Our Cultural Heritage and Our Natural Heritage, as One
To commemorate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the staff of NRDC shares glimpses from their past that guide them in their work today.
My parents arrived in America in the bitter aftermath of the Korean War, carrying two suitcases, a hundred dollars, and a dog-eared postcard of a full moon shining down over San Francisco Bay. That gauzy image represented their picture-perfect American dream. A vision of uncommon optimism based on the vaunted ideals of equity and justice, a second-to-none standard of living, and a determination to leave their children a brighter, more hopeful world.
Those are ideals they passed down to me. And I to my young daughter.
To honor Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I invited my colleagues at NRDC to share experiences of how their upbringing and roots have shaped their environmental values and work today. I hope you enjoy their stories and that you will remember that whatever our backgrounds, we all have a right to clean air and water, open spaces, and public lands. And we have an obligation to be good stewards of this inheritance until we pass it on to our children.
Social Media Associate, Communications
My godmother was the living embodiment of the good food movement before I knew, or appreciated, what she was doing.
Before I learned about local food, I drank calamansi juice — squeezed from citrus she grew in her Florida backyard — mixed with honey and warmed on the stove. Who needs to buy vitamin C when you can get it from the tree?
Before I learned about sustainable seafood, we shared lunch in the Philippines. The crab we ate was freshly caught on the beach near her farm. We ate no more than we needed, and no less. Before I learned about the importance of knowing your food, from growing to cooking, she baked my older sister’s 18th-birthday cake from scratch. Coconut, as I remember — no added sugar necessary.
Simplicity and responsibility in food production are not uniquely Filipino ideas. But my godmother’s early lessons in how to eat have shaped my vision of where our food system could be. Though the exact way we access food may differ, it should still be as simple as walking out your back door to make the most of nature’s abundance.
Managing Editor, Communications
“We can’t wait to move back to America.”
This is what my parents — who emigrated from South Korea to Seattle in the 1970s before settling back in Seoul — often say to me. After so many years in a mega-metropolis, my parents cling to a memory of the country where I was born. In their picture of America, tall trees scrape forever-blue skies, crystal-clear rivers run wild, the crisp air begs to be breathed in, and majestic swaths of public lands remain untouched. To them, the United States is a place where all this is fiercely cherished and protected, a place different from Korea, which has, in the last half-century, catapulted itself into one of the world’s top economies — and joined the ranks of its most-polluted countries.
Having lived in cities like Seoul and New York all my life and never having worked in an environmental field until I joined NRDC, I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate my parents’ vision of America. Now I work to make sure those blue skies, lush trees, wild rivers, fresh air, and vast lands are still here for my parents to enjoy when they retire and return to the States. And for my baby daughter, I want to make sure that America continues to cherish and protect the environment so that she — and all children — can inherit a livable planet and do what immigrant families do: lead a better life than the generation before them.
Deputy Director, City Energy Project
I’m second-generation Chinese-American and fourth-generation Japanese-American. My parents are professional actors — the non-famous kind — and I think that has influenced me a lot. Against impossible odds at auditions and callbacks, they have stuck with their careers for decades, and they instilled in me the same tenacity and scrappiness. I grew up believing that with a lot of hard work and a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mentality, I could also achieve my dreams.
And my dream, in all honesty, was to work at NRDC. I’ve wanted to work on environmental issues ever since I was 10 years old, and I discovered NRDC in college. Luckily my parents also raised me to question and challenge the status quo. Because it is true: The traditional environmental movement is not very diverse, even though environmental issues touch everyone. That’s why for the last four years, while working on climate change and empowering cities, I’ve also been actively working within NRDC to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is complex and sensitive work, but it is incredibly meaningful to help make the organization I love even better.
Hye Sun Kim
Program Assistant, Midwest program
This June marks the 10-year anniversary that my family and I moved to the States from South Korea, our mother country.
I remember what my mom said after announcing the move. “Our American dream is that you and your siblings get a good education and succeed,” she said. “What’s yours?” The 14-year-old me was not thinking about my American dream. Instead, I felt relieved. In Korea, my siblings and I had to hide our English proficiency in fear of being ousted. We wouldn’t need to worry about that anymore. Instead, we’d live in a country that would be open to our differences and celebrate them, as in Canada where we once lived.
However, reality hit hard. While my siblings and I assimilated quickly, our parents, who aren’t fluent English speakers, did not — even in a largely Korean- and Asian-American community in California, and even before experiencing life under this current administration (while golfing, my dad was recently told to “go back to your country”).
While some may view 14-year-old me as naïve, I still have faith. Despite the ongoing systemic racism and the current division of our country, I believe in the potential of the United States. When I see solidarity in the streets, on social media, and even in the smallest personal instance — as when someone thanked me for bringing kimchi to the office — I have hope. We can prove 14-year-old me right. That’s my American dream.
Acting Director, Center for Policy Advocacy
On July 5, 1987, my parents, my sister, and I immigrated to Los Angeles’ Koreatown. My father had been reluctant to leave Korea, where he’d been a successful businessman, but the rest of my mother’s family had already settled in the States. It took only a year for my father to run back to Korea — he couldn’t adjust to the hardscrabble life expected of new immigrants. He’d burned through the family savings and left us a $50,000 debt. Meanwhile, my mother was working 12-hour days at a hair salon owned by an aunt. Eventually we were forced to move into my grandparents’ small one-bedroom apartment, where we scraped by with barely enough to eat.
As an ESL (English as a second language) kid with a funny name (Eung-ki), I resented being made fun of by other kids in grade school for not understanding a language I never asked to learn. On the streets of Koreatown, I was roughed up often — once with a gun to the back of my head, all for the few dollar bills and some quarters I would carry. I resented being told by my extended family members that I had no choice but to get straight A’s and become something I didn’t care to — but I tried anyway and entered a good university…before I quickly unraveled into an alcoholic and partygoer. After I cleaned up, I graduated with a political science degree.
My grandfather was critical of my choice of taking up a career in politics and advocacy, which he saw as something nebulous, risky, and not something Asians like us had any business getting involved in in America. It hurt to be rejected by my surrogate father figure. But it had the effect of finally freeing me from my sense of obligations of what I was supposed to be, so that I could become what I wanted to be.
I made a dedication then that I live to carry out every day: I will determine my own destiny, and I will create a world where everyone can determine their own, too. Working at NRDC helps me fight to create that world. A world where people — rich or poor, no matter the color of one’s skin — can live a healthy and purposeful life, and enjoy clean air and water and our natural surroundings.
Program Assistant, Land & Wildlife program
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month offers an opportunity to discover and celebrate the history of a diverse category of people who are largely dismissed and marginalized within the United States — to vocalize the strengths and stories of individuals outside of existing stereotypes.
My connection to the environment and what drew me to NRDC is not directly related to my identity as an Asian-American woman. However, my experiences as a woman of color have influenced and shaped my value system. And it is the parallels of the treatment of the environment and the treatment of marginalized groups and communities in our society that motivate me to continue to strive for justice and equity both within my work and beyond it.
Princeton in Asia Fellow, Environmental Law & Governance Project
I have lived in New York, Texas, Maryland, Illinois, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., and Beijing — in that order. Each time my family and I moved, the community outside of my home became more homogeneous. Each time, I learned just a little bit more about what it means to be different in America.
It wasn’t until I entered college that I learned how my cultural identity had shaped my worldview and realized how few great Asian American/Pacific Islander role models I knew. Now, as an Asian American woman working in environmental protection, it can be difficult to find people who share my background and experiences. But my time at NRDC has introduced me to great AAPI leaders who are fighting to protect our environment. I’ve gotten to meet and engage with strong Asian Americans of conviction, navigating tricky political landscapes to help ensure the health of our planet. These individuals have become my role models.
To me, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month means reflecting on and appreciating the Asian Americans who fought for our rights to become citizens, to own property, and to have a voice. Without these people, I would not have the opportunities I have today to vote, to be a U.S. citizen, and to fight to protect our environment.