What do AAPI women think about U.S. AAPI policy?
AL DÍA recently spoke to Sung Yeon Choimorrow, whose National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum tried to answer the question with a new study.
The data NAPAWF published not only highlighted the impact of racism on AAPI women, but also outlined the mindsets of these women when it comes to policy changes.
The study, which was conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of NAPAWF, is one of the largest surveys of AAPI women. The interviews were conducted online and via telephone from Feb. 1 to March 2, 2021 and the 3,537 participants had the option to complete the survey in English, Mandarin, Korean or Vietnamese.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of NAPAWF, recently sat down with AL DÍA to discuss the relevance of the data, the issues facing AAPI women, and how they think and feel about current policies.
When Choimorrow first came to the United States as a college student, after growing up in Korea and India, she had already formed perceptions of what life would be like there, and much of her ideas were in line with the concept of the “American Dream.”
But when she arrived, Choimorrow was surprised to see that not all Korean-Americans were wealthy and thriving. Through her involvement as a church youth leader in a small Korean community, she quickly noticed that the conceptions of America she constructed in her mind were far from the reality.
It was this realization that eventually led her to her current role as the executive director of a national organization that serves the larger community of Asian-American and Pacific Islander women.
“I was shocked that there were poor people, like poor Koreans, and that actually some folks didn't even have health insurance and some were undocumented. There were things I learned about our community that I had no idea about,” she said.
It opened Choimorrow’s eyes to understanding the plights of Asian-Americans as well as all the various reasons why people choose to immigrate to the U.S.
But she didn’t stop with deepening her understanding, and decided to use her skills, talent and privileges to become a community organizer and advocate for better policies.
“When talking about providing safety nets and public support, Asian-Americans tend to get left out because of that stereotype, too, right? That Asian-Americans are all engineers and lawyers and doctors and we don't need a whole lot of support. That's what I thought when I first came to this country, too,” Choimorrow explained.
With this new knowledge and insight into the struggles of her fellow Asian-Americans as well as where policies are failing them, it was clear to her she needed to act.
Choimorrow then devoted her career to fighting for her community to be seen in all their diversity, and to ensure that they receive the same kind of support that other communities get.
For instance, language, access and interpretation are three areas where she has been advocating for change for a long time. During the pandemic, many small Asian-owned businesses missed out on loans simply because they were unable to navigate the process without speaking English.
“In the Korean community, many Koreans think Korean-American banks, where they didn't have the bandwidth and the capacity to process people's loans the way Chase Bank or Wells Fargo was able to write,” she said.
Choimorrow serves as a board member of the Hana Center, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to meet the needs of Korean, Asian-American and multiethnic immigrant communities.
Talk Stories: An Asian American / Asian Diaspora Storytelling Show will be taking place on Wednesday May 5th at 7pm CDT! This virtual event is produced and hosted by @RenegadeAdaC.
Check out the Facebook event for more details: https://t.co/MFNArGEUH9 pic.twitter.com/6fdkhh9YMO
— HANA Center #Citizenship4All! (@HANACenter) April 12, 2021
“My role is to help them raise money and support the work that they do. Because I work and run a national organization, it’s really important for me to stay rooted in the community that I live in. So I do that work as a way to stay engaged locally,” she said.
As exemplified by the recent spa shootings in Atlanta, the sexual objectification of AAPI women directly results in violence. Robert Aaron Long, who murdered eight people on Tuesday, March 16, six of whom were Korean-American, claimed to have a sexual addiction, and gave that as a reason for his violent choice.
the hyper sexualization and fetishization of Asian women in places like the United States is why when I wear kimono in Japan I am regarded with respect, but get called a “sexy geisha girl” by predatory white men who view my wearing of it as an invitation to assault me
— (@MissRinAelia) March 17, 2021
Because of this statement, local authorities, and in turn, mainstream media outlets, were hesitant to label the shooting as a racial hate crime, but Choimorrow drew the clear link between Long’s need to “eliminate sexual temptation” with the history of Asian women being hypersexualized and seen as objects.
She brought up a relevant part of American history known as the Page Act. Passed in 1875, the act was one of the earliest pieces of legislation that restricted immigration to the U.S in the 19th Century.
This law established the policy of direct federal regulation of immigration by prohibiting for the first time entry to “undesirable” immigrants — specifically East Asian women, as they were seen as “unclean” and assumed to be prostitutes.
Long claimed to have killed these innocent people to “eliminate temptation,” which, as Choimorrow explained, is the same reason why the Page Act was passed — to eliminate those who are deemed to be inherently dirty and a threat to morality.
This in and of itself is...racist. This hate crime is an example of the over-sexualization of Asian women and how this perception is harmful to them. Not matter what way you spin it, the fact is, this was a racially motivated misogynistic attack. https://t.co/jUscg2SUoQ
— Nellosporin (@NellyBota) March 17, 2021
“So there's no way that's not a racially motivated crime because those two things go hand-in-hand for each American woman and in fact, Asian-American women. The way we experience racism is through sexual like it's very much in part through sexual harassment. I am rarely just sexually harassed as a woman. It's always racialized in my experience,” Choimorow said, emphasizing that this is the case for many other Asian-American women.
As executive director of NAPAWF, Choimorow works to create a world where Asian-American women and girls can be seen as well as humanized.
“Asian-American women are so hyper visible in ways that objectify us, but completely invisible in ways that humanize us. So our work and our goal is to make our stories seen and heard so that we become part and parcel of the American society,” she said.
Some of the most important work that NAPAWF does is with voter engagement, and much of it revolves around the three areas that Choimorow has been focusing on for awhile — language, access and interpretation.
“We run our engagement program in 18 different languages. This ensures that more American voters, especially women who are eligible to vote, have an opportunity to vote if they want to,” she said.
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) December 10, 2020
Choimorrow also explained that through this work, NAPAWF discovered that many people in the AAPI community were unaware of the alternatives to in-person voting, mostly due to language barriers.
“So we’ve done the hard work of getting voters out in Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois and Florida this last election in 18 different languages,” Choimorrow said.
NAPAWF conducted this study simply due to the lack of existing data about this particular community and their experiences.
Five years ago, when Choimorrow first became executive director, she would often meet with members of Congress, some of whom represent Asian-American communities, and many of these representatives knew very little about the communities they work for.
“We would talk about equal pay [in regards to] gender, the gender gap in the community, and how women struggle to make what a white man makes. They were so surprised to hear that there are ethnic groups in the Asian community where they're making half of what a white man makes in a year,” she said.
It is not just Congress members who don’t know about the issues of pay equality faced by AAPI women. Choimorrow said that the report about the wage gap is the most downloaded document on NAPAWF’s website.
AAPI women work over 2 extra months to earn what a Caucasian male earns in a year. Disaggregated data shows that SE Asian & Pacific Islander women have some of the highest wage gaps. Let’s close the wage gap & pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. #AAPIEqualPay #NotYourModelMinority pic.twitter.com/6vtmyMqTZ5
— Grace Meng (@RepGraceMeng) March 5, 2019
“This polling that we did of Asian-American women voters who voted in the past presidential election was really one of the most comprehensive surveys done to understand what are the concerns of the Asian-American community, especially Asian-American women and what motivates them and what they care about when they go to the polls,” she said.
The data that NAPAWF collected showed that many AAPI women are dealing with racial harassment on a regular basis, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted their mental health.
Choimorrow clarified that the mental health issues that AAPI women are dealing with are a combination of the trauma of losing family members or employment because of the pandemic, as well as the rise in anti-Asian violence that has been occurring all over the country.
“I do think that there are many folks who have a lot of anxiety because of the rise in violence. I know so many people and myself included, who experienced racialized harassment just out of nowhere because of the pandemic. I know a lot of women who won’t go for walks on their own anymore,”
It is a time when coping mechanisms are needed more than ever, and for many AAPI women, these methods are being taken from them out of fear of being attacked or harassed in public.
“[Maybe] your daily escape or routine is to take a walk in the morning just to get some fresh air, clear your head and get ready for the day. Now, you can't even do that,” Choimorrow said.