Activist explains challenge of being Asian-American

By Byron Patten - Staff Reporter

You need to know your history to be able to take action, an activist said here last week.

"Activism starts with knowledge and a passion," Vanessa Na said as part of Unity Week on Thursday. 

Unity Week is an annual celebration and exploration of diversity and contemporary social justice issues. This year's events delve into the diversity of the South King County area. 

In the event "#NotYourWedge: Asian American Student Activism and Transformational Resistance," Na, who is director of  the Institute of Transformation and Society, discussed the history of Asian-Americans and the unique challenges they face. 

"Vincent Jen Chin, an Asian-American, was bludgeoned to death a week before his wedding by two white men," said Na. "The men were given three years probation and a $3,000 fine. One still lives on free and happy today." 

Na paused for a moment to self reflect. 

"Apparently Asian-American lives are only worth $3,000," Na said.

Chin's death served as the basis for Na's activism. 

"It is events like this that make our history; we only ever know of one story of our history," said Na. "Stories redefine what we learn in history books and give life to resistance."  

Na told the story of her family and the resistance that it sparked in herself. 

"My family had no choice but to abandon their lives in Cambodia. In many ways, America was treated as a safe haven, I don't deny that either," Na said. "But it was trading genocide for cultural genocide." 

During the Cambodian civil war from 1967-1975, thousands of civilians were displaced across the world, including Na's family. 

"After arriving, my mother, only a child, was discriminated for her culture and race," Na said. "Because of this, I never got to be Cambodian."

Na focused on her first name, Vanessa, given to her by her mother. 

"She chose the whitest name she could think of because she was ashamed," Na said. "I don't blame her for this, she was scared into thinking this way." 

Besides her name, Na said she didn't connect with any aspects of her Cambodian culture as a child and felt insecure. 

"It has only been the past few years that I have begun to respect my history and past," Na said. "I went to Cambodia to learn the language and culture. I think there is a lot of intimacy in knowing your native language." 

The session paused as Na asked the audience to stand up and read the walls. On each side, there was a timeline detailing some of the important events in Asian-American history. 

"I would like you all to connect with your history and see some of the stories out there," Na said. 

Events ranged from as early as 1956 to the present. According to one card from February 2018, "16 Asian-Americans competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea."

When Na invited the audience back, she was focused on activism. 

"Justice can't depend on corporate America to help us, but their social media platforms, like Twitter, provide us a way to connect," Na said. "With hashtags, we can help folks see the discourse and start a conversation."

Na concluded by discussing the different forms of activism. 

"Activism isn't just being loud. It is passion, thinking critically, building communities and raising awareness," Na said.

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