Community Tradition, Belonging, Identity and What Lies Between

by the editorial team at Citi | May 27, 2021

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month — a time to celebrate the contributions, history, and cultures of the AAPI community in the United States.

This year’s observance has been impacted by the condemnable rise in racism and violence targeting those in the AAPI community. But it’s in the face of senseless acts of hate — where self-expression can feel under threat — that reflection on the meaning of identity take on all that much more importance.

Life and Money by Citi spoke to three U.S.-based Citi employees of Asian descent about how they view that piece of themselves. What emerged is a complex story — a push-and-pull between past and present belonging and individuality.

These stories highlight the struggles and challenges of the AAPI community as they navigate finding their identities, and combat the competing pressures of conformity and connection to their heritage and cultures. Through these stories comes a powerful message and need for allyship, highlighting how people can effectively support this community through education and action.

Alice Rha works in media strategy at Citi; Kwan Yim works in global agency management at Citi; and Sisi Yu works in digital marketing at Citi. Following are excerpts from those conversations

‘Space to be who I am’

Identity is the foundation for self-expression and development. Owning and controlling one’s definition of oneself is an important right that should be protected. Identity is fluid and constantly evolving — it is the manifestation of several compounding experiences and interactions, and it is important to hold space for others to develop their identity without judgment or assumption.

Kwan Yim: “I’m me. Period. I am American, I am Korean, I am a father of three, I work in marketing. Identity is what you see, but it’s not everything you see.”

Alice Rha: “I really appreciate it when people give me the space to be who I am without making assumptions about what I must think or how I might feel or what my interests are based on a single identity… My Asian identity is just a part of who I am, but it is a significant part. So it's nice to be able to acknowledge that, to whatever degree I feel like.”

Sisi Yu: “The AAPI community in this nation alone is made up of 50 ethnic groups and 100 different languages. And we all have our personal experiences and, at the same time, we're all American.”

Portrait of Kwan Yim

Photo courtesy of Kwan Yim.

‘Race, culture, our past experiences, our history – they’re with us…every day”

An integral part of identity expression and formation is the relationship individuals have with their heritage. Heritage is emblematic of the past, but it is also deeply intertwined with the present and can affect an individual’s sense of belonging and community.

At a time when the stakes for celebrating heritage and practicing traditions are higher, there seems to be a greater demand for conformity. This demand has impacted people’s ability to connect with and express their heritage authentically. Everyone experiences their heritage differently and these experiences should be safeguarded to allow room for growth, development, and a true sense of self and belonging.

Kwan Yim: “I think everyone comes from different walks of life. Every immigrant has a different story. I was not born here. I came to the U.S. from Korea, when I was 9, and I lived in different states because of my parents’ businesses. Everybody has different experiences.”

Alice Rha: “I think sometimes people want to group Asians together as just one culture or one lens through which to view the world but really it can be anything. You can be Asian American and have been in this country for many generations, or you could have immigrated yesterday, or you could have been here for a few years and are still acclimating. I think, especially if you're close to your heritage culture, it really makes a difference in how you see the world.

Sisi Yu: “I emigrated from China in the late ’80s so in some ways I’ll always identify as an immigrant…Hiding from oneself is not uncommon…Identity is a very complex and at times painful strength to develop…The reality is race, culture, our past experiences, our history – they’re with us, they’re with us every day in our interactions, our relationships, and our workplace.”

Portrait of Alice Rha

Photo courtesy of Alice Rha.

‘Compassion is key’

In order to drive effective change, society cannot rely solely on the communities affected. Allyship is crucial, now more than ever, to drive empathy and action. Being an ally means having hard conversations, getting educated on difficult topics, demanding respect for all, promoting awareness of injustices, and creating a safe space for support and conversation.

Kwan Yim: “We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Think about your actions, think about your words. We're living in an era when there's so many things that can be negative. Respect others. It all goes back to the word respect because, at the end of the day, we all deserve to be respected, we all deserve equal access to opportunities with no filter, with no racism, with no hate.”

Alice Rha: “I think that really it's very powerful to me when I know that my colleagues are learning about Asian -American history and all the different facets of it. It's been really remarkable to see all the different opportunities people have to learn about different Asian cultures. I really appreciate it when people understand the nuances and the differences between types of Asians.”

Sisi Yu: “First and foremost, compassion is key. Showing compassion to your colleagues, your friends, the people that you know is very, very important. Promoting awareness is also key to showing that you're an ally — showing your support openly and making public statements is very powerful and can be very meaningful. Provide a safe and supportive atmosphere for us to be authentic, be genuine, and speak out about the things that matter to us.”

Portrait of Sisi Yu

Photo courtesy of Sisi Yu.

The unique perspectives and experiences of Citi colleagues and the broader community demonstrate the work that lies ahead of us, starting with understanding and empathy for the AAPI community. Every person deserves the space to be themselves — proud of what makes them unique and unafraid to show it.

From that space grows the promise of a brighter and more inclusive future. And no one can create it on their own. “The diversity and the melting pot that made this country what it is and makes it so beautiful to be here,” reflected Sisi Yu, “is very meaningful and powerful.” Allyship is crucial to the preservation and protection of the diversity that makes this country flourish.

Citi stands in solidarity with the AAPI community. Learn more here.