(This personal submission is a part of the “No Longer Invisible: In Their Own Words” project, a story series established to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the UW.)
My name is Ren-Kai Andrew Yeh and I identify as a Taiwanese American. I am currently in my third year at the University of Washington and majoring in Communications. Aside from my major, I was also admitted into UW’s inaugural cohort for the Entrepreneurship minor.
Throughout my time in college, I have had the opportunity to make lasting memories and build lifelong friendships. These experiences have made me a better person and I attribute that entirely to Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian-American fraternity that I joined in my freshman year. When I first came to UW from California, I was still unsure about how I wanted to spend my college years. I was essentially leaving all of my friends behind and starting a new life in a new city and state. Joining Lambda Phi Epsilon allowed me to not only build a community with students that I identified with, but also find a group of driven individuals whom I shared similar passions. By networking through Lambda Phi Epsilon, I was able to intern with the Associated Students of the University of Washington as the Assistant Director of the Asian Student Commission, the umbrella organization of all Asian interest organizations on campus.
Because my parents emigrated from Taiwan over 20 years ago, I would consider them more Americanized than most traditional Taiwanese parents. However, there still remain cultural values that my family finds important—the first of which is the family aspect. When I was growing up, family was considered the most important priority. If there was a family outing or event, I was not allowed to hang out with my friends. My parents wanted to reinforce the idea that even in hard times, our family would always stick together. The second aspect was respect. When I was younger, I was taught to always treat my elders with respect and greet them with a bow. Because wisdom was regarded as the most important thing a person could obtain, an individual’s age usually correlated with the level of respect. Lastly, language and identity were very important to my parents. When speaking to them, they would refuse to respond unless I spoke to them in Mandarin or Taiwanese. They wanted to make sure that even though I grew up in an American culture, I would still remember my Taiwanese heritage.
Every year, I try to visit my grandparents in Taiwan. During these visits, I would always go to the night market around my residence. These night markets would always be full of energy and have the best tasting foods. My favorite Taiwanese dish would definitely be stinky tofu because it has such a strong flavor. Essentially, the stronger the smell, the better it tastes! Aside from food, I have always enjoyed the New Year celebrations. When the clock strikes 12 on January 1st, fireworks erupt from the Taipei 101 Mall and there are always people in the streets cheering. The unique thing about the Taiwanese calendar is that it started in 1912 when the Republic of China was officially founded. This means that the country of Taiwan is only 103 years old!
Retaining my own cultural identity occasionally gets pretty difficult. Whenever I tell people that I am Taiwanese, their follow up question is usually, “So you’re like, Chinese, right?” To be honest, this question used to bother me to no end. When I was growing up, my parents always told me that I was Taiwanese and to stay proud of my heritage. As a result, my usual response is to disagree and explain how Taiwan is a separate country from China. However, when a lot of people equate Taiwan with China, it gets tiring trying to explain how they are different. My advice when faced with this question would be to think about the ethnic group that fits your identify. It is important to never stop being proud of where your family originates and to your own self-identity.
It is important for the AAPI community to be visible because of how rapidly our community is growing. A few decades ago, the voices of the AAPI community were easily drowned out and it was difficult to be heard by the public. However, today’s society is completely different. Organizations such as Lambda Phi Epsilon and the Asian Student Commission have united the AAPI community both internationally and locally and allowed us to collectively promote our opinions and create change. Thus, one of the major issues that I think the AAPI community needs to be aware about is political activism. Even though our community has strong opinions about many issues, a large number of people choose not to vote or are not aware about how to register. This creates a problem because voting is the ultimate deciding factor. My vision for the AAPI community is for us to be more involved in politics. Whether it’s simply just voting or even running for public office, I believe that the AAPI community has the potential to become a powerful force in America.