By Bonnie Chan
Helen Zia is an activist, journalist, writer, and NAPAWF founding sister. She was born in New Jersey in 1952 and graduated with Princeton University’s first female graduating class before becoming a community organizer and award-winning journalist, as well as executive editor of Ms. Magazine. She is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a personal and historical narrative of the Asian American experience. As an activist, Zia has been outspoken on topics ranging from women’s rights to queer rights to API visibility. She and her partner of 16 years, Lia Shigemura, were recently married in San Francisco in 2004 and again in May 2008. She lives in Oakland, CA.
HZ: So if I say anything ungrammatical or bad or whatever, you can edit it, okay?
NAPAWF: That’s fine, because I’m liable to do the same thing. So, what have you been up to lately?
HZ: I was in China for six months. I was there on a Fulbright Fellowship. I was over in Shanghai doing research on my next book project.
NAPAWF: What’s the book project?
HZ: Well, generally it’s about Shanghai at the time of the 1949 Communist Revolution, and the exodus— the fears and concerns of people at that time. Shanghai was one of the major port cities, and in 1949, lots of people, thousands and thousands, left and ended up here in the U.S.
NAPAWF: What inspired you to take on this next book?
HZ: Oh, I’ve been hearing about these stories all my life. My mother was one of those people [from Shanghai], and different people I’ve run into would say, “Oh, my parents came on the last plane or last train out of Shanghai.” Their experiences are very different from the Cantonese or the Toi-San experience. A lot of these people are dying off now. There aren’t many of them alive anymore, and it’s a piece of American history that’s being lost. We’re talking about the late ’40s and early ’50s, and people who were alive at that time are now in their 80s or older. The collective memory of it is really gone or going, and that’s one reason why I wanted to do it. The Vietnam War was also an exodus, a story of exiles and refugees, and all of these major historic events in Asia actually have a lot to do with U.S. or Western imperialism, which created different waves of exiles and refugees and migrants. The broader American public really doesn’t understand the lives of the Vietnamese who ended up being dispersed, or the Cambodians, or the Lao, or the Indian or Pakistani people after the Partition. And the more those stories can become part of the history or narrative of America, the better it will be, because our communities are complex. So my interest in this story isn’t completely motivated by, say, a political agenda. It really is just that I think these stories have to be captured. But ultimately, if they’re told and if people can understand, “Oh, well, okay, the people from Shanghai and the people from Southern China really are different and come from a different social class and cultural background from each other,” then I think we’ll improve understanding of Asian Americans. So that’s what I’m hoping will happen with this book.
NAPAWF: Sounds like a project of love—contrasting that with a project of anger, which is another powerful motivating factor but coming from a different place.
HZ: Well, in the way you distinguish the two, [my first book] Asian American Dreams was probably more motivated out of anger, just being fed up with the way Asian Americans were being treated and vilified in the 1990s. Now here we are at the end of the first decade of the 2000s and I don’t know that much progress has happened.
NAPAWF: Do you think anything has changed since you first started writing Asian American Dreams?
HZ: Some things have changed. I think the community is even more organized than it was then. I mean, look at NAPAWF. Its founding was in 1996, and that’s when I was writing Asian American Dreams. And besides NAPAWF, there really are a lot of other organizations. The younger generation of Asian American activists is really sharp, active, involved, sophisticated. And compared to ten years ago, I think our communities have grown— just physically grown, but that also means that they’ve grown more complex, and so there are more subtleties, more things that people within the community know, and they add to the challenges of organizing. So I think a lot within our communities has changed. As far as how the mainstream views our communities, I don’t think that’s changed. Actually I think it’s gone backwards quite a bit.
NAPAWF: In what ways?
HZ: Like the Patriot Act I and II. Like September 11th. Like all the anti-immigration stuff, all the deportations, things like that. Terrible, devastating. And those specifically impact our communities directly. In general, just the Bush regime, and all the right-wing fundamentalism coming out, especially in Washington, D.C. Supreme Court decisions that have been so backward, and those things also hurt our communities a lot. Health care, the terrible economy—these issues disproportionately affect communities of color, including Asian American communities. Though of course everybody thinks that Asian-American communities are rich, so the whole impact becomes hidden, invisible. So there’s two things going on: The communities themselves and the evolution, which I think has been advancing because they need to, and then at the same time, the negative forces overall— the world, political, economic trends.
NAPAWF: What then do you think is the point of NAPAWF? What is your vision for NAPAWF?
HZ: You know, this whole idea of “What can young Asian American women—whether they’re born here or whether they’re born abroad—what vision can they have here in this country?” I was born here, and I didn’t see anyone like myself when I was growing up, and that made me feel very alienated. A whole generation is still feeling like they don’t know, “What is it in this country that I can feel positive about, for myself? And to give me a sense of politics and that I can change things and that I don’t have to just go work for Google and make a lot of money to feel like I’m somebody?” So if NAPAWF can do that on a nation-wide basis, and not only give people a sense of empowerment but also that they can do something with that and change things in a progressive way, and have some power and control over the direction of their lives, that would be huge.
I really think that, back in ’96 at [the Beijing Conference on Women], we had a list of things—politically, where we asked ourselves where we stood on different issues? But really, when you get down to it, the actual politics will change from year to year and decade to decade, what the issues of the day are. Who could have anticipated all these ICE attacks on our immigrant communities, or that they would be talking about internment camps, or that we’d HAVE internment camps? The actual issues of the day may change, but the idea that every one of us in our communities can do something about it, that feeling has to begin in elementary school. If high school students knew that they could go volunteer at some organization like NAPAWF, go hang door-knocker tags about immigrant women’s rights or something like that, that would be great. And to be there as a vehicle so that they can go organize on whatever issues of the day are the most pressing for their own generation.
NAPAWF: What I heard in your vision, in terms of empowerment, was also “civic engagement.” In terms of the November elections, there’s been a lot of talk about civic engagement and voter mobilization, especially in communities of color. Do you have a vision for what civic engagement looks like for the API community?
HZ: We have to be seen as part of the body politic. The thing is, when I was young and organizing and thinking about all this stuff, I really felt that the powers-that-be would have to recognize us, we would have to GET them to give us political power. Now it’s very clear to me that nobody is going to give up political recognition or power at all, we’re just going to have to stand up and insist on it and pound our fists on the table and be there, and let them know that if they ignore us there will be consequences. They will pay the price, and that will be in the form of votes and of money. And that’s the main thing, that’s all they see— if they ever see Asian Americans, they think it’s a big dollar sign. So we have to make it clear that they’re not going to get that, our communities are not going to support anybody who doesn’t see us. Now, we have not been good at that. Whether it’s about getting a streetlight or about education or about getting Asian languages taught, our communities really haven’t been very vocal.
NAPAWF: Do you think that’s complacency?
HZ: Maybe, but I also think there are plenty of people who are trying to beat their heads against the walls, and are treated badly or ignored. I don’t think everybody’s complacent. We have to have militancy, but not everybody has to go around and carry a banner and get arrested or have a demonstration. It’s okay, not everybody has to do that, but we have to allow some people to do that and not think, “That’s great, if they do it, I don’t have to!” People have to stick their necks out. But we’re getting there. NAPAWF is part of that, of being there and doing that kind of grassroots organizing. Because ultimately that’s what it takes, person by person. But I think we’re still at a stage where nobody ever thinks there are any consequences at all— “Ignore Asians? That’s fine.” And I do think that’s the prevalent view. “Oh, they’re all model minorities, they’re all doing great. So what if they’re not? Not my problem.” Well, we have to make it their problem. So I think that’s the big challenge.
NAPAWF: Switching topics, how’s married life treating you?
HZ: Well, my spouse and I have been together for 16 years, so our day-to-day life has not changed at all. It does feel different, but as far as day-to-day, it hasn’t. What changes is how the rest of the world and how your family treats you. My mother has known Lia for 16 years and that we have a life commitment to each other, but the fact that we are married now makes her happy. She feels it’s more of a stable thing that she can also explain to people: “Yes, my daughter is married.” Lia’s father is now an in-law to my mother, you know? So it has changed the relationships, which is a little weird, in a way that I never thought about before. I have a niece who’s going to be a junior in college, so she’s known Lia since she was two years old and only known her as Auntie Lia. So when Lia and I got married the first time in 2004, she said, “Now you’re really my Auntie!” So marriage isn’t just between two people and their commitment to each other, it’s also a bonding of an entire family structure.
NAPAWF: Congratulations to you and Lia! Does it feel different than in ’04, this time around?
HZ: Yeah, very much. The Supreme Court of California even sanctioned that anything less than marriage is discrimination. I mean, it was really quite an incredible judgment, similar to what the Supreme Court of the U.S. did in 1967 about interracial marriages. Who would’ve dreamed it? I mean, actually, we all knew that this decision was going to be happening sometime this year, but most people I know—Lia and I, certainly—we didn’t dare to hope that it would be in our favor. Because we were just ready to be disappointed, like what happened in Hawaii. The court in Hawaii said it was discrimination [to not allow same-sex marriage], but then they immediately shut the door and they allowed this stupid ballot measure to happen just like what’s coming up in November [in California], and then that completely shut the door. In California, people are a little bit more ready for this. Hawai’i was the first state that had this huge vote, more than 10 years ago, and people weren’t ready for it. They thought something terrible would happen. So, alright, now Canada, Massachusetts, Spain, Vermont, and in 2004, here [in San Francisco], and the world hasn’t blown up over it, nobody’s been struck dead by this. So I think people have had a little more time to think, “Okay, what’s so bad about it, how does it affect me? Zero.” Why should my marriage affect anybody else’s life? The Chinese and Asian language news covered the weddings. There’s a difference in their coverage.
NAPAWF: What is the difference?
HZ: Well, in 2004, it was, “Oh, how weird.” [Laughs] “And look what these white people are doing,” you know? “This doesn’t affect OUR community.” This time, there were actually a lot more Asian couples that they could talk to, they could speak to them in Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese, so I think their coverage was a lot more open and accepting, and not like, “Euugh! Yuck!” which was pretty much what it was before. And people are getting married and their children are there, so they could see, “Oh, these are couples and they have children too.” I think it’s making people think a little more before they make a judgment.
NAPAWF: Congratulations again, and thank you so much for your time, Helen!
HZ: Thank you!