We asked Asian American leaders to share a note to their younger selves about moments that have defined their lives and lessons learned from them. Read on for Advancing Justice | AAJC board member Jeffrey Hsi’s reflections.
Dear Young Jeff,
Your life growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan is idyllic in many ways. You are buffered from much of the tumult of the day; war, racial tensions, global economic change (not in a good way for the US), socioeconomic stratification. You don’t see yourself as an Asian American, as much as an American. After all, there are only a handful of Asian American families in town, and all of three other Asian American classmates in your entire grade. You don’t even see it as assimilation, it’s just you being you.
In Grade 5, school desegregation arrives, and you are now living it. You are bussed crosstown to a school that seems like a foreign land. You are confronted by groups of white kids, and by groups of black kids. Each is asking you if you are “black or white” in a tone that screams “You’re either with us or against us.” You reply “Neither, I’m in between”, which you think is quite a clever reply on the fly (and I don’t disagree) to extract yourself from the moment. But you know, and I know you know, that your answer was the quick, diplomatic, and pragmatic option rather than actually seeing yourself as Asian American. But this becomes an important catalyst in your search for “What and who am I?”
You think a lot about race relations, socioeconomic issues, and of people of differing races, religions, gender, economic status; we now have a term for all that, “diversity”, which also now includes sexual orientation. (Yeah, you’ll learn more about sex later). But you don’t discuss any of those topics with anyone. Just thoughts in your head. I’m happy to report that your thinking is very insightful actually, and quite thought provoking (no pun intended). But to you it’s still a world apart in a way, like something you see on the TV news rather than your life.
You continue on in Kalamazoo as a model student and citizen. You are particularly taken by U.S. history and the U.S. Constitution. I can’t tell you why honestly. You are cool, even-keeled, analytical. A really good kid. In fact, it might not hurt you to loosen up a bit. On second thought, maybe not. It’s those attributes that likely make that girl Amy at the high school across town so compelling to you. She’s bright, bubbly, vivacious, and impetuous. Actually, after seven years of dating and decades of marriage, I can tell you that your attributes were in fact why she finds you so compelling. (I know, I still can’t believe it either).
You continue in graduate school in chemistry in Ann Arbor, and believe me, it’s a sign that 99% of what you read then is in the field of chemistry, but the two other books you read are the autobiography of football coach Bo Schembechler and Archibald Cox’s “The Court and the Constitution”. Again, I can’t tell you why honestly. You get your dream job as a medicinal chemist (proudly following in your father’s footsteps), but then decide you need to go to law school and become a lawyer. You wonder whether Rutgers Law is the right school for you (is it too public interest, not corporate enough?), but you fatefully determine that it is, and it is one of the most life changing decisions you will make. You run headlong into race relations, socioeconomic issues, and encounter people of differing races, religions, gender, ethnicities, work experience, sexual orientation, geographic origin. It is, in a word, diversity. You begin to find your voice.
Up to this point, as far as your Asian identity and the idea of a just and inclusive society go, you have lots of thoughts and questions about them, but it’s all just a whirlwind of thinking trapped inside your head. You can’t process it all let alone figure out what to do about it, or how to participate.
That’s all okay. Please know that your thoughts and questions are the critical foundation of your identity and your views of the world. With that foundation and your perspectives (which you will come to learn are way broader than you appreciate), you will continually evolve your thinking about, and more importantly, find multiple ways in which to deploy your time and treasure to become an active participant in addressing issues around voting rights, immigration, socioeconomic issues, and diversity, all aimed toward a more just and inclusive society. You will be surprised to learn what you will do.
That said, you should know that there is both progress, and not, in the issues you are thinking about. While we have made great strides toward a more just and inclusive society in some respects, in others, the same issues of your time (or before) relating to discrimination, exclusion, and societal stratification remain, or have gone quiet only to reappear again.
Furthermore, even established societal norms, policies, and governing bodies are under challenge via deliberate appropriation of the democratic institutions that guide our society. This is not to say that any one side is right, any one side is wrong, or that there is a side in between (sound familiar?). Rather this is to say that dialogue and thoughtful consideration of all perspectives is the way forward.
There is still much to do. Keep going, continue finding your voice, and endeavor to do more. We’ll both be surprised and fascinated to see how our perspectives evolve and how we find more ways to contribute to creating that more just and inclusive society you’ve been thinking about.
Your Older Self