The highlight of the day for many attending the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Festival this past weekend was hearing the winners of the eighth annual Asian American student essay contest read their essays, chosen for their exploration of what it means to be Asian American. Onstage at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, they shared stories that contest organizer Hsiu-Lan Chang says would otherwise go unheard.
Chang, who was born in Hong Kong after her parents fled Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War, moved to Brookline in 1996 to work as the director of global marketing at a financial management company. Eight years later she opened the FastFrame store in Washington Square and immersed herself in civic life.
In 2009, the Brookline Commission for Women named her Brookline Woman of the Year in recognition of her volunteer involvement in the Brookline Community Foundation, the Brookline Teen Center and other local organizations.
These past few years Chang, 72, has focused her efforts on the Brookline Asian American Family Network (BAAFN) which was formed to support Asian American students and their families. Twenty percent of Brookline’s public school students are Asian.
Chang tells Iris Adler that she was drawn to the organization when she heard the pain and struggle in many of the students’ essays.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Hsiu-Lan Chang: Seven years ago, I went to the annual Asian American student essay contest and it really opened my eyes, despite the fact that I was already in my mid-sixties. The students said things like, “I have another Asian classmate in my class and for six months my teacher has been calling each one of us the wrong name. She doesn’t learn my name because she doesn’t care about me.” I was very touched by what I heard.
Iris Adler: You have described hearing these essays as a wake-up call about the isolation, discrimination and desperation that too many Asian American students feel.
Chang: It really shook me up. I was a freshly minted American citizen, and acting as a fully accepted American citizen. And I’m thinking these kids are born here, and they don’t feel like they belong. They don’t feel that they’re completely accepted. What a terrible way to feel.
Adler: Some of the winning student essays are quite powerful. I’m thinking of Kayla Chen and her essay “Two Worlds.” She wrote that while she takes pride in being Asian American, on some days, “those mixed worlds shackle my legs and arms, lock me down in chains.” And that it’s hard “to live in a country where I both belong and don’t belong, where I am in danger, targeted because of my appearance.” How does writing and performing these essays help the students?
Chang: When you feel discrimination, when you feel undervalued, it’s important to be able to say it out loud, and for people to listen to it, and to share it among their peers because they can then support and encourage each other. It really helps when you feel that someone is listening. We’re very sensitive people. We don’t say much, but we feel just as much.
Adler: Can you say more about that?
Chang: There are so many proverbs in Asia about grinning and bearing it. We don’t want to create trouble. We don’t speak up for ourselves. We are not good activists. The students are misunderstood because of the model minority myth, which basically says Asians are hard working. They’re going to be good students. They’re going to be fine.
Adler: Of course, it must have been difficult during the pandemic when the incidence of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes skyrocketed. (According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, in 2020 anti-Asian hate crimes in Boston jumped 133%, while total hate crimes were down 14%.)
Chang: It gets really scary. Real, physical violence that results from anti-Asian racism. And it spreads. It may not be local violence, but it spreads.
Adler: You also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy books by Asian American authors for Brookline High School. Why did you do this?
Chang: There is a dearth of books by Asian American authors or Asian authors in the Brookline school system. Last year, a group of Asian students met with school administrators and teachers and one student, a graduating senior, said she hadn’t read a single book with an Asian character as part of the English curriculum at BHS.
Adler: So this alarmed you, and you encouraged students to create a list of books that they wanted for the school library. They came back with a list of 72 books.
Chang: The first thought I had was, oh, I can go buy them at Brookline Booksmith. Then I thought, no, this should not be a one-off. I wanted to establish a policy so that books by Asian authors would continue to be purchased as they came out. So I said, I think we should do a GoFundMe campaign.
Adler:. How much did you raise?
Chang: $10,850. We bought 400 books from over 200 authors. The goal was not to spend the entire amount in one shot, because we wanted to make sure future books would be bought too. We gave the remaining funds to Brookline High, where the librarians can draw on the money to buy more books and also invite Asian American authors.
Adler: At this stage of your life, post career, you are deeply involved with Brookline’s Asian American students and witnessing their struggles. How has this work affected you?
Chang: Everywhere I went, every country I lived in, I felt accepted, I felt valued. And it was only after I met these students and really started reading up on the history of Asians — or the lack of Asian history — that I realized, for the first time in my life, I feel racism, that the world puts people in different baskets, labels them, and generalizes about them. It’s damaging.
Adler: Do you believe that your efforts to help students create what you call “a symphony against erasure and invisibility” has made a difference?
Chang: Three to four years ago there was a lot of struggle with racism, with feeling mistreated and misunderstood. This year the students seem more balanced, healthier. They’re more outspoken. There are issues, but I feel that they’re stronger and that’s really nice to see. To see that progress over the last several years is really satisfying. But that’s fragile, you know. That’s fragile.
The Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Day was presented by the Brookline Asian American Family Network (BAAFN), in partnership with the Public Schools of Brookline, the Brookline Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations and the Brookline Public Library.