Being Token PI in AAPI Spaces

As I write this, I find myself still processing my thoughts …

The Seattle gloom cast over the landscape view of the highway roads and office buildings while tones of gray colored the afternoon skies. Beyond the modern industrial towers and even further past the Seattle Space Needle, stood the Ocean.

I swiveled gently in the office chair, looking out from the twenty first floor of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the horizon line where the somber tones of gray stained the deep blue hue of the Pacific. It was in that moment where I realized that on the other side of the Seattle shore — across the chasm of life underwater — lived a cool air breeze that flowed through the islands of my ancestors.

This Kingdom that embodies my intrigue for cultural heritage sat 6,540 miles away from the large conference room that I, along with a sea of members representing the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), occupied. So close, yet so far away.

As a WHIAAPI E3! Ambassador for Region 9 (Northern California), I was invited to the two day National Conference on behalf of my community in the greater Bay Area region. The Ambassadorship program intends to highlight young AAPI professionals that act as change agents on their respective college campuses or professional workplaces. So, here I was, an Academic Advisor at College Track (East Palo Alto) — whose sociopolitical thought had been contrived from both community and academic spaces — fostering a ubiquitous love for the Ocean and reviving old memories of a summer in Tonga, season’s ago where I had no understanding of who I was or what it meant to be Tongan.

In this moment of peace, I connected so much with my 19 year old self; the old me who chose cultural awakening over complacency and ultimately decided to wander Tonga in pursuit of love and passion. My former 19 year old self dug deep into the sociocultural fabric of Tonga, so much so that upon returning to the States, I reckon that a part of her — a part of me — found permanence in the tropical breath of the South Pacific. Still remnant, that part of me waits for the day that I return to reconcile parts of my past with my future self.

Many may refer to this as a perfect concoction of love — when two become one.

This, I believe, was the gravitational pull I experienced in that swivel chair looking out unto the distance. My attention to the Ocean was interrupted by the ongoing agenda that portioned time for the ten E3! Ambassadors in attendance to share the work we’ve been doing to a diverse crowd of funders, entrepreneurs, Executive Directors and CEO’s.

As my name was called to enter stage left, I could feel the emotion that would soon overflow my words. I looked to the crowd and in one breath, asked if there were any Pacific Islanders in the room that could relate to my love and fascination for the South Pasifika, the culture, the Ocean.

Not one hand was raised.

As a Tongan-American woman, I stood in front of an entire group of community allies and admitted to the pain of being the only Pacific Islander in the room. I let myself feel the rawness of despair while clinging tightly to the microphone as I uttered statements of Pasifika pride in between the tears that fell freely from my eyes. How could I feel so invisible in this National Conference due to the lack of Pacific Islander presence yet be so connected and so present and comforted by the Ocean behind me?

—–

I’ve acknowledged that this instance is not the first time and certainly won’t be the last where our existence in these spaces are few. As we continue to grow as a racial group in the United States, we as young leaders are charged with the responsibility of equipping our people with the tools needed to fill in the gap and act as the bridge of knowledge for the 1.2 million of us here in America..

As frustrated as I felt, I was confronted with a choice. I could remain stagnant in defeat and pain or I could move forward in empowerment and passion to educate others from all walks of life about my community. I’ve quickly realized that although change can be informed by defeat and pain, it cannot be rooted in it. For change to sustain itself, it must be rooted in empowerment. And for change to live on beyond my lifetime, I must realize that the work I do is bigger than myself.

Glory to God xx

3 thoughts on “Being Token PI in AAPI Spaces

  1. You consistently encapsulate my attention with your writing. I can picture every scene you describe! I am a total groupie for your writing. Even though I you shared this story with me, painting such a picture through your words hits my heart; double tap! Thank you for being brave, being at the table, and being transparent. To me, it sounds like you brought an abundance of mana into that space and all in attendance definitely felt it. FORWARD MOVEMENT! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, TONGA!

  2. Hi … My friend Joanne posted this link on her Facebook. 2 things:

    (1) I had tears reading –
    “As a Tongan-American woman, I stood in front of an entire group of community allies and admitted to the pain of being the only Pacific Islander in the room. I let myself feel the rawness of despair while clinging tightly to the microphone as I uttered statements of Pasifika pride in between the tears that fell freely from my eyes. How could I feel so invisible in this National Conference due to the lack of Pacific Islander presence yet be so connected and so present and comforted by the Ocean behind me?”

    (2) I worked for Region 9 (Sept 2007-April 2014). I wish we had crossed paths. And I am still in the SF Bay Area, so I hope we do.

    (3) I had tears again reading –
    “For change to sustain itself, it must be rooted in empowerment. And for change to live on beyond my lifetime, I must realize that the work I do is bigger than myself.”

    As a side note, Joanne (Rondilla) spoke at an AAPI event on skin whitening – her PhD thesis at Berkeley. She know teaches at ASU – https://sst.clas.asu.edu/joanne-l-rondilla

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