Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tucson

The challenges of serving a diverse and changing Asian population.

Fifty-three years ago, Dorothy Lew, great grand-daughter of grocer Jerry Lee Ho, was born in Tucson becoming the first generation in her family of Canton Chinese to be raised in the United States. Now as executive director of the Pan Asian Community Alliance (PACA), she is charged with the responsibility of seeking out and assessing the needs of those who preceded and came after her. What complicates matters is that she is not only looking for the Chinese population, but those of various Asian and Pacific Islander heritage as well. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those categories include the peoples of China, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and other Pacific Islands.

Needless to say, Lew is finding this project, funded by community development block grants from the city, a complex challenge. Citing a little bit of history, she says, "There really aren't any centralized Chinatown or Asian neighborhoods as a way of locating people in Tucson like there are in other cities. Looking at how the different groups generally arrived here--the Chinese with the railroads, the Japanese with agriculture and the internment camps, the Southeast Asians as refugees and others as students or military personnel--the populations are dispersed, partly because of laws that once existed that prevented them from owning property, partly because of economics and partly because of the differences in language and culture."

Cultural difference is something 85-year-old Esther Don Tang, one of Tucson's most respected and politically active members of the Asian community, is all too familiar with. To be named in March, 2003, as an Arizona History Maker by the Arizona Historical League, Tang says that finding people who are willing to come forward is difficult because for years, most Asians purposely remained invisible out of a sense of necessity and safety.

"In the early 1900s many Chinese families and friends banded together to open small businesses, mainly grocery stores or restaurants. At the time, there were attempts to pass laws in various states preventing Orientals from renting or owning property. They didn't want to stand out because it would draw attention to them and cause trouble, even killings. Most pooled their resources together and lived quietly in the back of their stores so that there'd be enough people to take care of it; others worked as laborers. Eventually, they moved to other parts of town and the younger generations tended to move on after college."

While she cannot speak for other Asian groups, Tang says that to this day, Chinese families still tend to "take care of their own" and do not want to rely on any kind of social services or welfare. The culture is such that an individual's success reflects back on the family so there is great incentive to be successful in a somewhat impersonal way.

The relative success of certain Asian groups like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans is what has become particularly problematic for service providers like Lew and Maria Hooker, project specialist for TUSD's Pan Asian American Studies Department, president of the Korean American Women's Association and board member of PACA. Sociologically, the fact that Asian Americans have long been perceived as the "model minority," a term that has referred to the general economic and cultural success of some Asians living in the United States, has led to the stereotype that they are all thriving. Many experience downward social mobility from their country of origin and others are employed as unskilled labor or are living in poverty connected to exploitative industry practices like that of the recent sweatshop case of Thai's in California.

Hooker was hired by TUSD in 1998 out of an acknowledgement that the needs of Asian Americans were in fact as different as the needs of Native American, Hispanic and African Americans. She felt that the model minority label was so general, it didn't reflect the diversity of experiences amongst the specific groups. One of the areas she, Lew and PACA want to address include determining what the needs of each individual group are, especially of young people and the aged, provided they can find them and they're willing to talk.

"We discovered that on TUSD surveys, Asian students were categorizing themselves as white' which may indicate major identity problems. High school kids were also out there looking for jobs because their parents have gotten laid off and they needed to support the family," says Hooker.

In addition, Lew, Tang and Hooker have all indicated that regardless of cultural background, the older generation is typically too proud to ask for help or don't see services as necessary because they have families. For refugee immigrants, it can be an issue of language. They may speak some English but can't write well enough to be successfully independent; they just don't see it as important.

"Then there's always the case we don't know about like domestic violence--some grandmother trying to take care of an entire family on her social security income--or that a parent is working three jobs just to keep things together, leaving the kids unsupervised. When we send interpreters out to ask questions, they deny it," says Hooker, adding that what they do find out usually occurs through word of mouth.

Despite the challenges, those PACA has managed to reach are successfully using the resources at the Pan Asian Community Center (PACC) to gain health information, learn language skills, receive academic support and computer training, or to be active participants in keeping their self-esteem and respective cultural traditions alive through song, dance and music performance. PACA intends to continue to provide and make these services available to the community as long as people are willing to come forward and they continue to have the volunteers and the funding to make it possible.