‘Celebration and solidarity’— Panel to discuss AAPI heritage
- Published: May 14, 2021
As the country moves through the 14th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also moves through Asian-American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, Heritage Month. By any good logic, these two disparate marks on the proverbial calendar shouldn’t be connected — and yet the rise of anti-Asian bias and violence connected to the coronavirus in the U.S. belies that logic.
At home in Yellow Springs, as elsewhere in the country, community members of AAPI heritage are making plans to use this month as a bolster to speak out against racism — but also to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of culture that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders living in Yellow Springs bring to their village.
To that end, an online panel discussion hosted by the YS Community Library, “Being AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) in America,” is set for Tuesday, May 18, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., via Zoom. The panel will feature eight villagers of AAPI heritage: Angie Hsu, Migiwa Orimo, Kurt Miyazaki, Melody Kingsley, Sumi Chong, Maria Booth, Emmanuel Trillana and Olivia Brintlinger-Conn, and will be facilitated by Nacim Sajabi.
“Hopefully we can address some of the Asian hate that’s spreading in the country right now,” said Melody Kingsley, one of the panelists. “I think right now the spotlight is on Asian people, and I’ll take it — talking about it is important.”
Kingsley noted that, although instances of anti-Asian bias are increasingly in the public eye these days, they’ve always been a reality for those of AAPI heritage living in America. Born in Tachikawa, Tokyo, Kingsley moved to the U.S. with her Japanese mother and white American father when she was a toddler. She spent her formative years in Piedmont, a small city of around 5,000 people in Alabama — a place where, she said, “everyone knew who [they] were.”
“There was a lot of racism — I left as soon as I could,” she said.
Though often ostracized in Piedmont, Kingsley said her family always cultivated a strong connection to her birthplace. Her family would visit Asian markets along Buford Highway near Atlanta, Ga., to stock up on groceries and other items they couldn’t get in Piedmont. Her maternal aunt would often send the family care packages from Japan, and her maternal grandmother lived with Kingsley’s family in Piedmont for several months out of every year.
“My grandmother lived in an apartment next door to my aunt — and I think sometimes my aunt needed a break from her mom!” Kingsley said with a laugh.
Kingsley also lived in Japan for a short time — she got married in Tokyo, and lived in Sasebo, Japan for a brief period while her (now former) spouse was stationed there in the U.S. Navy. She eventually returned to the U.S. and moved to the village about a decade ago. A few years later her mother, Kimiko, followed, and moved in next door to Kingsley and her three children, Kirby, Reili and Kai.
“Now I kind of know how my aunt felt — but in Japan, you don’t send your elderly to a nursing home if you can help it,” she said.
Kingsley said she rented the house for her mother from Migiwa Orimo — also from Japan and a panelist at the upcoming discussion — who had originally bought the house for her own late mother. Orimo, in turn, introduced Kingsley’s family to the small community of Japanese-American villagers living in Yellow Springs. Practicing traditions like Japanese New Year with others, she said, emboldened her to continue to strengthen her family’s connection to their shared heritage.
“At home, we practice Japanese customs and eat Japanese food, and I really encourage [my kids] to embrace that one-fourth of who they are,” she said.
She added that a person’s connection to their cultural heritage is deeply personal, noting that one of her children has questioned whether or not they feel comfortable claiming that legacy.
“I said, ‘You don’t have to claim to be an authority on everything Japanese, but it’s part of who you are, and you can celebrate that if you want to,’” Kingsley said.
Another panelist, Olivia Brintlinger-Conn, has her own unique take on cultural connection. Born in China and adopted by American parents — villagers Angela Brintlinger and Steve Conn — she considers herself culturally American.
“I don’t have any direct relatives from China, and my immediate family is Caucasian,” she said. “I don’t really relate to Chinese culture too much.”
She added: “My parents tried to get me to learn Chinese as an elementary school student, but I just wanted to go play outside with my friends.”
Now finishing up her undergraduate degree in international studies and classical near eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, Brintlinger-Conn said that she has some interest in delving deeper into the language and culture of her birth country — in the future.
“Maybe once I’m 65 and retired I’ll do that in my spare time, but it’s not a big priority for me right now,” she said.
Growing up in Yellow Springs, Brintlinger-
Conn said, it was difficult to find the motivation to connect to a culture she didn’t see reflected in her family or the wider community. By the same token, she said, she’s also had difficulty relating to her family when it comes to experiences that are unique to Asian-Americans. She related a conversation she had with a family member about her fear of experiencing violence after recent news stories of attacks on Asian women.
“He told me I was being a little bit irrational — which is partly true, as it’s unlikely to happen — but I said I don’t think he can completely understand, because as a white man, it’s not a fear that affects him,” she said.
“But I think my family and friends want to understand — they want to have that conversation,” she added.
Brintlinger-Conn said she has experienced racism — both in Yellow Springs and elsewhere — but that, in her experience, anti-Asian bias in particular often isn’t part of the larger conversation around racism in the U.S.
“I think when people are talking about racism and bias, they don’t always acknowledge that it happens to Asians,” she said.
Panelist Angie Hsu echoed this sentiment, saying that the U.S. still struggles to talk about discrimination and bias as it applies specifically to those of AAPI heritage.
“There’s not always a receptiveness to taking it seriously — there’s been an assumption that there might be [anti-Asian] racism, but at least nobody gets hurt,” she said. “But that isn’t true, and the national conversation around [violence] hasn’t happened until now.”
Hsu has lived in the village for three years with her partner, Matan Mazursky. After living in Colorado, she said, she and Mazursky traveled around the country for several months looking for a new home, and were ultimately recruited to move to the village by friends who made the case for Yellow Springs as the perfect home — via PowerPoint presentation.
She laughed, saying: “Sometimes I think our whole identity is that we’re the people who were convinced to move here by a PowerPoint!”
Part of the draw for Hsu was the village’s vibrant pottery community, as she herself is a potter. Before dedicating herself solely to her artistic work, however, Hsu spent a decade in nonprofit work, including social justice and advocacy work. Hsu traced a through-line from her heritage — all four of her grandparents fled China under Mao’s communist rule to Taiwan, and her parents came to the U.S. as young adults — to her interest in that work.
“I grew up in Colorado in a predominantly white, homogenous community, and that affected my sense of identity, and by the time I was in middle and high school, I was speaking out in places where diversity and identity were a conversation topic,” she said. “So for me, that’s always meant an interest and active intention in connecting with my cultural heritage, and that meant that I was interested in social justice and advocacy work.”
Much of her work, she said, was with immigrants, refugees and migrant workers, and her passion for learning about her own culture was transmuted into learning more about the cultures of those with whom she worked. She pursued that learning, she said, through the lens of her own identity.
“I wanted to learn about what these people are going through in America from a new perspective — not as a child or grandchild of Chinese and Taiwanese people, but as an Asian American who is curious about what it means to come to America as an immigrant today,” she said.
Hsu herself spent seven years as an immigrant in Tel Aviv with Mazursky, who is Israeli, in her early twenties. That experience informed her work as well — living in a place where she didn’t speak the language and where she was “very visibly the ‘other.’”
Hsu said that the diversity of her experience as an Asian American is reflected in the lives of the other panelists who will participate in the upcoming discussion. She noted that — just as this news story can’t cover the lives of all eight panelists in its limited space — the panel itself isn’t and shouldn’t be considered representative of the experience of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as a whole.
“One of the defining aspects of this term, Asian American Pacific Islander, is the huge geographic region and massive diversity in terms of cultures, languages, countries and religious practices,” she said. “So I think a lot of us are just thinking about it as an opportunity to start having more conversations and see where it goes.”
She also noted that the panel discussion will mark one of the first times in recent Yellow Springs history when such a public discussion has been tackled. Brintlinger-Conn said this fact originally made her a little hesitant to participate in the discussion, as she was nervous to put her own opinions and experiences into the public sphere.
“But it’s an important topic — one that affects me personally — and I think spreading awareness will greatly benefit the community,” she said.
Kingsley added that she often notes the differences between the small Alabama town in which she grew up and the small Ohio town where she’s built her life. While acknowledging that no town — including the village — is perfect when it comes to racism and bias, she said she has always felt free to have these kinds of conversations with her friends and neighbors here in a way that she didn’t growing up in Piedmont.
“People don’t really care what your ethnic background is here because everyone has a unique heritage — everyone has a neat story and they’re willing to listen to yours,” she said.
Listening, Hsu agreed — and hopefully learning — is the main agenda that she forecasts for the upcoming panel discussion. While the last couple of months, she said, have brought with them a host of negative emotions, she sees the panel — as well as the accompanying installations at the library, which feature banners with messages of solidarity with villagers of AAPI heritage and a display of artifacts and family heirlooms donated by the panelists — as a way to connect with and celebrate the diversity of AAPI culture in the village.
“I’m really excited to hear the other panelists speak, and make space for listening to each other,” she said. “There are protests and passion, but there is also celebration and solidarity — and this is a wonderful way to celebrate together.”
“Being AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) in America” will be held Tuesday, May 18, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., via Zoom. To register and receive a link to the virtual panel, visit tinyurl.com/v383n5rt.
On display this month at the library are two installations: “Stop Asian Hate!,” a collection of banners created by local students Gini Meekin and Juliana Torres with Migiwa Orimo, may be viewed in the library’s young adult section. “Our History, Our Heritage,” which features a variety of pieces on loan from community members of AAPI heritage, is on display in the library’s Xenia Avenue entrance, and may also be viewed online at tinyurl.com/zn66hxsc.