On Being An Asian American Cultural Ambassador

The writer, center, poses with the nine members of the visiting ASEAN Connecting Sustainable Communities through New Media delegation from Southeast Asia. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

I woke up Wednesday early afternoon, still feeling a bit groggy after a late evening of election-night victory partying and later voraciously reading up online on election results, news reports and analysis articles well into the morning light.

A friend of mine had left me a voice mail message -- he was already leaving town due to a family emergency. He was originally scheduled to do a presentation on Social Media to a group of international visitors, and had asked if I could pinch-hit for him and do the presentation in his place, which was scheduled to be...in just three hours.

The visitors were nine representatives from ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam -- all here touring a handful of cities across America as part of the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. They represented media, new media, corporations, and non-government organizations (what we call "nonprofits" here in the US), all of whom are involved in new media with regard to the topic of sustainability.

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I used my introduction as a way to connect with them, first welcoming them to Los Angeles, and mentioning that this city is home to the largest concentration of their respective country's community here in the U.S. I then proceeded to mention my ties to their countries: That I was the first American-born child of Philippine immigrants, that I had visited Malaysia and Singapore twice (and professing my love for the latter country's cuisine), and that I had served on the board of a local nonprofit which serves the Thai community.

Without notes or visual aids, I improvised my presentation by engaging in a discussion about current social media practices here. For example, I had mentioned how newly-elected mayor Eric Garcetti had skillfully used Twitter to connect with voters, and had already been well-versed in Tweeting and new media even before his candidacy.

But somewhere in the discussion, I went off on a not-too-irrelevant tangent and unexpectedly landed on the topic of Asian American identity. Suddenly it became important for me, in the relatively brief span of time of my presentation, to give them at least a glimpse of what their diasporic counterparts in the U.S. were like. I suddenly found myself in the role of an accidental cultural ambassador.

All of the visitors, representing eight language groups, were fluent in English (which is the lingua franca of the ASEAN organization), and I was fortunately familiar with their individual accents, through my experiences with their communities both here and abroad, to comprehend their English without any difficulty. Realizing that, it became all the more important to explain in a nushell what the Asian American experience was like.

Using the example of my personal ethnic heritage, I broke it down for them: "Here in America, I might not fit in because I'm considered to be a Filipino. But in the Philippines, I also don't fit in, because I'm considered to be too American."

"You're an amboy," said social media director Rosario Juan, the Philippine representative, evoking a Filipino slang portmanteau which means "American Boy," usually employed as a pejorative term (though in the context of the conversation, I knew it wasn't used to offend me).

Cultural identity is a funny thing. It only applies in the geographically-static sense, for individuals from immigrant/diasporic groups who came from somewhere and ended up somewhere else: The Korean American. The Chinese Canadian. But cross even more borders, and now what do you become, and how is one perceived, for better or for worse? What is the Korean American on the streets of Stockholm? What is the Chinese Canadian on the beaches of Rio? Are we perceived according to physical phenotype? Body language or mannerisms? Style of clothing? Language and accent? Or what country our passport corresponds to? Does it even matter?

Hong Hoang, the representative from Vietnam, who works for the Vietnamese offices of the climate change awareness organization 350.org, had asked me how to best use social media for fundraising purposes. I recommended she use the resources of online, streaming video to present a short documentary or presentation that tells a story, and connects viewers on an emotional level, enough that they would be inclined to conveniently make an online contribution. I had also discussed tailoring it to an intended audience, and she had described visions of connecting with Hollywood celebrities, using Angelina Jolie as an example.

Before I could briefly explain how and why that could be a long-shot, social innovation director Klaikong Vaidhyakam, the visitor from Thailand, recommended that a potential fundraising video could be directed at the Vietnamese community here in the U.S.

I explained going that route could be more successul, and valuable as well, noting that Asian Americans can be curious and thirsty to connect with and learn about their cultural motherland, and that I would offer her any of my contacts in the Vietnamese community here in Southern California.

At that point I realized that we as Asian Americans have a role and responsibility, not just to educate and share our experience, but to make connections, connect dots and to transcend borders. Our cultural duality may not have been intentional, but it is not accidental. It is our purpose to provide the link between geographies and generations. Additionally, with our access to other cultures here in America, our cultural fluency -- and responsibility -- is extended even further.

Their private bus had arrived and the visitors had to leave for their next destination. We exchanged contacts, posed for pictures and bid our goodbyes. My lingering thought that day was what they got out of that crazy guy who looks sort of like them but talks like an "American." Not just in terms of social media subject matter, but in cultural terms. I hoped I was not a mere an "amboy" but a true ambassador of my city and country. I hoped, at least in the most basic sense, that they understood what an Asian American was. I hoped I was able to make those connections, connect those dots, and provide that link.

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