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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month: Asian Culture x Disability

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

May was Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month, and we wanted to celebrate by learning more about how Asian culture impacts our AAPI disabled community members and staff. We also reflected on how our community felt about the ongoing Asian hate crimes.

Trigger Warning: Talks of Asian hate crimes.

Tiffany Hong

Tiffany Hong (she/her) identifies as a disabled Chinese having autism. She is currently undergoing vocational training through our Youth Program and is also a fantastic artist.

What is your cultural background?

My parents are Chinese, born and raised in Vietnam. They moved to Canada and eventually came to California with my relatives. I was born in California.

What is your relationship to disability: individually and culturally?

I have autism. I feel like I don't interact with people that much because I worry I’ll rub them the wrong way. I try my best to be polite, especially with what’s happening to us now, the Asian hate crimes, so I try not to rub people the wrong way.

I feel like an outcast in an Asian household, and it was especially tough during the pandemic because I couldn’t interact with as many people and had to stay home. But art was an important outlet for me. I took an art course my senior year and became interested in it. I got carried away in college, experimenting with various media.

What are your thoughts on the ongoing Asian Hate crimes?

Why pick on Asian Americans? Is it worth it?

Acrylic painting of lotus flowers on water
Acrylic painting by Tiffany Hong

Lastly, Tiffany created this art piece inspired by her Chinese heritage.

Image Description: Two pink, blooming lotus flowers flowing through the calm, blue water. Blooming lotus flowers represent one's (re)awakening of inner strength and mental purity, while the flowing waters represent the passage of time. Therefore, as time goes by, we eventually have the potential to be reborn with inner purity and willpower.

Medium: Acrylic

Alex Sing

Alex (he/him) is our fantastic Information and Referral Specialist here at the Center for Independent Living. He identifies as Chinese American.

Asian male with short black hair and glasses wearing a multicolor shirt sitting down and typing on the computer indoors.
Alex types on the keyboard.

What is your relationship to disability: individually and culturally?

Growing up, I’ve always identified myself as different. I knew I was unlike the majority in society. I have multiple disabilities, both physical and mental/emotional. I’m a little person who uses a power wheelchair.

I have always been comfortable, on the outside, talking about my disability. However, I’ve been self-aware that I looked different than others, as I’ve mentioned. Nonetheless, my family members have accepted me for who I am. Yet, within the past few years, I learned that some of my family members are not comfortable bringing up their health issues or disabilities unless my mom or I bring them up first.

This scenario reminded me of a 2019 film, The Farewell. It is about a Chinese family that discovers their grandmother has a short time to live and decides not to tell her that she is dying due to her chronic illness. As far as I know, our family has not done this. However, my family has only recently learned that there are medically-related health issues that my ancestors have passed away from, such as an aneurysm.

I don’t want to make generalizations, but from what I’ve heard from various Asian friends and colleagues, there seems to be a level of secrecy in Asian households regarding health and disability. My grandmother passed away from an aneurysm, and possibly my great-grandmother too. But to this day, my family doesn’t know for sure, and we don’t learn about the deaths and these diagnoses until it happens.

Lastly, I can see folks staring and talking about me when I’ve been out in Chinatown, anywhere, especially around Asian community areas. My family members can understand a bit of Chinese and Cantonese, so I hear from them what folks are saying about me.

Any positive experiences with your Chinese culture?

My experience with my family has been positive. They are very accepting; growing up, from my memory, my family members, both my immediate and extended family, have been accepting, even though they are from the older generation. That has helped me understand, for the most part, when I can’t walk long distances and why I’m in a wheelchair. They know my limitations and do help out wherever they can.

Helena: It’s lovely to hear you have an excellent immediate support system.

Yeah, and I’m always happy to listen to them and urge them to share their disabilities or health issues with me. I think it’s important for families to share.

Disability and my Asian heritage are somewhat new to me. Yes, I have always identified as Chinese, yes, people know me as a person with a disability (PWD), but I’ve mostly hung around other PWDs, rarely with other Asians my age. So I’m learning more and more about the two communities I intersect with now later in life.

What are your thoughts on the ongoing Asian Hate Crimes?

Fortunately, my mom and I have not been hit with the crimes. But we do know people who have. It is scary that non-Asians are attacking, verbally or physically, mainly because of the COVID-19 virus. It’s been established that the virus is not a “Chinese virus,” yet people are still being attacked for looking Chinese or Asian. It’s one of those things where I was surprised when it first happened. I’m still amazed, but at the same time, not surprised at all…

It’s hard to stop hate crimes from being publicized. It’s good to showcase the crimes and highlight that these are happening and it’s terrible, but it can also fuel others to learn from the crimes and do it too.

Helena: Totally; sometimes focusing on and remembering the victims rather than showcasing the actual crime has been much more comforting for me as an Asian.

Any final words?

I hope the Asian community will be more accepting of people with disabilities. In general, I hope people inside and outside of the Asian communities also are more accepting of PWDs and stop the hate crimes.

Filipino person with short black hair wearing glasses and a grey shirt outdoors.
Ash smiles for the camera.

Ash Alunan

Ash (they/them) is our Youth Program Coordinator focusing on high school youth. They are a proud queer, nonbinary, disabled Filipino who is hard of hearing and have various mental health disabilities.

What is your relationship to disability: individually and culturally?

I proudly identified as disabled. I am a hard-of-hearing person with many mental health disabilities. I was diagnosed with my disability in 5th grade and felt very isolated. I was the only student with a disability surrounded by able-bodied people. Initially, my Filipino family was not understanding disability, and there was not much support. But they still ensured I got the accommodations I needed to succeed.

I feel like disability is rarely talked about in my culture. However, I have seen much growth in wanting to have more conversations about disability and mental health just by being so openly disabled and initiating these conversations with friends, family, and the community.

How do you start these conversations?

I strongly believe that we all know someone who has a disability or has disabilities ourselves. So with that approach, I often start with a simple question: What is your relationship to a disability, or how does disability impact you?

In terms of loved ones, I feel like many people in the Asian community may not identify as disabled but have a disability. Instead of mentioning the word “disability,” we talk about accommodations or lack of access. Many people realize how inaccessible and ableist society is, so that’s usually a good first step to discuss disability on a macro level.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how ableism drives isolation. Isolation can be hard for Asians with disabilities to be able to find resources and community because we’re not talking about disability enough. If you have a disability at a young age, you feel like you’re the only one with it and don’t know where to turn for support. I wish more conversations about disability were happening in our spaces. Similar to how we express pronouns, allies need to bring up their pronouns rather than queer and trans people initiating all the time. I hope more non-disabled people can bring up the topic of disability. Tying disability justice into other movements, bringing up the importance of access, or just starting a conversation on disability to make people think about it more.

What are your thoughts on the ongoing Asian Hate Crimes?

Being an Asian person with a disability and taking public transit more frequently it's a two-fold situation. Being scared of COVID transmission on public transportation is one, and being terrified about my safety and worrying about the safety of my community due to the rise of Asian hate crimes is another. It’s always stressful taking public transit. Am I going to get hate crime today, or will a non-masked person cough in my vicinity?

Helena: I agree, and as you mentioned, it’s threefold because worrying for your community and grieving for your community as they get hurt weighs a lot on us and takes an emotional toll.

Totally, and to talk about all my intersectional identities, I am a queer, trans person, so it’s fourfold when I factor in the possibility of transphobia and homophobia.

To end on a positive note:

I'm grateful to my family for having more conversations about mental health. I know it’s hard to talk about mental health in my culture, but I appreciate my family supporting my mental health journey; I truly wish that for all the disabled kids in my community and beyond. One thing I understand that came from COVID was the conversations around mental health and self-care. People realize that mental health is not just for people with mental disabilities; anyone can face these challenges if we don’t take care of ourselves. And not just self-care, but community care and being surrounded by people who support your whole well-being is just as imperative.

Screen printed "Listen" artwork

Art and image description:

Black and white screen-printed art on white paper. This personal masterpiece represents all of my intersectional identities as a hard-of-hearing, nonbinary, queer, Filipinx badass nerd. In bold letters, ‘LISTEN’ calls the audience to hold space for others and truly listen, since ironically, hard of hearing and Deaf people listen the most. There is a large outline of an ear. Notice the symbolism in the Filipino sun, DNA in 2-3 base pairs, the upside-down triangle, and they/them pronouns. At the bottom right corner, the words "queer," "Filipinx," "nerd," and a heart are etched into the art.


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