In 2015, I traveled to San Fransisco with my family for the first time. While we walked through San Fransisco's Chinatown to find a good restaurant, I noticed a darker side to the city: there were shocking amounts of elderly Asian-Americans walking around the streets, collecting trash and empty bottles. What hurt me the most was seeing their frail figures lugging around towers of cans and cardboard while passersby simply stepped around them. Maybe that's just the way it is, but it led me to wonder: what's being done to help these impoverished Asian-Americans? And just how much of the Asian-American population is low-income?
In the midst of my research, I contacted organizations that are dedicated to relieving Asian-American poverty and asked them about what they've learned throughout their work. Below is the interview I conducted with Mr. Howard Shih, Research and Policy Director at the Asian American Federation in New York City.
1. Can you explain a bit about what exactly this organization does?
Howard Shih: "The Asian American Federation is sort of like an umbrella organization for over 70 Asian-American agencies in New York City. We use research to justify our policies, so we have essentially advocacy rooted in numbers. We do this by providing case studies of families who are in need, and by providing support to those families, such as mental health services or leadership development."
2. What would you say are some of the major problems the Asian-American community in NYC is facing?
Howard Shih: "Well, poverty affects all Asian ethnicities in New York City. There are certain ethnicities who we do see higher levels of poverty in. The Bangladeshi-Pakistanis, Chinese, and recently, a spike in the Burmese refugees. We see that there are more and more parents working multiple jobs, there's overcrowded housing--there's a lot of Asian-Americans in public housing in East Harlem. And there's people asking "why are there Asians in public housing?" Well, it's because they're poor, I mean why else. Why is it strange that Asians need to turn to public housing? The stereotypes surrounding Asians are perpetuating the idea that we're all doctors, lawyers. That's not the case. And there are those who do fit into those stereotypes, but there's a large portion of those who don't."
3. Based on your research, are Asian immigrants getting equal access to the kinds of opportunities that others are getting?
Howard Shih: "I would say that language access is the hardest for these families. There is not enough availability of translated materials, for example, many parents are struggling to help their kids apply to high schools in the city because they don't understand the application materials. The children are then affected by this because they now have to translate for their parents. They aren't prepared for the stress, and this may take a toll on them in the future. We also see a flipping of the social order. You know, elders who have all this knowledge of the world are no longer able to navigate the communities they are in, and it becomes the young people who become knowledgeable. This turns into social tension for the community."
4. How do you think the coronavirus has impacted Asian-American communities?
Howard Shih: "There's definitely been raised fear about hate crimes. We're trying to set up safe platforms for affected people to speak out and report incidents, but you know there's a lot of people who are reluctant to report them because they aren't registered in the U.S., so it's a struggle to get them to feel safe in reporting hate crimes. Furthermore, the kids are affected because those who are under-resourced are not able to engage in remote learning, and small businesses--especially Asian ones--are really being very impacted. There's always been some avoidance of Asian restaurants and grocery stores, but now they're being impacted more than ever."
5. What are your thoughts on Asian-American stereotypes that are being perpetuated in the media today?
Howard Shih: "They definitely, as you said like in "Crazy Rich Asians", promote the idea that Asian-Americans don't face issues like poverty and lack of education. There are consequences to these generalizations. The Asian-American community in New York City is close to 16-17% of the city's population, but only 2% of the city's social contracts go to Asian-American organizations. There is a much higher demand than there is output."
6. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share that may raise awareness on the struggles Asian-American families are facing?
Howard Shih: "Not exactly final thoughts... but just, see us. Who we really are. Behind all the stereotypes, and the media representations."
Author: Carina Sun