Local Man Shares His Experience With Inclusivity and Racism in Honor of Asian American Month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, and in honor of that recognition we spoke with a local dad, Stephen R. Yen, on his and his family’s experience as an American Born Taiwanese. 

Stephen is a software development manager and in his free time enjoys dancing, archery, video gaming and being a driver for his teenage sons.

“Ann Arbor seems to be an inclusive place for the Asian community,” Yen said. “As people become more educated about other cultures, I feel that questions about my culture and ethnicity are more from a place of curiosity, rather than mistrust.”

Experiences when younger

Growing up, Yen often felt pressure from his parents to always behave in a way that brought honor to his heritage. They would tell him his behavior represented not only him, but also the entire Asian community. “No pressure!” he jokes. 

In elementary school, he lived in Troy, and non-Asian children would call his food “gross” or “weird”, causing him to feel embarrassed. 

Yen experienced other boys picking fights with him to see if he learned Kung-Fu (he didn’t), but he did eventually learn the discipline so that when the inevitable fights occurred, he could defend himself. 

Even when he stood up for himself in self-defense, school policies called for him to be suspended along with the aggressor, even if the aggressor was picking on him for racist reasons.  Yen recalls, on one occasion, being shoved down a flight of stairs to provoke him into a fight. 

Adult Experiences 

As an adult trying to work his way into the management world, Yen said that people would caution him, “Management is not like math and science.” These comments came across to Yen as, “Asians are only good at math and science.” 

Several times when he was passed up for promotions, he wondered if higher-ups assumed he had few skills beyond math and science, or that he wasn’t competent with speaking English. 

When it comes to the people who cautioned him, he said he wishes they would have said, “Switching from an engineering track to a management track has different challenges.”  “Assuming that they were not acting upon their biases in a discriminatory way, I would then have a clearer understanding of their concerns,” Yen said. 

Continuing Biases

Now the father of two teenagers, Yen is happy that his children are growing up in a racially diverse area. But even then, there are still subtle (or not-so-subtle) biases that he and his children experience. 

“One year their elementary school principal announced that for the first time, ‘White students are a minority in the school.’ In reality, what she meant was that white students now made up 49% of the school population, and every non-white student added together made up 51%,” Yen said. 

Fortunately, Yen feels his children’s experience at school has been much better than his own and he said his children haven’t told him of any cases of overt racism towards either themselves or fellow Asian students. 

Concerns over racism

However, he said racism took a turn for the worse in the last several years.  “As an adult,” Yen said. “I haven’t feared being the target of physical violence until after the 2016 election.” 

Yen said he feels that anti-Chinese rhetoric has empowered racists to act out white supremacist fantasies. “The week of the 2016 election, “I was inside the S. 4th and E. William St. parking structure and heard a group of people with red MAGA caps chant, ‘TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!’ while marching towards my car. For the first time in my life, I started carrying pepper spray everywhere I went,” Yen said.

Yen is trained in archery, and he kept his archery equipment accessible in his house, just in case the worst happened. He has also kept a close eye on his kids, asking them to be extra vigilant. 

Things seemed to relax about a year after the 2016 election, but when COVID hit and the then President began tweeting about the “Chinese virus,” this set off alarm bells for Yen again.  “Fortunately, people were quarantined during the pandemic, and my house was never a target,” Yen said. 

He said he feels that any overt Asian racism in Ann Arbor or Detroit has gone back into hiding now.  “I feel that many non-Asians still could better understand how positive sounding compliments could be racist, and why even ‘positive’ stereotypes can have negative consequences,” he said. “When people tell me that ‘I have good English,’ it makes me feel that this person assumes that I am not an American born citizen–I am the other. Why else would they assume that my English skills would be lacking?”

Stephen said such comments cause him to wonder if potential employers have also been uncertain about his English communication skills, and if this perception has affected past job prospects. 

“Because I know this bias exists, I have worked hard to perfect my written and verbal communication skills to try to prove that I am a ‘real’ American,” he said. 

Clearly, that is something that Yen shouldn’t feel like he has to do. That ability to effectively communicate is often not something that white or white-passing people do not realize or think twice about. 

Yen has created a positive and supportive network around himself.

“In social settings, amongst friends and my community, I feel as welcome as any other,” Yen said. “But, I know that in other social settings, like professional mixers, I have to be the one to make the first move to chat and group up with others. From my experience, in most other caucasian group settings, white people tend to engage in conversations and group with other white people. It makes me feel like I’m just a NPC (non-player character) or background furniture.” 

Although it is a natural human tendency to associate with people who look and act like ourselves, to counter all forms of racism (including subtle racism, which can be the most insidious), it’s important to recognize these biases and to make efforts to dismantle them.