May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. In a year characterized by growing levels of anti-AAPI hate across the country, we wanted to stand in solidarity and celebrate the diversity, character, and strength of the AAPI community here at HBS.

The Asian-American Business Association (AABA), in collaboration with students and organizations across campus, is proud to share and honor the stories of our community members. We hope these stories showcase the history, richness, and diversity of the AAPI experience and inspire hope for a world of empathy, compassion, and courage.

Michi Ferreol – Class of 2021

I grew up in the Philippines, around other kids who looked like me and talked like me. So while I watched a lot of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen shows back then, I never really understood that I was different. Being Asian was simply never something I thought about, much less said out loud

But when I moved to the U.S. for college, everything changed. In the first week, I began getting flyers in my mailbox to join the Asian American Association, the Asian American Dance Troupe, and other similar organizations. I just tossed these mindlessly into my recycling bin.

“Asian American?” I thought to myself. “Can’t relate."

Yes, I was Asian. But I was an Asian in America, not an Asian American. The distinction, for me, was crucial.

But as the months went by, I discovered that other people didn’t care about this distinction. I had been typified and lumped in the same bucket. To distinguish, I found myself having to consistently un-explain and re-explain certain elements of my life that stemmed clearly from my Filipino heritage and that were different — why I always had spare tamarind soup packets in my dorm room, why it was non-negotiable to go home for Christmas and New Year’s, and why I always had to bring back a bunch of gifts for family after travelling.

Over the years, however, I have become less focused on differentiating the Filipino experience from the AAPI experience and, instead, have embraced the commonalities across all the stories I have heard. And I continue to be grateful to be part of such a dynamic, complex, colorful community.

Aaron Gan – Class of 2021

I grew up in Singapore in a multi-racial and cosmopolitan society where everyone in my generation is bilingual. I did not really have to think about being Asian – there was nothing special or amiss in reading Shakespeare and writing Chinese poems in school, eating Indian and Malay food at school canteens, and watching the English Premier League at Irish pubs. Most of my friends spoke another language apart from English at home, and we communicated in English interspersed with words from our respective ethnic languages. We all saw each other as one community, absorbing each other’s cultures and customs while throwing jokes at one another.

When I first came to the U.S. more than a decade ago for college, it was disorientating. Perhaps it was the first time I experienced being a minority; perhaps it was that the diffusion of cultures I have grown accustomed to quickly turned into me trying to fit into American culture instead. I never felt so different in such a stark manner. Looking back, I did not think too much whenever people said that my English was surprisingly good; I mostly smiled and thanked them for their compliment. I politely corrected people whenever they presumed that Singapore was part of China. In trying to learn about and adapt to American culture, I unintentionally swept away my own culture and missed the opportunity to share something that means so much to me.

A decade later at HBS, I am glad to have found a community that is engaging in a dialogue to learn about each other’s cultures and ways of thinking, that is looking to understand Asia not as a monolithic whole but as a unique and special mix of countries. Being Asian to me is complex but invigorating, and I have found that it is important for me to use my voice and story to share what that means to me and to invite others to partake in my culture rather than to simply smile and walk away.

Patricia Jiang – Class of 2021

My parents packed their bags and moved from China to Canada when I was three years old. Not wanting me to struggle with them as they built a new life in a foreign land, they left me with my grandparents back home. Even though my mom had an engineering degree and years of work experience under her belt, she washed dishes and folded clothes to earn a living because it was the only work she could find.

When I moved over at five years old, I didn’t know what sacrifice meant but I knew that a lot had been given up for us to be there. Only years later did I hear the stories of how my mom rented a small basement unit to save every penny she earned so that she could bring me over as soon as possible. Only decades later did I learn how much courage and strength it takes to sacrifice that much for your family.

Being a second-generation Asian American means carrying the weight of those sacrifices with you. It means recognizing how much your family gave up for you to be where you are today, and it means knowing that you have to do your best every day so that perhaps one day you will come close to paying them back for all that they have done for you. My heritage is both my reminder to always be grateful for what I have and my motivation to keep moving forward.

Feiyue Li – Class of 2021

I’ve always known that I sometimes feel certain things others that probably don’t. This has given me the great gift of empathy to connect with people, but also the amplification of my emotions in ways I don’t like. I cry easily at movies, graduations, and farewell events. When “empathy” and “sensitive” are the two sides of the same coin, I sometimes wish I could “turn off” my emotions so that I could quickly move on to the next thing.

Where did I even get this from, as a Chinese kid growing up occupied with exams and absolutely no time to “feel”? When I look back on my childhood, my parents supported me in learning how to draw since I was three, which equipped me with extraordinary senses to observe the world around me. Even though Asian culture doesn’t celebrate expressiveness, my parents would always have Friday movie nights with me and talk about all the little things in my life and their lives over dinner. They always made me feel loved no matter what I felt and shared.

That’s exactly what I want to do for my community. I want to use empathy to build deep connections and create space for people in my community to share what’s on their minds, especially the hard feelings.

If you ever feel like you’re on a small boat alone in the dark ocean, maybe I’m not a lighthouse person, but I’ll be paddling over on another small boat. I’ll reach you, with a lamp in my hand, as well as ice cream, cookies, and noodle soup, and just let you know:

“Hi, I see you.”

Calvin Tjandra – Class of 2022

I landed at San Francisco International Airport on a Boeing 747 in 1999. We had travelled so far from Jakarta that the plane had refueled twice. I was five, an immigrant, a refugee, in kindergarten, and Indonesian in every way except one – I was in America. The past 21 years I have been a collision of the world my family left behind and the one we lived in now. We formed our own dialect of English-Indonesian, I ate American food for lunch and Asian food for dinner, and I accepted my identity as a bridge connecting two antipodal places and cultures. Bridges are sometimes a liability - I was often torn between the Asian values of my parents and the American ones I saw outside – but bridges are also remarkable – helping people travel to and imagine new places, drawing their strength from both sides of the divide that they attempt to span.

Maya Voelk – Class of 2022

In 1942, my grandfather, a California-born Japanese American, left his home with two bags in hand. The U.S. was at war with Japan, and wartime fear had led to xenophobic, racist, and baseless claims that all Americans were safer with Japanese Americans placed behind barbed wire fences. With an executive order in place, he and over 100,000 others headed for an internment camp.

Still today, Asian Americans are often viewed as perpetual foreigners, as inherently less American than others. Strangers look at me suspiciously when I tell them I was born in the U.S., then demand answers to where I’m “really from.” My peers will sometimes offer statements like, “I don’t think of you as Asian,” an attempted wink and nudge that despite my Japanese heritage, they still see me as one of them. Through telling his experience in internment camp, my grandpa helped me understand the layered history of prejudice that these attitudes stem from. But he also demonstrated the U.S.’s ongoing need for purposeful and inclusive leadership, and I hope to spend my career defending individual liberties and creating warm, empathetic communities for all.

Sylvester Wee – Class of 2021

I was fourteen years old when I first encountered racism during one of my tennis tournaments in Australia. I was shocked, confused, and scared.

Growing up in Singapore, I had been sheltered from the racism of the outside world as I was brought up in a multicultural and multiracial setting. I played tag with my Indian friends, I went to school with my Malay classmates, and I practiced tennis with Eurasians.

My international tennis career exposed me to the harsh realities of living life abroad as an Asian. Coming to the U.S. for my undergraduate studies and now graduate school, I continue to see instances of racial discrimination, division, and tension, all of which I find upsetting and unfortunate.

While some people accept racism as a sad reality, I have seen in my childhood that it does not need to be this way, and I feel compelled to do something about it. I grew up thinking that the world was a beautiful place where everyone co-existed harmoniously. But I have come to realize that we are far from that utopia. That's why one of my key life goals is to foster unity regardless of race, religion, gender, economic status, and persuasion, in whatever I do moving forward.

Chen Wei – Class of 2021

The first time I went back to China since immigrating to the U.S., everywhere I went, I was called a "mei guo wa wa." In Mandarin, this means "American child." When this happened, I remember my head would grow hot with indignation. I'd shout that I too was Chinese and then, as if on cue, others would laugh. Surrounded by my Chinese heritage, I felt distinctly un-Chinese.

Growing up, I struggled with my identity as an Asian American. For me, being Asian American meant not being fully Asian and not being fully American, but occupying a tiny, awkward, "other" space that lay at their intersection. It meant feeling small.

In school, when I struggled to pronounce the letter "r" – in the word "reading" for example – I was reminded that I wasn't truly American. At home, when I called my grandparents in China and struggled to communicate my thoughts, I remembered that I wasn't truly Chinese.

Almost two decades later, I still grapple with this. What has changed, however, is that I have had time to learn about and reflect on my parent’s stories: my mom being the first woman from her village to go to college, my dad growing up in remote Xinjiang but dreaming of going to America to win the Nobel Prize. These stories ground me, they make me feel connected – and big – because as a Chinese immigrant and an aspiring physician-entrepreneur, I simultaneously get to be the continuation of my parent’s heritage and the next chapter of their dreams. In the process, I’m learning to see my two identities as an additive union, rather than a point of intersection, encompassing all my Chinese heritage and all my American ambitions.

Milly Wang – Class of 2022

I take great pride in embodying the beloved Asian values that I grew up with – humility, discipline, hard work, and respect for elders. But at the same time, I have also come to realize that these values can sometimes hinder one’s career progression. The American workplace is one that values loud voices, strong opinions, and making your contributions known. The default for many of us is to just work hard and have results speak for themselves. But this only works well in a school environment with standardized metrics, and completely falls apart in a complex workplace with varied evaluations – perhaps this is why despite the high success rates of Asians in schools, the “bamboo ceiling” still exists. It is thanks to the Asian affinity group at my first job that I was able to recognize this internal tension and explore ways to do well at work while staying true to my values. While I have yet to find the right balance today, I hope that one day I will.

Aaron Yang – Class of 2022

Me and my dad the day of my HBS Interview

My parents, like those of many other AAPIs, immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam with no money. When the North Vietnamese took over the city of Saigon, my grandparents were forced to sign away their businesses to the government and escaped persecution of the country as political refugees. In America, my parents owned the corner store and worked 16-hour days, 7 days a week, with no vacations. But they were able to put me and my sister through college, purchase a home, and lived frugally. When I told my Dad that I was a Computer Science major, he pulled out a box I had never seen before filled with (now outdated) programming books. He said that it was his dream to work in tech but that he had to forgo it because he had to make money to survive. I then realized that I had to succeed because he wasn’t given a chance to.

AAPI heritage, to me, represents humility, sacrifice, and strength.

Lisa Yao – Class of 2021

I’m a vegetarian. I love escaping into the woods to live off the grid, sleep on the dirt, and eat over an open fire. I’m obsessive about minimizing waste and buying second hand.

These are things my dad did too, but not by choice. My dad grew up in rural China in a brick house with a dirt floor and a well. He was born poor in a farming family that did a little bit of everything to get by. He spent his childhood cutting grass for sheep, walking to school barefoot on a muddy road, and skillfully finding new life for worn-down clothing. Meat dishes were an expensive luxury that made an appearance on the dinner table only on major holidays, if then.

Over Thanksgiving, as my mother and I poured a candle and marveled at how wicks turn wax into flame, my dad nostalgically reminisced on using rags to draw oil in kerosene lamps.

This funny full circle from dad to daughter is ironic. It is also luxurious. It reminds me of how far our family has come, and most importantly, it reminds me of the choice that I have as a second generation Asian American.

With a bit of luck and a lot of initiative, I grew up in the bosom of Silicon Valley with opportunity at my fingertips. Living in the Bay Area meant that I could choose what to eat, where to sleep, and what to buy.

Being at HBS now means that I can choose how I make an impact the world. I do not take this responsibility lightly as I finish three years as a joint degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Business School. I’m choosing to leave the world a more environmentally sustainable place for the next generation. Being able to make this choice is a gift.

Ben Yelian – Class of 2022

“Stand up straight” my mom chided while we were in line at Kroger. I was seven at the time, and knew the next line before it came. “Americans might never meet another Asian, so you always have to represent us as best as you can.”

Mom wasn’t wildly off-base. I didn’t see many Asians outside of weekend Chinese school in the sleepy suburbs of metro Detroit. The only characters that looked like me on TV were one-dimensional: quiet and brainy at best, laughably foreign or emasculated at worst. Even at a young age, those portrayals stung; being Asian always meant being abnormal, being less...important.

Fortunately, thanks to the grit and determination of diverse voices, we’re living in a renaissance of representation. Trailblazers are showing us Asians can be like everyone else in American pop culture: we can live zany sitcom hijinks, find love and a happily ever after, or even be world-saving superheroes – things I could have only dreamed of seeing growing up.

Offscreen, my generation of Asian Americans also live to write different narratives. Carrying the burden of representing your people every day is tiring, but it’s pushed me to work harder and aim higher. I hope my kids won’t have to hear what mom told me – that they’ll live in a world where they’re more free to just be individuals, and need a little less imagination to picture themselves as the star of their story instead of a background character.

Until then, I’ll keep working to find success and happiness on my own terms and, just maybe, stand a little straighter.