Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Ft. Shafter
May 31, 2014
Remarks by Representative Beth Fukumoto Chang
130th Engineer Brigade, Ft. Shafter – Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance
Ft. Shafter, HI
May 29, 2014
I’m so honored to be here today to speak with all of you on such an important topic and to join others across the nation in observing Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Our nation draws its strength from a diversity of cultures and immigrant experiences that, when seen as a whole, form America’s unique history. As the great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants and Japanese immigrants, I’ve had the benefit of inheriting two very different cultures that have both, in their own ways, transformed our national narrative.
My story is just one of many varied perspectives on the Asian American experience, and my Japanese American heritage gives me insight into only one of many vibrant and distinct cultures that make up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
My story begins with my great grandparents who came to Hawaii from Japan, like many immigrants, in search of a better life for their children. But, life wasn’t easy, and like many immigrants and like many children of immigrants, my grandparents found that the American Dream wasn’t easy to achieve. My grandmother worked as a servant even in her childhood, and my grandfather spent years living out of a single room and working as a butcher. My grandparents worked hard to give their son, my father, the life that their parents’ wanted for them. To give him every opportunity to achieve more than they did.
Like many 2nd generation Asian Americans, they feared that their children wouldn’t understand or appreciate their Japanese culture. But following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, they needed to balance that fear with the threat that practicing their culture could endanger their family. Like many Japanese Americans in Hawaii during that time, my family underwent an almost forced Americanization in order to avoid internment.
These were the stories that have most informed my identity as a Japanese American.
When I was only 7 or 8 years old, I remember finding a beautiful Japanese ceramic doll in my grandma’s basement and asking about it. I don’t really even remember what I asked. I only remember the answer. I was told that when my Dad was very young, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor and that the people in power in America became afraid of all Japanese even though they were American.
Their fear led them to imprison thousands of Japanese Americans simply because they were Japanese. The Japanese in Hawaii were fortunate to not have been interned at the same rate as those living in the mainland United States. However, any tie to Japan or any remnant of Japanese culture could lead to an arrest and detainment at Sand Island or any one of the internment camps in Hawaii or on the mainland. So, my family destroyed nearly every Japanese object they had in their home and replaced them with American flags and other articles to signify their loyalty to the United States. They told me that they broke all the dolls, like the one I found, and buried them in the backyard.
As a child, the image of my family needing to destroy even dolls just to prove that they were Americans was indelible.
I was also told stories about heroic Japanese Americans, like the late Senator Dan Inouye and others who signed up to help the war effort against the Japanese and served through the Varsity Victory Volunteers, the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. These men fought to defend a country that was imprisoning, in some cases, their own relatives because they held on to the belief that America was about freedom and equality even when America’s leaders weren’t championing those values at home.
This is my heritage. I was born into a culture that was marked by an insistence that even when your own country loses sight of its values and takes away your rights, you fight to protect your country and its values anyway. It’s a culture marked by an insistence that prejudice and stereotypes can be overcome with courage, honor and a persistent loyalty to the ideals that make our country great.
When I began thinking about this speech and what I would say to all of you about how I’ve overcome stereotypes and exceeded expectations in my own life, I struggled to come up with any one instance that really stood out to me. As a 4th generation Japanese American in Hawaii, I haven’t experienced the same prejudices that my great grandparents, my grandparents or even my father faced.
I have had less to overcome because they overcame so much. And, I’ve been taught by their experiences and the experiences of other Japanese Americans that even when you face adversity you fight through it and looked past it without even stopping to think about it or dwell on it.
Because of the example that they set, I never felt held back by stereotypes or expectations of me as an Asian American. It’s not because they don’t exist. Prejudice is still a very real problem in our nation. But, I never factored that in to what I thought I could accomplish in my life.
Today, I’m the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. I’m also the first to hold political office. I was one of the youngest to hold the position of Director of Minority Research in the state House and one of the youngest to serve as Minority Floor Leader. I also had the honor to be named one of “9 Women Remaking the Right” and one of “40 under 40” political leaders by national news organizations.
During my first term, I had the opportunity to participate in the Hawaii House of Representative’s first governing coalition that included both Democrats and Republicans in leadership roles. I also co-founded the Hawaii Future Caucus, which is a bipartisan organization focusing on greater youth participation in government and working across party lines. My work with the caucus gave me the opportunity to get involved with and accept a fellowship from the Millennial Action Project, a national organization working toward post-partisan government reform.
These accomplishments weren’t, in my mind, the result of overcoming stereotypes. Perhaps some would say overcoming stereotypes was a by-product. But, in my life, I never set out to break stereotypes because I never felt held back them.
As I said, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because I grew up understanding that the same spirit that led members of the 442nd to fight for their country even when it wounded them deeply resided in me. And that my heritage is full of stories of brave individuals that looked beyond the blemishes of today toward a brighter future.
Thank you again for this opportunity to address all of you. And, thank you for your own brave service to our country and your selfless commitment to freedom. God bless you who serve and have served - and God bless our great country.