Why it’s important for me to be part of AAJA and in the company of Asian American journalists

Tak Toyoshima, creator of Secret Asian Man, and Jeff Yang, one of the editors of "Secret Identities," at the 2009 AAJA Convention in Boston.
Tak Toyoshima, creator of “Secret Asian Man,” and Jeff Yang, one of the editors of the recently-published book “Secret Identities,” sign copies at the 2009 AAJA Convention in Boston.

“Where are you from?” “So, where are YOU from?” “Hi, where’re you from?”

I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago, at a convention where everyone asked each other “Where are you from?” and no one got offended. It cracked me up, hearing the question over and over.

Let me explain, for my non-Asian readers: Just about every Asian American I know – seriously – has been asked this question sometime (or many times) in their life. It’s often preceded by a variation of the statement, “You speak English so well… where are you from?” And once we answer “California,” or “Denver,” it’s often followed by a variation of “No, you know what I mean, where were you born?” Which might be followed, after we answer “California” or “New York City,” by “No, where’s your FAMILY from?”

That’s when we can cut off the silliness and get to the point: “Are you asking what’s my ethnic heritage?”

I just don’t see European Americans having this conversation, unless they have, say, a British or French or German accent. People assume Asian Americans are foreigners even if we “speak English so well” because of the way we look.

Anyway, I heard the “where are you from?” question dozens of times and we all answered eagerly without getting defensive. It’s because the ones asking were also AAPI, and we really did want to know where each other was from. We were at the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, a non-profit professional organization that supports Asian Americans in the media.

And after spending several days in Boston with the AAJA, I have hope for journalism.

I feel rejuvenated because I was amidst 650 Asian American journalists who are as passionate as I am about news and media, and where we’re headed as an industry, and how to get there.

Not that we solved all the problems of our industry… and there were plenty of attendees who’d lost their jobs because of the current state of the economy. After all, it’s no secret that the media are in a precarious state these days, as a business.

Still, as keynote speaker, NBC News reporter John Yang said during his closing night speech, “the business of journalism is in trouble, but journalism is not.”

Despite the industry doldrums, the atmosphere among those attending was hopeful. The dedication of reporters, photographers and editors to the trade is inspirational, and to share this passion with other AAPIs is an empowering experience.

I had other reasons to attend the convention: I’m the president of the Denver AAJA group, and we applied for an extension of our provisional status because we’d been approved last year but need more time to get established. And, I was asked to moderate a panel on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) titled, “Copy Editing, Big Type and Search.”

The Denver chapter got its extension — we have another year to hold some events, add some new members and establish a presence before hopefully being granted full chapter status.

Why did we want to try this in Denver in the first place? The same reason it’s important for me to be a member of AAJA, and to attend the convention in Boston: to be a part of a larger community, to help other journalists who are like me in so many ways, to mentor students and younger journalists of color, to connect with and get to know people whose work I admire and respect, to network.

The organization was formed in 1981, and here are the four pillars of its mission:

1. To provide a means of association and support among Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists.
2. To provide encouragement, information, advice and scholarship assistance to Asian American and Pacific Islander students who aspire to professional journalism careers.
3. To provide to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community an awareness of news media and an understanding of how to gain fair access.
4. To research and point out when news media organizations stray from accuracy and fairness in the coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

These are important goals in Denver as well as nationally, and there are enough AAPI journalists in Denver now (there didn’t used to be, back when I started my meandering career as music editor at Westword in the early 1980s) that we can make a difference. We can mentor AAPI students in Colorado’s journalism programs. We can urge area media to hire more AAPIs. We can serve as a bridge between our many Asian communities to the mainstream media, and shine a light on our too-often-ignored populations. And, we can take a public stand when we see racism and stereotyping of anyone of color.

AAJA holds an annual convention, and every four years its convention is held in conjunction with three other ethnic journalism organizations, the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association, in a larger convention called Unity.

My first experience with AAJA’s empowering sense of community was at a Unity convention in Washington DC in 2004. Then I attended the AAJA convention in Minneapolis in 2005, and helped with the convention’s student website project. Erin and I both attended Unity last year in Chicago (a highlight was a visit by then-candidate Barack Obama), and I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it at all.

Each time I’ve attended a convention, I’ve come away inspired and rejuvenated, and want to share that feeling with others back home. I guess that’s why I’m working to establish the Denver chapter — and I believe Joe Nguyen, Denver’s Vice President (and main man behind AsiaXpress, Colorado’s source for AAPI news), feels the same after a few days in Boston.

We had great food (more seafood, especially clam chowder, than I usually have in a year). We attended most of the workshops on new media and multimedia — AAJA emphasized the Web and digital track as well as the state of the industry more than in the past. We also attended an interesting but sparsely-attended (it was early in the morning) plenary session, “Journalists in Jeopardy,” about reporters like Roxana Saberi and Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

Saberi, who once worked on an AAJA student newspaper during a convention, recorded this video for attendees:

And Laura Ling with her sister Lisa Ling thanked AAJA for the organization’s sustained support during her and Lee’s North Korean imprisonment:

I was honored to moderate the panel about Search Engine Optimization, which featured panelists Henry Furhmann, an Assistant Managing Editor at the Los Angeles Times, and Craig Silverstein, Director of Technology (the first employee hired by Google’s founders back in the day), who shared advice for news folk on how to maximize our headlines and articles for better placement in search engines, without giving away any of Google’s secrets.

There were networking opportunities galore, and Joe and I were lucky enough to run into Jeff Yang, who writes the “Asian Pop” columnist for SF Gate and author of several must-read books about Asian and Asian American pop culture, and Tak Toyoshima, the creator of the nationally syndicated Secret Asian Man comic strip.

The two were signing copies of “Secret Identities,” a terrific new book co-edited by Yang and partly drawn by Toyoshima. It’s a wonderful idea (separate blog post to come): a compilation of comics written and drawn by AAPIs that feature Asian American super heroes — something that sadly has never been part of the comic-book universe until now. I’ve been a fan of Yang for years, since he was editor f the long-gone “A Magazine,” and have met him several times. I’ve also been a fan of Toyoshima for years, and was happy to post weekly installments of “Secret Asian Man” on my old Nikkei View website every week, but I had never met the man in person.

The other highlights of my Boston sojourn included the Silent Auction where I bought Toyoshima’s cool illustration of Euna Lee and Laura Ling escaping the clutches of Kim Jong Il, and the final evening’s gala dinner with keynote speech by NBC’s John Yang (who took a dumb, old-fart jab at Twitter as not being useful for journalism).

The attendance was down from previous years mostly because of the downward slide of the news business — few companies if any are willing to pay to send employees to such convention in these tough times, and most of us have to think twice about paying for such a trip out of our own pockets. But the Boston organizers and national AAJA hoped for 700 attandees and they got almost that, so the convention was a success.

Next year’s convention will be held in Hollywood, and the LA chapter of AAJA already gave a preview with this video. I’m planning on going. Maybe I’ll see you there:

AAJA LA 2010 from WorldWise Productions on Vimeo.

For now, I have to prepare for tonight’s AAJA Denver mixer, where we hope to have a bunch of local members mingling with area journalism students. I’ll be sure to ask the students, “So, where are you from?”

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