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9 Kansas City Residents Share What Being Asian Means to Them Community, solidarity and joy are at the forefront

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13 minute read

The past year of pandemic and rising racial tension has shaken many to their core. For Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Kansas City, this year has been particularly challenging. 

AAPI residents make up 3% of the population in the Kansas City metropolitan area and 12% of the Midwest, according to Census Reporter and the Pew Research Center. What’s not seen in the data are the multifaceted ways in which they have helped shape the U.S. historically and culturally. Between the years 2000 and 2019, the Asian population nationwide more than doubled. 

So to cap Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Flatland gathered snapshots of many people in the community who help shape and move Kansas City. Their comments have been edited slightly for clarity.

Drea DiCarlo, Visual Artist and Charlotte Street Foundation Resident

Drea DiCarlo is a Visual Artist and Charlotte Street Foundation Resident
Drea DiCarlo is a visual artist and Charlotte Street Foundation Resident. (Courtesy)

Having a Cantonese mother but being raised by a Sicilian American father, I don’t think of myself as Cantonese. I don’t have the cultural memory through language, food or values, but my experience has been racialized. So I think about being Asian American more as a political and social identity. It has a lot to do with people’s perceptions of me, particularly living in the Midwestern United States. The term ‘Asian American’ is important to me as an identifier, but it was created by activists because they saw a mutual interest. I ask myself – if you take away the oppression, does the identity disappear? I don’t think so. I find a lot of joy and community in that identity, but it’s an ongoing journey and conversation.

Identity is in the subtext of my work, but I’ve noticed how these themes can become prominent. In early 2020 I started working with Michelle Chan (a fellow Charlotte Street resident) on images of pop culture cowboys and Western wear. People think of the cowboy as this representation of Americana and Manifest Destiny, and we thought, “Why not us?” We played on this fantasy and put pictures of ourselves in them. We’re asking for inclusion into an American mythological narrative that isn’t about an interloping or assimilating foreigner, but something that is both Chinese and American at the same time.

I’ve also found that mentorship and camaraderie in this community is really important to making my work and watching themes emerge. In college, I found myself drawn to other Asian American students who were engaging in art and narratives that I hadn’t before. They became and still are my friends, roommates and mentors. One of these is Andi Meyer, a theater artist who runs a collective I’m involved with called Tradewind Arts. She reached out to me after the Atlanta shootings to talk about building an Asian American artist group. These collectives have been in California and New York since the ‘60s, so it feels like it’s time to put energy into something like that here – something that could have a rippling impact on what is possible.

Emily Weber, Missouri State Representative

As Missouri State Representative, Emily Weber is navigating unexplored and difficult terrain. But Weber hopes to help move the needle forward and get more AAPI voices involved in the political process.
As Missouri State Representative, Emily Weber is navigating unexplored and difficult terrain. But Weber hopes to help move the needle forward and get more AAPI voices involved in the political process. (Courtesy)

I’m adopted from South Korea, and my parents tried to raise me with some South Korean traditions. Growing up in a dominantly white, rural community, I just wanted to blend in, so I resisted for a while. I didn’t want to be different. But as I grew older, my South Korean heritage became a greater part of me. I owned and embraced my dual background, and that’s where I became comfortable in my own skin.

I was elected as the first Asian American woman into the Missouri General Assembly and I knew there would be some growing pains. I have shared some of my experiences growing up, the racism I’ve endured, and challenges I faced to those who would listen in hopes for an understanding from a lived experience that they did not have to face. Doing all those things alone has its difficulties. It’s hard to navigate a space that’s been unexplored for someone like me, and it’s hard to strategize and organize in this way as a single person. But when I get back to Kansas City or meet with other AAPI people eager to organize, it motivates me so much to put in the work. Needless to say, I know the importance of having a strong community. With the hatred, discrimination and violence facing the AAPI community right now, it’s more important than ever that our community and our allies unite and organize against it.

So, I’m out there doing what I can in hopes that I get more people energized to be part of the political process, get more involved, register to vote and then vote in every election because your voice matters. We need representation so we can remove those invisible, implied barriers to achieving certain things, so we can break through the various kinds of glass ceilings. 

Jessica Ann, Co-Founder of API Underground + Senior Account Executive at Parson + Associates

Jessica Ann is the Co-Founder of API Underground and a Senior Account Executive at Parson + Associates
Jessica Ann helped found the API Underground to “build a community who didn’t even know they needed it.” (Courtesy)

Growing up in a white community, I was fairly privileged, but I suppressed so much of my Asian identity just to fit in. Even though my father is a Chinese immigrant from Malaysia, I felt culturally white. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I could speak as an Asian woman or on behalf of an Asian community. I didn’t feel Asian enough to even validate my own experiences.

My father was in high school during the John F. Kennedy years, and found inspiration in his words. He thought youth could really change things, and felt a call to serve, so he came to the United States and attended Baker University. That’s where he met my mom. Our family did everything we were “supposed” to do to live the American Dream. We were accepted, but never brought into the community. 

Because I never fully felt like part of a community, I’m attracted to work that provides community building. In the future, I see myself going into public service, and a lot of the underlying principles are for people to have support and a sense of belonging where they live. That’s driven my involvement with the Jewish Vocational Service, a refugee and immigrant resettlement agency. That’s also what we hope to do with API Underground — build community for people who didn’t even know they needed it. There are adoptees, biracial people and others who have been siloed and have shared experiences. We want to make space for people, but we also want to be seen and recognized. 

Jostna Dash, Founding 6th Grade Humanities Teacher at Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy 

Jostna Dash is a longtime educator. (Courtesy)
Jostna Dash is a longtime educator. (Courtesy)

Both of my parents immigrated to the United States from India in the late 1970s. My dad was in the Army, so we moved from my birthplace of Georgia to Texas and then Iowa, where I went to high school and college. My parents wanted my sister and me to get the best education possible, far from the drastic class inequalities they encountered in India. But as I moved into campus leadership, I realized how many high school students were underprepared for college and I wanted to know why. I connected with Teach For America, which brought me to Kansas City to teach at East High School and now as a founding teacher at the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy. 

I often teach children who don’t share the same culture as me, but through culture we find similarities. In my first year of teaching, I was the first Indian person a lot of the students had met. I had to explain where India was and share the immigrant experience, sparking their curiosities. If you don’t connect to your own identity, the kids will pull it out of you. If you don’t know who you are, it’s tougher to teach and connect with them. 

My heritage is who I am, what makes me unique, what has instilled and guided my values. I want to be my ancestors’ wildest dreams and change the way Indian women were once told to be. I think about how to keep this heritage and culture alive in the future generation. So many times, as women of color, we second guess ourselves. I hope that’s never a question in their minds. I hope they’ll be able to stand up for what they want. I hope that whatever they set their mind to, they can achieve their wildest dreams and not be afraid of them.

Kimberly Carlson, NAAAP-KC Director of Social and Cultural Awareness + Senior Clinical Researcher at Cerner

Kimberly Carlson grew up in the Midwest and felt the pressures to blend in. Now she's embraced her identity and Filipino heritage. (Courtesy)
Kimberly Carlson grew up in the Midwest and felt the pressures to blend in. Now she’s embraced her identity and Filipino heritage. (Courtesy)

My Asian American experience means honoring, embracing and continually learning about my Filipino heritage and culture. It wasn’t always like this. Growing up in the Midwest, I felt different and struggled with my Asian identity, wanting to blend in. I’ve since realized how wonderful it is to be part of the rich culture and traditions of the Philippines. 

Being multiracial and white can feel like a duality, and I acknowledge the privilege that comes from that whiteness. Stereotypes that cast all of us as perpetual foreigners and the “model minority” do a disservice to the great diversity through the vast Asian diaspora. Being Asian American means being in solidarity and mobilizing with other marginalized groups to advance equity, representation, civil and human rights. It means cooking and enjoying delicious cultural foods. It’s being a part of a community that feels like family. Celebrating Asian joy and achievements.

Diversity, inclusion and equity are constant priorities in my workplace, community service and especially as a public health professional, as I work to improve the health of underserved and vulnerable populations. In my nonprofit volunteer service, we are intentional about cultural humility and creating meaningful connections with other community groups to reach those in greatest need. I also work with the National Association of Asian American Professionals, which creates leaders by providing development opportunities to help them thrive. We create a space where you can be your authentic self and learn about issues through a cultural lens. 

Madoka Koguchi, Manager of Cafe Cà Phê 

Madoka Koguchi is the manager of Cafe Cà Phê
Madoka Koguchi’s life changed drastically when the pandemic hit. She went from touring with Broadway to moving to Kansas City helping shape the culture of a cafe that aims to create a safe space for everyone — particularly Asians in Kansas City. (Courtesy)

I’m originally from Japan and moved to North America for school in 2014, first in Toronto, then New York. Working as a Broadway actor, I thought I needed to be a certain “type” of Asian — long black hair, smart, quiet and sexualized — to get a job. And I did. I began a national tour of ‘Miss Saigon,’ visiting 35 states and truly exploring America for the first time. There were always 20 or 30 other Asian actors around, so I never felt alone, but I did begin to feel ‘different.’

Then the pandemic hit, the show got canceled, and I briefly moved to Waco, Texas. I remember moments like being on a plane and nobody would sit near me. In the grocery store, people would make a point to step away from me. I’m not American, so I can’t imagine how Asian Americans are feeling as invisible, unheard and told they ‘don’t belong here.’ I chose to be here so I could go back, but I wonder how my future children will be treated. I want them to feel safe and proud of who they are, while I put up a protective guard and felt like I had no purpose in this country.

Moving to Kansas City in October and working at Cafe Cà Phê has helped me find some of that purpose. We amplify our individual Asian and Asian American voices, along with LGBTQ+, Black and deaf communities, and I’m truly comfortable with being who I am. I can wear my Pikachu shirt. I don’t have to get rid of my accent. I feel celebrated. People of other backgrounds have also felt safe talking to us, and continually show us love and support. It’s been a great thing to witness, and it’s made me feel like this shop should be for everyone – not just Asian people.

Matthew Tran, Writer, Organizer and Artist for Black Rainbow

Matthew Tran grew up in the Kansas City restaurant scene where his parents worked, which shaped his view of immigration and policy and motivates him to do the work he does today. (courttesy)
Matthew Tran grew up in the Kansas City restaurant scene where his parents worked, which shaped his view of immigration and policy and motivates him to do the work he does today. (Courtesy)

I was born and raised in the Kansas City area. My folks immigrated here. My dad’s side came over as a refugee family from Vietnam and my mom’s side from China through Hong Kong. They met in KC working at Bo Lings. My mother pushed the dim sum cart in the front, my dad worked in back, so I grew up in a restaurant family. It was my window into that type of community, a space full of immigrants and refugees. I grew up seeing deportations happening around me when I was a kid. I had a friend who was pulled over for a speeding ticket and ended up being deported to China because of it. You’re removed from your community, family, friends, essentially your entire life. So learning, finding terminology, and how these things are structurally connected to something greater plays a huge role in why I do what I do today. 

Being Asian American, growing up in a place like Kansas City or in the United States, as you get older you realize there are a lot of influences that want to separate you from your siblings who are born overseas. That’s a big part of what we see in mainstream representation and media — assimilationist aspirational things, about shedding the past to become American. You don’t learn much about your history if you don’t fit a certain mold. When you do, you’re placed in a certain overarching narrative. Learning about the Civil Rights Movement in high school a kid in my class asked if there was a movement for Asians in America. She was like, ‘There wasn’t and that would be kind of out of character too, don’t you think?’ That kind of erasure was very much normalized. I want to separate myself from the foreign and the other. 

Media representation is a big issue now, like the first XYZ to be at the Grammys or the Academy Awards. Representation matters. Right? But to base our freedom and struggle and liberation on that, I think … erases a lot of the real harm and violence that happens in our everyday lives. A lot of Asian people in America who support (and) let our economy function are Asian immigrants without citizenship status — laborers, kitchen workers, sex workers. Tying our identity to what’s palatable can be counterintuitively damaging. To me ‘Stop Asian Hate’ individualizes what’s really a structural problem. Ending racial violence against Asian people goes so much deeper than hate. We can have a national day of welcoming refugees and immigrants, without looking at how we’re still continually creating refugees. It’s an easy-to-follow hashtag, easy-to-follow narrative because it’s palatable, and doesn’t really require any self-reflection. What’s popular changes but our work doesn’t.

Being Asian to me means a whole breadth of experiences. No group of people is a monolith. Variety is in shades and flavors under the category of ‘Asian.’ You can’t be Asian without being political. It means recognizing the history and context of how we came to be in the West, in the U.S. That collective history of marginalization and racialization that brought us to where we are today. That collective pain of seeing violence every day, here and overseas that are structurally linked. (It) also means being part of that culture/tradition of resistance. I hope my work as an AA organizer and writer is a continuation of a tradition that’s erased in a lot of ways, from people like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs. Find a sense of belonging, culture, identity, beauty, community.

Ritu Nanos, Head Instructor and Owner of AKKA Karate Westport

Ritu Nanos is Head Instructor and Owner of AKKA Karate Westport
Ritu Nanos is Head Instructor and Owner of AKKA Karate Westport who finds connection to her heritage through her work. (Courtesy)

As a second-generation Indian American, my heritage is invaluable to me, and I am continuously looking for ways to express it. In addition to being raised in a household that cherished traditional Indian values and cultural traditions, every few years my family and I would visit and live with our family in India for a couple of months. 

There is a spirituality in India that hangs in the air. The interconnectedness that is embedded into our way of life shapes our approach to the world and enlivens a sacredness and joy that is continuously honored, celebrated and shared. We see this in the joyful colors of clothing, in the spices used as herbal health remedies, in the music that resonates in the human body with its quarter-note harmonics. Centered within this connection is a genuine softness, kindness and compassion for all living things.

My parents helped bring my heritage into our lives in America, in part through seeking out classical Indian dance lessons for me. Classical Indian dance, specifically Bharatanatyam, turned out to be one of my biggest loves, and as it happens, one of the biggest influences of my study and career in martial arts today. These ritual temple dances had so much in common with the martial arts forms I study and practice — the stances, handforms and intention of celebrating and preserving life. It was another lesson in the interconnectedness of all things, and an introduction into how many of our cultures in the East overlap in our approach and perspective of life. Through the eyes of my heritage, I was able to see the spiritual piece inherent in martial arts that is often overlooked or misguided. My South Asian heritage is the gift of this enriching perspective, and it shapes my own skill and how I teach my students. Through martial arts, I honor my heritage by teaching my students how to use this very physical practice to cultivate connection and compassion for themselves, others and all life. 

Vi Tran, Singer-Songwriter and Actor

Vi Tran is a singer-songwriter and actor
Vi Tran is a singer-songwriter and actor who found his art gave his family a voice. (courtesy)

I’m a preacher’s kid and the son of butchers, born an hour and a half northwest of Saigon and raised in the cattle country of southwestern Kansas. I’m equal parts sea salt and wheat fields – both and neither. Being a refugee, I live in that in-between space. I was encouraged to assimilate, but also to never forget where I came from. 

In the theater, film and music industry, Asian Americans have such a small and stereotyped presence, and I long fought against being seen as an ‘Asian’ actor or musician. The turning point came when I realized that if I didn’t like my guitar, I could buy another one. But I can never not be 5’4” and Vietnamese. As an actor and a human, I realized that this was my instrument, my voice. And people wanted to hear my authentic truth – not a performative, colorblind projection of what I thought America wanted to see.

I created ‘The Butcher’s Son,’ a performance memoir about my family’s escape and resettlement, to be the voice for my mother, father and sister in ways that they could not. To pay them back for all the sacrifice and faith they had in me for choosing this path. To take their broken English and turn it into something beautiful to everyone’s ears. My secret mission was for everyone in that audience – regardless of race or background – to walk out saying, ‘That’s my father, that’s my mother, that’s my sister.’ I firmly believe in the empathetic power of storytelling to change hearts. If you can change hearts, I believe minds will follow. 

Michelle Bacon is 90.9 The Bridge’s content and database manager. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

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