Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage

The following blog was written by a ProMedica employee in reflection of American Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May 2021. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the author. They do not reflect the opinions of ProMedica or other ProMedica employees.

Korean… that is the answer to the question I’ve been asked dozens of times. The question…”What [ethnicity] are you?”

For those bold enough to try to answer their own question, the most common I hear is Mexican (or one of several other Latin countries), Indian (not sure if they mean Native American or South Asian –  sometimes I don’t know if they know the difference) or Italian; rarely will I get any East Asian country.

My dad, Gary, was a 6’4″ Sergeant in the U.S. Army and served as a Military Policeman during the Korean War. My mom, Mi Soon, was a 5’1″ firecracker Korean who met my dad while he was stationed in Inchon, Korea. She worked on the base and after a relatively short courtship, when he came back home, he brought her back with him.

What I didn’t realize until I was much older and after many conversations with her, was how difficult it was for my mom here in the U.S. She was the mother of two boys, which would gain her recognition in Korea, but here, people saw her Asian face, heard her broken English and treated her like she didn’t belong.

I saw this firsthand in our hometown of Bedford Township, Michigan. Today, Bedford is 97.56% white and only 0.51% Asian, so imagine what it was like 60 years ago. My mom loved to volunteer and took one opportunity to work as a crossing guard at my elementary school; across the street from the high school, where she would earn her GED by attending night classes. Unfortunately, a few kids would always make fun of her looks and mock her speech. There were times she would get so angry, she would cry. Years later, she told me she wasn’t mad at the kids for making fun of her, she was mad at herself because she felt she was bringing shame to our family. That story crushed me because I would never have felt that way, but she did.

My mother was a traditional Asian woman, selfless and always putting her family first, even to her own detriment. Another detail I didn’t realize while I was a child was that she hardly ever ate dinner with us. She would prepare dinner, my dad, brother, and I would sit at the table to eat, but only on special occasions would she join us at the table. Once we finished eating, we would help clear the table, but only then would she sit down to eat. Later, when I was old enough to figure out this was completely weird and awful, she explained her actions by saying it was a way for her to show us that she loved us more than anything else.

She even sacrificed sharing her life and experiences in Korea with us, which in her mind was to protect us. She told me she was actually afraid to teach us about Korean culture because she was worried my brother and I would be treated like outcasts, as she was when she came here.

My mom passed away in 2006 and I wasn’t able to spend enough time with her to learn more about that half of my heritage and culture. I see the current treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans today and wonder if we’ve made ANY progress. Sure, we like Asian food and movies, but what about the people, the languages, the cultural differences? I’m thinking mom would still feel like an outsider, 60 years after coming here.

What I do know is that we all would have benefited from knowing my mom–her love for volunteering, how selfless she acted, the pride she felt in her family, and the love she had in her heart. We could all use more of those qualities these days, and Mi Soon was a great example and for me and those who got to know her.

Highlighting Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month helps us build a culture of inclusion that leverages diversity and creates equity in our workplace, health care and our communities. Learn more about ProMedica’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Matt Wagenhauser with his son.