This Christmas, I was back in Hong Kong. I was visiting my family, but I was also there to attend the annual Asian Convention, which I’ve been going to regularly for some time now.
The Convention rotates between the large Asian cities—Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, and the like. The organizers know that it’s important to bring everyone together in a place that feels ostensibly connected with our heritage, but they also want the place to be fun.
Hong Kong is one of the favorites. The food is good, the weather (in the winter at least) is perfect, and perhaps most importantly, you can speak English for the entire weekend and still feel as Asian as the day is long. As a bonus, it is also a very navigable city with lots of things to see and do, so all the white spouses can entertain themselves while we are convening. I think they even have a Google Doc with itineraries and sign-ups and everything.
I am on the Board, which consists of seven members, mostly young professionals, and by that I mean three lawyers, two consultants, an accountant, and an investment banker. (We have had discussions in the past about how to recruit underrepresented professions like doctors and engineers on the Board for “occupational diversity,” but have had mixed results so far.) During the Convention, we have at least one Board Meeting, which is usually hosted by whichever Board Member is currently furthest up the career ladder at their respective multinational conglomerate’s / professional services partnership’s posh Hong Kong office. These offices are always on the 60th story or so of some grand skyscraper in Central on Hong Kong Island, and have floor-to-ceiling windows that provide panoramic views of Victoria Harbor and the boats and ships passing through.
This year, that person was Jenny Lau, who was also the Board Chairperson, and who was up for partner at a fancy law firm in Palo Alto. Jenny did it all—she was from Denver, did Teach for America in Chicago (for three years not two), and was indefatigably peppy and hard-working, a real go-getter who always spearheaded all the post-Convention dimsum runs, karaoke nights, and community outreach events. She ran marathons, didn’t take shit from anybody, and was also on the board of a charitable nonprofit or two. All in all, there was no question in my mind that she would be a superb partner, and we all knew that we needed people like Jenny. Somebody must bear our torch. So we were rooting for her, though we also silently understood the practical reality of timing, and we kept our fingers crossed that that “double diversity” spot that seems to open up every now and then was in play this year. Every little bit helps. I think her husband works in tech at some startup that does something with whales.
After some pleasantries, Jenny got the meeting started. Today’s agenda had one big ticket item, but there wasn’t much left to do on it but vote. I saw a few Board members texting under the table, probably figuring out plans for after the meeting was over.
“Okay,” Jenny began. “As you all know, we have a big vote today, but we’ll try to make this quick, because I know everybody wants to get out and enjoy Hong Kong.” She gestured to the PowerPoint slide projected on the screen.
“Two choices. Either ‘Asian & Pacific Islander American’ or ‘Asian Pacific American.’ We’ll—”
“Wait, what’s the difference again?” Paul Kim, a director of the derivatives group of an investment bank in New York City, had interjected, and then, everyone started talking at once.
“And the ampersand.”
“Do we really need to use an ampersand?”
“I’m more concerned that Pacific is already kind of redundant, let alone Islander.”
“It’s not redundant, it’s for like Malaysians and Indonesians and stuff.”
“But aren’t they Asian too?”
“That’s what I mean, it’s redundant.”
“I think it’s too long.”
“Yeah, it’s going to become an acronym.”
“Nobody remembers acronyms.”
“But we want to be more inclusive. We want to show that we’re a big tent.”
“Well, does it do that? How are we defining Asian anyway?”
“Yeah, if you originally came from Asia, you’re Asian.”
“That covers a lot of ground.”
“Yeah, so why don’t we just use Asian if it already includes the Pacific?”
“That might be seen as reductive.”
“Yeah, exactly, that’s why we put the Pacific there in the first place.”
“But isn’t that kind of other-ing?”
“Hold on, what exactly are we trying to capture again?”
“I think it probably just comes down to whoever has the eyes.”
Jenny banged her gavel. “Look, I understand that neither option is perfect. But this is what was submitted, and I sent the email at least a month ago, and nobody submitted additional suggestions, so this is what we’re voting on.”
Lin Liu tapped Jenny on the shoulder, whispered in her ear, and handed her a folded piece of paper. Lin was from China, spoke with an accent, and had grown up dirt-poor, the only daughter of a single mother who worked as a food hawker on the outskirts of Shanghai selling fishballs and roasted chestnuts out of a tiny pushcart to the masses of construction workers who couldn’t afford to live in the heart of the city where they worked. At the age of 14, on a lark, she had somehow stowed away onto a plane bound for Los Angeles and landed in America with nothing but the clothes on her back because they didn’t even have any money to sew into a shirtsleeve. She found some distant relatives to take her in, picked up English and violin in short order, and graduated as both the valedictorian of Arcadia High School (80% Asian) and the concertmaster of the California Youth Orchestra (same); somewhere along the way, she also published a book in Chinese about her rags-to-America journey that was released in China and was promptly censored by the governmental authorities. She was waitlisted at Harvard, passed over for some white kid who had taken a gap year in Beijing and spoke proficient Mandarin, so she stayed in-state. She was now a CPA, sends money home every month, and while she hasn’t seen her mother for twelve years, they are very close.
“What is this?” Jenny asked, holding up the slip of paper, unfolding it before the group, and pointing to what I had written.
I have to admit, I don’t usually participate too much in these meetings. It’s just not my style. But when Jenny had sent the email earlier last month with the two options, she had added that if any of us had additional suggestions, we should send them to Lin. And while I can’t explain what came over me that day, something definitely did, and so I had done just that.
Now, Jenny was staring at me, eyes wide and unblinking, holding up my suggestion in the air with one hand and, with the other, pointing to what I had written, which was:
“That’s a tilde,” I said.
“I know what a fucking tilde is, I’m asking you if you’re serious.”
There was a pause, and then people started laughing and talking again at once.
“I like it.”
“Yeah, we should put an asterisk at the end.”
“Maybe one at the beginning too.”
“Guys, come on, be serious.”
“I am being serious.”
“Listen, it’d at least be easy to remember.”
“And it wouldn’t be an acronym.”
“It’s kind of fun.”
“Yeah, I mean does anyone ever remember when the Asian Pacific Whatever American History month is?”
“I think it’s May.”
“No, it’s March.”
A few people took out their phones to check.
“Okay. Wikipedia says it’s May.”
“Yeah, well, if we started calling it aZn History Month, I guarantee you more people would remember it’s in May.”
“Especially with the tildes.”
“Why is it in May in the first place?”
A few sighs.
“Think about it, everybody knows that February is Black History Month.”
“Is it African-American History Month or Black History Month?”
“I think it’s Black History Month now.”
“Okay, well that’s all I’m saying, that rolls of the tongue. Acronyms don’t.”
“I agree, but I don’t know if that’s a good reason, we can’t just keep doing what other people do all the time, at some point we’re going to need to start doing our own shit.”
Jenny banged the gavel again and rubbed her forehead. “Oh my God, you guys, enough. Look, let’s take a five-minute break. When we come back, we’re going to vote on the first two options. This is important, and we need to take it seriously. Be professional.”
While everyone stood up to stretch their legs and check their work email, Jenny pulled me aside.
“What is your problem?”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t a joke.”
“I’m not joking.”
“I think it could work.”
She sighed and pointed her index finger at me. “Listen, there are two options. I’m not going to play this game with you. I don’t really feel strongly about either one, but I like the shorter one better, and we all know the Koreans are going to vote as a bloc, so I need you to be the tiebreaker.”
Her phone buzzed.
She looked at it. “Look, I need to take this. I have no idea what’s going on with you, but can you please just get your act together and take this seriously? This is really important, and I know you know that.”
After we voted, I walked out the glass doors of the conference room, down the marble tiled hallway and into an elevator, where a small screen above the array of buttons told me that it was 18°C and sunny. I reached the lobby, and I walked outside and joined the crush of people (there is always a crush of people) walking this way and that. I turned away from the harbor and the snarl of Queen’s Road—which took me uphill into narrow streets, past the bars and tapas restaurants of Lan Kwai Fong, along the noodlehouses and teashops of Wellington Street, through a wet market lined with butchers and fishmongers selling their goods in open foyers of buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, and eventually I found myself among the art galleries and coffee roasters tucked into the steep and graffitied alleyways that snake upwards from Hollywood Road. At the back of one of these alleys, I climbed a flight of stairs and when I reached the top, I stopped to catch my breath. Here, there were apartment buildings, and in Hong Kong, there is nothing built more efficiently than apartment buildings, packed adjacent and sometimes even concentric, laundry lines hanging out of each window with shirts and dresses flapping in the breeze, the units stretching up and up, stacked top to bottom and end to end like novels in a bookcase, teeming with countless stories that most nobody will ever read.