Orinda Resident Proud to be an Asian American

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(Courtesy of S.K. Gupta)
S. K. Gupta, an Orinda resident, is a former senior executive of a Fortune 50 company. He enjoys researching and writing about the not-so-obvious things in life.

    “You are not an Asian. Indians are not Asian,” said my company’s Vice-President of Diversity in 1999. For him, and many others then, Asians were from China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia. South Asians didn’t fit the image of the now politically incorrect description of “Orientals.” I, of course, printed out the entire Department of Labor’s “41 CFR Part 60–2.” highlighted the definition of an “Asian” and dropped it on his desk!
    My journey from being an Indian to becoming an Asian American started in 1980. When we first landed in the U.S., it was for a brief vacation. I was sailing on a merchant ship as a chief engineer, and my bride and our one-year-old daughter were with me. We decided to visit the East Coast of the U.S. for a couple of months. Once there, a professor/advisor at the University of Michigan convinced me to stay and join the University to pursue further studies. Long story, but after a couple of trips to Ottawa, Canada, I converted my tourist visa to a student visa and re-started school.
    Back then, there were not many students from India in Ann Arbor. In our department at the Engineering College, there was little diversity – one woman and maybe a dozen international students. During my 10 months at Ann Arbor, we met many local families. I was often introduced and referred to as an “East Indian.” Many times, folks – especially ladies – would say “I love your sing-song accent.” As I often joke, back then, Indians were still a novelty in the U.S.
    After graduation, I joined a company in Washington D.C., which sponsored me. Fortunately, we got “Green Cards” in just seven months. Working in Washington D.C. and later in Washington State, we started hearing ourselves being referred to as Indian Americans. We also learned the difference between an American Indian and an Indian American. A few years later, we were sworn in as U.S. citizens.
    Once I became a citizen, I just wanted to be an American. I didn’t want any accompanying adjectives — not East Asian, not Indian American and, not South Asian. Just good old plain American.
    But that, I soon discovered, was wishful thinking. It dawned on me that you are not who you think you are, but rather who others see you as. In my late 30s, I discovered that I was classified as a “minority.” Having grown up in a homogeneous India, this was a new and strangely uncomfortable label.
    America is often referred to as a melting pot. If that were true, we would all be seen as equal and not need any adjectives to describe each other. Different races constituted the United States population from the day the first settlers came over. The first U.S. Census of 1790 collected information by:
    • Free White Males of 16 years and upward
    • Free White Males under 16 years
    • Free White Females
    • All other free persons
    • Slaves

    Indigenous or Indian Americans were not included in the Decennial Census until 1860, seven decades after the first collection of census data.
    What the U.S. of A. has really become is better described as a stir-fry dish, in which every ingredient retains its form and taste and yet collectively is better – or can be – than its parts.
    There are so many different labels used in the U.S. that any newcomer to this country is likely to be overwhelmed. Just think about it. This is quite unique to a few countries. People in China are all Chinese. Russians are all referred to as Russians. Similarly, there are Ugandans, Spanish, Brazilians, Chileans, Swedes, etc. No adjectives.
    It is the countries with major immigration where people are counted by race or geographic backgrounds: the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand. This ensured that I was labeled as an Indian American for decades.
    The awakening of my Asian American identity happened around 2003. I had transferred back to our facility in California after over six years in Maryland and Colorado. I had left here as a junior executive and returned as a senior one. Many of my previous colleagues and friends were still around. When they would see me, they would say “Congratulations, one of us made it,” or words to that effect. Initially, I honestly didn’t get what they meant by “one of us made it.”
    They were of different Asian heritages: Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indian etc.
    So, I sat down with my colleague and friend, the V.P. of Human Resources to seek to understand. Dave F. was blunt. “Have you looked around yourself?” he asked. “You are the only Vice-President of Asian descent in this entire division of roughly 20,000 employees.” He told me that whether I liked it or not, I was a role model for all Asian American employees.
    With every role there are responsibilities. Dave helped me understand that although 13% of the local employee population at that time was of Asian heritage, less than 5% were in management, and this included the supervisory positions. This was an eye opener for me.
    For decades, I was focused on my personal career. Work hard, work smart, leverage opportunities and progress. Now, I was seeing myself as a member of a population to which I had not realized I belonged.
    I hosted a meeting of all on-site Asian American supervisors and managers. No non-Asians were allowed. Planned for an hour, it lasted for over two. For the first time, many shared their experiences with racial prejudices. Denied opportunities. And, yes, lack of role models. There was emotion and a few tears. For the first time in their career, they had a safe environment to voice their frustrations. I was both sad and mad listening to the stories.
    When our corporation’s chairman and CEO decided to form a Chairman’s Diversity Council, the membership was well thought out. Women, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans were included as Council members. The three Asian American members, however, were further subdivided by Filipino, Chinese and Indian. We were still not seen as one. The three of us soon concluded that we needed to speak with one voice as Asian Americans. My personal belief moved from not understanding the strength and value of all Asians being seen as one, to now driving for them all to be seen as one.
    A very senior executive told me that since Asian Americans are not homogeneous, the corporation can’t do much to assist them. My response: “Our languages may be different, but our cultural norms are the same.”
    Around that time, the H.R. Department had done a massive employee survey across the Corporation. One conclusion was that the Asian American employees were the happiest in our Corporation.
    We challenged that conclusion. We pointed out that based on the survey questions, the conclusion should be that we were the least likely to grumble and complain. There was a lack of understanding of the Asian cultural value of acceptance/kismet/fate.
    We bought a hundred copies of Jane Huyn’s first book, Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling, for the leadership team and asked everyone to read the first three chapters to better understand the Asian culture.
    Sometimes lack of news is news. In 2008, when the Presidential election results were reported, there were details of how Whites, Hispanics, Blacks and Women voted. Not one word recounted how Asian Americans voted. We were still not united, so there was no news regarding how we had voted.
    Collectively we, the Asian Americans, are just 6.5% of the U.S. population — small numbers, even though we are growing rapidly. The largest group, people of Chinese heritage, is barely over 1%.
    This leads me to remember an old story from the epic Mahabharata: There were five brothers called Pandavas, who constantly competed with one another. One day their guru gave them each a wooden stick to break. They all broke their sticks easily. He then took five sticks and tied them together and then none of them could break the bunch. Strength in numbers.
    Often from adversity comes awakening and strength. Murders in Atlanta and Indianapolis have united the Asian American community. We collectively need to fight to stop the A.A.P.I. hate. Hopefully, responding to this adversity will finally bring diverse but similar communities closer. There is definitively strength in numbers. The more we unite as Asian Americans, the more our voices will be heard.
    It has been a long journey, but when an unknown Asian American recognizes you on BART and quotes back to you what you said at a conference 5 or 6 years ago, you know that the journey was worth taking.
    From an Indian to an East Indian, to an Indian American, to a South Asian, and now — proud to be an Asian American!

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