By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Sumathi Thiyagarajan has lived a lot of places. She moved to Chicago from India when she was just over a year old. Since then, she’s lived in San Francisco, Boston and now Milwaukee. Of all the cities she’s lived, it was here in Milwaukee that she experienced the largest culture shock of her life.
Thiyagarajan struggled to find the Asian American Pacific Islander or AAPI community. In other cities the Thiyagarajan felt that the AAPI community was well integrated, but in Milwaukee it was hard to find.
“There is diversity in Milwaukee,” she said. “It’s just that it is segregated in its own pockets. I had to actively seek them out, but once I found them it felt like ‘home’.”
Thiyagarajan isn’t alone in that feeling. Jim Lee, a transplant from Manitowoc, and Maggie Waldmyer, who originally grew up in New Mexico before moving to the Midwest, also struggled to find Milwaukee’s AAPI community.
“I was surprised because I could not find any Asian community on the onset,” Waldmyer said. “As I’ve lived here, I’ve discovered more pockets of Asian communities.”
Once Thiyagarajan, Lee and Waldmyer found a connection to the community, they discovered an established community rich in diversity, food and kinship.
Waldmyer, who is Filipina and white, is proud to be Asian American.
“It gives me a greater appreciation of the world and our global society,” she said. “It gives me a lot of empathy. Knowing that I’m Asian and American gives me a diplomatic view of the world.”
In recent years, groups such as ElevAsian, a community group that aims to elevate the AAPI voice, and the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin have been working to ensure that the AAPI community is recognized and taken into consideration when it comes to decisions that directly impact
Thiyagarajan joined ElevAsian last year. ElevAsian and the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin are intentional about gathering and intentional about the work they do, she said.
In addition to supporting members of the AAPI community and celebrating AAPI heritage and culture, these two groups are advocating for the community. For example, a lot of times racism toward the AAPI community goes unnoticed or unchecked.
Thiyagarajan said microaggressions such as people avoiding pronouncing someone’s name or assuming that everyone shares the same background, socioeconomic status and capabilities are forms of underlying bias. Names are identities, names are people, she said, adding that trying to pronounce someone’s name is better than avoiding it.
Lee, who worked for the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, noted that in the past the AAPI community was quiet about the mistreatment they received, but advocates are encouraging people to speak out.
“Nationwide we’re seeing a big push of Asian Americans getting into politics,” he said.
Lee explained that are two major misconceptions about the AAPI community. The first is that the AAPI community is the model minority and the second is that everyone in the AAPI community is smart and wealthy.
“There are a lot of disparities between the groups,” Lee said. “Seeing how different communities are…it’s mind boggling.”
The Southeast Asian community experiences high levels of poverty and college dropout rates, Lee said. His company, Our Scholarship, hopes to help Southeast Asian students struggling to pay for higher education by providing scholarships.
“It would be nice for American in general to be more aware of the different groups in all communities,” he said.
The AAPI community is often seen as a monolith, Thiyagarajan said, but it is a diverse group which brings multiple differences to the table.
There are a lot of nuances to the AAPI community and culture, Waldmyer said.
She hopes that leaders start making space for members of the AAPI community at the table.
“Consider our voices and leave space for us,” she said.
While the pandemic has made things harder for everyone, it has made people more aware of the challenges that members of the AAPI community face.
These challenges stem from historical and systemic infrastructures and aren’t going away overnight, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. These are fixable problems, Thiyagarajan said, who hopes that Milwaukee takes this as the opportunity to become the most welcoming city.
Everyone plays a part in elevating the AAPI voice and integrating the community into the framework of Milwaukee. Ask questions and be curious, Thiyagarajan said. Meet the people in your community where they’re at, invite them to share a meal or start a conversation.
So much of sharing culture is having conversation and sharing food, Thiyagarajan said, and from the food perspective Milwaukee is great.
Get involved with the AAPI community, Lee said. Work with and invest in communities and companies.
“The more partners the more we can push out to the communities,” he said.
Waldmyer hopes that people make an effort to learn about the cultures they are appropriating or celebrating.
“I think much of the AAPI influence goes unnoticed because it’s accepted as trendy,” she said, citing Zoom, an Asian American owned business, matcha, a Japanese drink, and chai, a South Asian drink, as prime examples. “Study and learn our history too.”
Start with the big events and go from there, she said. Seek out work by Asians or AAPI creators, attend events hosted by members of the AAPI community, support AAPI businesses, attend the festivals, Waldmyer said.
“Get comfortable feeling a little uncomfortable,” Thiyagarajan said. “Every challenge presents an opportunity.”