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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts


From The Asian Reporter, V29, #12 (June 17, 2019), page 6.

(Photo courtesy of the City of Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights)

Reflections on this yearís AAPI proclamation

Early last month, Carolyn Lee of the City of Portlandís Hapa, Asian, and Pacific Islanders of Portland (H.A.P.I.) Affinity Group asked me to participate in the annual Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month proclamation at city council chambers with the commissioners and mayor. It was an honor to be asked to provide a five-minute testimonial. This rarely happens to me. Sometimes I perform a reading or appear on panels for community, media, or arts events, but I have never been active in local government. To be part of an official event at City Hall was a first.

There were other participants who also had five minutes, including DJ Prashant, who quit his job as an engineer at Intel to pursue his love of South Asian dance, and longtime Chinatown resident Gloria Wong, who spoke eloquently of her history and involvement in helping create the Portland Chinatown Museum.

I pondered a long while about what to say that would be noteworthy for my portion of the proclamation. Weíre living in such divisive times and AAPIs have experienced more exclusion and racism in the last few years. So I decided it was important to talk about my dedication to telling AAPI stories.

I started with my own story, and that of my mother, Chu-Yin Roberts, who was an immigrant from Taiwan with no formal education or literacy. May marked the 17th year of her passing. She was sold to work as a bonded servant when she was two years old and survived World War II. She worked hard to successfully attain the American Dream of homeownership and earned enough to retire from the Georgia-Pacific mill where she fed sheets of wet plywood into a drying oven for 25 years.

As a 1.5-generation biracial Asian American born in Taiwan and raised in Oregon since age 10, I recalled my difficulty finding acceptance and inclusion in both white and AAPI communities. And I wondered after my mom died if I would still be considered Asian. I responded through MediaRites, a nonprofit organization, and created the first Asian Pacific American history series on public radio. It was one of my proudest accomplishments. The eight-hour Crossing East won the Peabody in 2007 and aired on 230 National Public Radio stations.

In my testimony, I talked about how Crossing East focused on the contributions of Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest who lived here before the Lewis and Clark expedition and intermarried with indigenous communities; highlighted the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on railroad workers; and featured immigrants such as Ing "Doc" Hay, a frontier herbalist as well as respected community member and doctor in John Day, Oregon. In the series, we also spotlighted Oregonís Asian adoptees, military brides, and the successes of Southeast Asian refugee families in Portland.

I also mentioned a recent MediaRites program, Theatre Diaspora, which brings visibility, representation, and artistic opportunities to AAPIs and all artists of color in Portland theatre. We created Here On This Bridge: The ĖIsm Project to focus on the intersections of race with gender, orientation, and national origin. In an effort to create conversations with audiences to bridge divides, The ĖIsm Project is touring in smaller Oregon communities.

Also within the testimony, I noted that MediaRites is co-producing a play with a mainstream theatre, CoHo Productions, this fall. The Brothers Paranormal is an allegory for grief and loss in Asian- and African-American families, and it is the first play by a Thai-American playwright, Prince Gomolvilas, to be produced in Portland.

I made a pledge on behalf of MediaRites to persevere in telling the underrepresented stories of Asian Pacific Islander Americans and to remind people of Oregonís exclusion laws as a way to work toward inclusion and equity.

At this point, I became more passionate and emotional. Thereís something stately about making a proclamation to government representatives that is both live-streamed and witnessed by an audience. Though I had personally interacted with commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, for whom Iíve had the greatest respect through the years, Iíd only seen the rest of our city leaders on TV or at large events.

So I gave them the best heartfelt delivery I could muster: "Our city, our state, must embrace people of all ethnicities, races, cultural backgrounds, and all national origins for us to survive and grow. We commit to this goal. For that is the hope for sustainability, a better way of life, and a future for us all."

In closing, I read the final lines of a monologue I wrote for The ĖIsm Project which gives voice to a character who is a fourth-generation Asian American with a family legacy with exclusion laws, including the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The character says: "We have endured. We are strong. Despite every obstacle and barrier, we helped each other, we contributed and we have persisted, fully grown and giving. And I question why canít we all grow what is good, what is needed ó together?"

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