A Bridge To Create a Welcoming Space

by Sum-Yu Chiu, AVP of Financial Planning and Accounting

Four-year-old Sum-Yu (middle) with aunts in Hong Kong

I was born in Hong Kong. My family and I moved to the east side of Seattle, Washington when I was about to start 10th grade. I spent my next seven years living in a predominately white neighborhood. I vividly remember my first day of school, waving goodbye to my parents with tears rolling down my cheeks as I boarded the school bus. I wasn’t crying because I was afraid; I was crying because that morning my father was heading back to Hong Kong on business and I wouldn’t see him for at least a month. As I boarded the school bus, a couple girls pointed at me and laughed. They may have laughed because I looked different or because I was crying. I didn’t know and didn’t care.

At my neighborhood high school, I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. I was interested in what they did and eager to be a part of it. At the same time, I recognized that I also had something to bring to the table. I took a leap in my senior year of high school and signed up to join the school leadership team. No one really knew me, and the kids who were in the leadership group were either team captain of something or cheerleaders. They only knew one thing about me: I got straight A’s. So what was my edge to get in? The school was beginning to see a small rise in foreign students’ enrollment (probably because we were in the neighborhood where Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony were located), so I told the leadership teacher that I wanted to organize multi-cultural events to bring more diversity awareness to the school.

Sum-Yu (second from left) with parents, daughters, and sister

I organized a couple of events, including a Lunar New Year celebration. I also created a space for incoming foreign students to feel welcomed. I had no idea the impact I made by simply bringing my Asian heritage and values to the table until the school’s year-end assembly. I sat at the top bench of the gym with my friends watching others accept various awards from the principal. The final award was the annual leadership award, typically given to the school president or vice president. This year was different. They called my name and I had to walk all the way down to the gym floor without tripping over the benches. My heart was racing. Had I known, I would have saved myself the embarrassment and sat closer to the podium! But how could I have expected it? Me, a foreign student!

With that experience under my belt, I continued to be bold throughout my college years. I was determined not to let anyone make assumptions about me just because I am Chinese. I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Washington getting a double degree in math and economics. Everyone I knew of Asian descent studied computer science, some form of engineering, or business administration. I joined the Economics Student Board and hung out with American students all the time. My Asian friends kept to their Asian student circles. I never quite understood. There was so much more I wanted to discover about this country, and I never saw myself being different than anyone around me.

Sum-Yu on a hike with her family at Yosemite

I operated the same way post-undergraduate and went on for a doctorate degree in economics in Madison, Wisconsin. My Asian friends went into the workforce — a lot of them at Microsoft — and they thought I was strange for pursuing a different path. During my time in Wisconsin, I observed the same phenomenon I saw in college. The graduate class had 20 or so students. Three or four came from China (they were much older than me, in their 30s), and they stayed in their own circle.

When I began working at the Bank, for some time people thought I was born and raised in this country. I actually began to judge myself: Am I losing my identity? Well, not entirely. My accent comes out when I get nervous, I hold the same values and beliefs I have all my life; and when I can’t spell, I tell people English is not my first language! But I did feel a bit disconnected from my Asian culture in the workplace, so I joined the InspirAsian Employee Resource Group (ERG). Looking back on high school and college, with my preparations over the years since moving to this country, I now believe I have the best of both cultures in me! This felt like a superpower to me, and I knew I could make a difference in the ERG. My key message: As Asians, we are the only ones who can tell people what they don’t know about us.

This message is more important than ever. The recent attacks on the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community affected me in ways that I never expected. At first, I didn’t think much about it, nor did I want to talk about it. Then I went through a series of emotions, from disappointment to fear. I’m afraid for my daughter when I drop her off at school, simply because we look different. It is a sick feeling to have. I thought I belonged, but I began wondering if that was true. Should I lock my family up from the outside world to protect them? Should I stay quiet and look the other way? Was I wrong to believe that having the best of both cultures was a superpower?

Sum-Yu and her older daughter at Fun Run for education

These reactions can’t be the answer. We have to believe our actions will make an impact in this world, otherwise all hope is lost. And so I continue to be active in my circles. My older daughter, Emma, and I recently joined the National Charity League Pleasanton Chapter, a mother-daughter philanthropy group committed to community service, leadership development, and cultural experiences. We attended our first League event online a couple of weeks ago. As I scanned through the hundred or so Zoom boxes, I spotted three or four families who looked like us. It occurred to me that the only way to make a change is to continue to stay involved, just like I have all my life. We need to be a part of this community; to be the bridge that creates a welcoming space for others. Only then will we be able to tell people what they don’t know about us.

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