by May Sudhinaraset
Growing up in Long Beach, California, I was raised in a very Caucasian neighborhood. As a descendant of Thai/Chinese ethnicities, I felt very different from the other kids. There was the constant experience of having kids in my class make fun of my rather long, Thai last name (Sudhinaraset or “Soon-to-be-a-horse-head”); having parents that worked all the time; and not having my grandparents around because they lived in Thailand (“Bring your Grandparent to School” day was particularly hard). I was a quiet, reserved child, never really speaking up in class.
When I was 13 years old, my seventh-grade history teacher had us do a class project on family histories. She wanted each of us to produce one cloth piece with depictions of where we came from, with the idea that each of these pieces of square cloths would be interwoven into a class quilt. I felt nervous about doing this project, hyper-aware that my past was different from others.
This project, however, gave me a chance, at a relatively young age, to ask my mother about our family and to see how this story progressed through my mother’s eyes –it gave me a chance to understand the story of our family through my mother’s narrative and how each generation linked to the other. I learned that my Indonesian great-grandmother was living in China at the time of her death. Living as a second wife and faced with political persecution during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she had seven children before taking her own life. My grandmother migrated from China to Thailand at a young age, where my mother was born and raised and met my father while working with his family. My parents immigrated to Queens, New York when my mother was just 26 years old. Like many others, she moved to the US for better job opportunities, working for a number of years as a seamstress before settling in California and raising my three sisters and me. When I shared all of this with the other students, I was nervous –my story was unlike any one else’s in my class.
My story spanned four generations of strong, immigrant women, traversing four countries and two continents –following the ups and downs of migrant stories.
It was an important activity in my childhood. My teacher really appreciated the story; my classmates were interested and excited to hear more, including wanting to taste my family’s secret Hainanese chicken-and-rice recipe, which my mom brought to class to share with everyone. From that point on, I felt more understood and accepted. My classmates stopped making fun of my last name and started asking more questions about my unique heritage. I came to embrace my history and culture.
Looking back, I don’t think my 13-year old self realized how important it was to share my family story. I realize now how important it was, not only for myself, but for others in my class, including my teacher. Sharing stories-- whether through oral or written histories, photos, documentaries, or other means – can be a transformative process. Story-telling transcends past, present, and future, connects generations, helps us learn about our history to evolve and grow from past struggles, and helps us understand one another.
There are others who might have similar stories; or completely different stories. From an Asian-American perspective, I find that the stories and voices of Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) have been left out of political discourse. More than ever, given discussions surrounding immigration reform, LGBTQ issues, health reform, women and gender equality discussions –the voices of APIs are needed. The ultimate goal of the BRAVE Study (Bridging community, Raising API Voices for Health Equity) is to share stories and raise collective action to better address the health needs of undocumented APIs who qualify for DACA. Undocumented youth are oftentimes hidden in the shadows and face significant health and educational challenges.
I invite you to share your story. Participate in this blog, sign up for this research study, and engage in your community.
May Sudhinaraset is currently Assistant Professor in Global Health Sciences and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the Principal Investigator of the BRAVE Study and focuses on issues of global migration, health equity, and social determinants of health.