Changing the Way Asian and Pacific Islanders Ask For Help

Brothers and sisters in the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community, we have a problem. I realize I’m about to make a sweeping generalization, but let’s be honest- we don’t like to address some of the most problematic issues within our families. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that APIs are not sharp tongued, critical, aggressive or direct- because we most definitely are. But I am saying that even with the best intentions, we sometimes fail to really help our loved ones in an effort to avoid bringing up taboo subjects.

This isn’t the first time that issues related to stigma has been brought to light. I’m not writing about a new phenomenon. We have seen this before, with mental health, domestic and sexual abuse, addictions, infidelity, and the list goes on. The issue I’m presently speaking to is something that hasn’t been widely discussed or studied. I’m speaking about the legal status of APIs.

In Washington State, 26% of the undocumented community is made up of people who are API (that’s over a quarter!). Furthermore, over 22,000 of undocumented APIs qualify for some type of immigration relief (i.e., protection from deportation). Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that in my work as the Campaign Director of Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform, a project that addresses the lack of services and support for undocumented APIs, that I commonly come across people who know someone who is undocumented either within their family or within their social network.

Unfortunately, I came to find, after much trial and error, that being within 1 degree of separation did not increase my chances of successfully connecting with the person.

Why? Why was this so hard? The API community is a helpful one, it’s not uncommon practice to share our resources or our talents. Within my own network, my cousin-doctor was praised for his career decision because our family knew it would reduce their medical costs, my dad essentially runs his own version of NPR’s Car Talk, taking phone calls from sometimes strangers looking for free advice, while my sister and I were hired on full-time to interpret, spell check, and define unfamiliar English words for my parents. We do this sometimes with complaint, but not very much resistance because we know that without the power of our social network, we would not be as strong.

In my family, we don’t hesitate to utilize our own resources and talents; additionally members are expected to comply. But, when it comes to asking for help from outsiders, we freeze.

Why then was it so hard for APIs who are closely connected with an undocumented person to bridge the gap and connect them to resources that seem affiliated with the government? In case you missed it, I blogged about this exact topic last week.

I can’t help but analyze the culture I and other APIs live in and how that culture contributes to our ability to fully help ourselves and others. The following are some conclusions I’ve drawn based on my own experiences:

In my family and my API networks, I’ve come to find that we don’t create a culture that allows touchy subjects to be brought up and worked out. It feels unsafe to bring these types of issues into attention. Our desire to keep things within our family, settle matters on our own, behind closed doors and with only the help of a few can be a source of strength- us against the world. We have each other, and that’s all it takes. But, we forget that by not allowing others to help, we are doing our family and our friends a disservice- we are failing to adequately address problems.

My dad can spend a great deal of time listening to someone’s engine over the phone or hearing them try to recreate a “weird” sound, but even with all his expertise, he can never fully assess the issues with a car or provide any preventative service. I’m left wondering, wouldn’t it be better if my aunt in NY started developing a relationship and trust with her local mechanic? Eventually, she’ll have to take her car in and it’s better if that relationship doesn’t start when her car is in crisis.

Additionally, I’ve realized that when there isn’t a professional or pseudo-professional in my family and friends network, we dare not allow or even suggest others (such as an outside source or professional) to assist us. Furthermore, the younger you are, the more out of line it is to bring-up solutions for a problem. And in some cases, these are problems that members in the family were not suppose to know about to begin with.

To bring in a professional, I would be committing to the following crimes:

(1) Exposing the family secret

(2) Inviting an outsider into a private matter

(3) Stirring the pot

(4) Implicating others around me who have been gossiping about the problem

With these things stacked, what does it take to bring interventions into my family? Well, I think it takes bravery. It takes a family or network that is at its end, too tired and too low on resources to be worried about saving face. When we are desperate and hungry for change, we can finally open our minds and allow others to help us. But why should our families wait until they are at or approaching bottom until they ask for help? I think we are capable of doing better and capable to changing the culture to allow for better.

Have others struggled with this issue? What are your experiences?