Asian American Studies courses in college.

But there were several very consistent themes that emerged from this very diverse group:

Whether they’re born overseas or they’re ABC, they consider themselves to have access to “the best of both worlds.” Almost all of the panelists mentioned this phrase.

But the flipside of this duality is they don’t feel they always belong in either camp. They’ve faced the sting of racism and being outcast in the US, yet when they visit China or Taiwan, they get the “you’re not from around here” treatment, even without saying a word. This stressful struggle between cultures is familiar to all Asian Americans, I think. I’ve certainly felt the same both here and in Japan.

Most of the panelists noted communication between the generations is an issue, and there are certain taboo topics that simply aren’t discussed in their families because of cuktural restrictions: Sex and drugs, for instance.

And one sparked the conversation about the elephant in the room: Parental expectations. “So much emphasis is placed on excelling academically, but then what?” a panelist asked. “There’s no support for career life choices.”

Actually there is support, so long as the choices are being a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant. It’s a running joke about Asian parents, but it’s obviously not that funny for young Chinese Americans. One young man eloquently asked the older immigrant Chinese in the audience to consider not just those proscribed fields for their kids’ careers, but “know what your kids like to do, and help them achieve that.”

All the panelists nodded in agreement at that.

Several mentioned that because their parents are immigrants and don’t speak English fluently, they weren’t available to help their children do their homework and study in American schools. So whatever academic excellence they accomplished, they did it on their own, with their parents silently expecting the straight A’s without helping out.

Because traditional Asian cultural values don’t promote the outward show of emotion (which can hurt these kids when they enter the workforce, and get stereotyped as “inscrutable”), one panelist said, “If we’re angry or sad, we can’t talk to our parents.”

One speaker mentioned it would be nice for the parents in the room to say “thank you” to their kids or to commend them for good work, to help them feel proud once in a while. Some of the comments reminded me, sadly of the experience of “The Biggest Loser” finalist Ada Wong, who was raised in an unloving, unsupportive and even abusive Chinese family. When she finally confronted her parents on the show, her parents said they didn’t even know she was unhappy. I think the young people on the CACC panel would know exactly how Wong felt.

In the end, the panelists suggested that one way the CACC can help is to sponsor “Parenting Workshops” to help first-generation Chinese parents accept American cultural values at the same time that they continue to treasure their traditional heritage with their children.

The hope, said one grateful parent, pointing to his 9-year-old music prodigy kid, is that he’ll be a better parent to the next generation ABCs.

The event closed with a well-done video of local young Chinese Americans talking about their identity on camera (shown above).

I expect that next year’s CACC year-end fundraiser will have a whole new batch of accomplishment to cheer, and they’ll be about empowering the youth of the community. It feels like an important step was taken in that direction this weekend.

Young Chinese Americans speak frankly on panel about their sense of identity as both Chinese and American