“I am not just Chinese American, I am Ange Hwang. I would like to be respected as Ange Hwang, but I would also hope that people respect my background, which comes with a lot of assumptions.”
Ange Hwang, founder of Asian Media Access (AMA) and a nominee for this year’s Facing Race Awards, hopes that through media, her agency can help to clarify, explain, or tear down the many assumptions people make about Asian Americans and their cultures. She lists the typical stereotypes people make about her as a Chinese-American woman: obedient, quiet, walks ten steps behind her husband.
“Of course, I am not like that,” Hwang says. “Though in my culture we are taught not to speak up,” she continues, “if in this country we continue to do that, we will continue to suffer from misunderstandings and bigotry.”
Whether it is small, day-to-day racism Hwang encounters—for example, how people treat her at a restaurant—or more pointed, systematic racism, Hwang hopes to make people more aware of how they can treat each other better and work to understand each other.
Hwang came to the United States from Taiwan in 1984 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. There she met her husband and in 1989 they moved to Minnesota. It was here, in a laundromat in St. Louis Park with her husband, that Hwang says she experienced her first encounter with an “intentional act of racism.”
“People stared at us,” she says, “and we didn’t feel any different or expect anything, but when we left with our clothes and started our car, a guy drove by us and shouted ‘why don’t you just go back to your country.’”
“Then, a couple weeks later,” Hwang continues, “at our apartment, people saw us and they told us ‘oh, you should use the service elevator, this [elevator] is for the guests and the homeowners.’”
“So it’s these types of incidents that push me harder to bring these issues to the public,” Hwang says. However, she emphasizes that AMA not only addresses issues of racism against Asian Americans, but also any racist stereotypes that Asian-Americans have themselves.
“My parents’ generation, or even my generation, often judge [African-Americans] as a group instead of as individuals,” she explains. “We also have a very rigid social class—people [with] high income will often discriminate against people who work in restaurants in our culture.”
“We as a society need to communicate better, understand each other better,” Hwang says. She asserts that everyone is an individual, with his or her own life experiences molding him or her as a person, but she also acknowledges everyone’s interconnectedness. “We encourage you to be individual so you are responsible for your own actions, but you are impacted by so many different people throughout your life, you are inter-dependent, never independent.”
The event that really sparked her drive to create AMA was the Tiananmen Square massacre in China on June 4, 1989. “I hadn’t even thought about starting an agency for helping others,” Hwang says. “I thought I would find a good job, settle down in a corporation or something, but the process of community advocacy and media advocacy I got involved with to organize protests for the massacre really opened my eyes.”
She explains that when she first came to the United States, she was surprised by the importance placed on individuality. “The society [in Taiwan] operates in a lot of different ways from the U.S.,” Hwang says. “American individuality encouraged me and American democracy encouraged me, and I realized I could work as an individual to change things in an organized way.”
Since founding AMA in 1993, Hwang says, it has become “a second life” for her. “My husband works here,” she notes, “and I’m training my daughter to be an editor for me.” What started as a small family agency has now turned into a non-profit organization with a staff of twelve.
The agency started off mainly doing film exhibitions of Asian cinema in different independent theaters throughout the Twin Cities. Hwang had also been working on a television show called East Meets West since 1989. Now, they have expanded their services into youth media education and a social service program called Reaching Immigrants with Care and Education (RICE).
Hwang says that she seeks to avoid a strict label for AMA. “I hope to continue bringing different services to people who need them, continue evolving with the community.”
For instance, she explains that AMA created RICE because they felt they needed to respond to a need. “Some youth come hungry and looking for a shelter because they got kicked out [of their homes],” she says. “We cannot kick them out and tell them we are only an after-school agency, so then we launched RICE.”
“We want each division to grow and flourish to comprehensively address community needs,” she says. “We may do less on film now, but we pick up different ideas to support the youth.” She stresses the need to communicate the stories of these youth, kicked out of their houses or forced into marriage at age twelve. “Those stories haven’t been heard or found a solution to,” she explains.
In these difficult economic times, Hwang believes the need to communicate is even more urgent. “Institutional racism, especially the lack of language help for those who don’t speak English, creates a huge mentality barrier for our families. They blame themselves if they can’t get through.
“Because it’s so [economically] difficult now,” Hwang continues, “racist actions will increase to people of color and especially to new immigrants. So I hope people just hold strong and continue to value themselves.”
Ellen Frazel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recent graduate of Macalester College, with a degree in English and creative writing.
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