Throughout May, the Obama Foundation is celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. To us, this month serves as a call to action to recognize, celebrate, and commit to a deeper understanding of the diaspora of the AANHPI community in the United States.
The experiences of the AANHPI community are not monolithic, rather they are richly diverse and complex. With over 19.5 million Asian Americans, and over 1.2 million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States today, it’s not surprising that the experiences of these Americans are manifold.
Members of the AANHPI community played significant roles during President Obama’s campaigns and eight years in the White House. Through their determination and advocacy, members of the AANHPI community made progress on critical issues such as health care, immigration, equity, and access to federal programs and services.
Here at the Obama Foundation, members of the AANHPI community hold crucial positions across our organization–from supporting our network of global leaders to designing the experience for visitors of the future Obama Presidential Center.
To mark AANHPI Heritage Month, we asked several members of our staff to share their personal stories of joy, challenges, and perseverance that speak to the diversity of the AANHPI community.
We invite you to see our faces, hear our voices, and celebrate our stories with us.
Alan Almario, Fundraising Analytics Associate
My parents were born in the Philippines and immigrated to the US in the late 70s. I identify as a proud Filipino-American and third culture kid with feet firmly planted in both sides of that identity. In 2001, I felt most connected to my AANHPI identity when I saw Dante Basco’s The Debut. The film was the first time I saw elements of my own Filipino-American life on screen. From struggling to explain to your parents that you don’t want to be a doctor and it will be okay, to the overflowing tables of food and impromptu dance battle, this movie really nailed at least my Fil-Am experience.
Christin Arthur, Development Associate, Principal Gifts
I am the daughter of a Korean mother and an American father. Born and raised in a bicultural household in the US, my upbringing was deeply rooted in Korean traditions, values, and stories of hardship and heroism. My father served as an officer in the US Army, often going to the field for months at a time, leaving my omma (my mother) to raise two children in a foreign country on her own. I grew up learning traditional Korean dances, went to Korean school on Saturdays, and often Korean church on Sundays.
I left the United States after high school to join Universal Ballet in Seoul, S. Korea. I embraced the opportunity to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a dancer and concurrently gaining a deeper understanding of my Korean roots. Being biracial, I’ve never felt fully at home here in the US or in South Korea; however, I embrace both sides of my heritage whole-heartedly. To deeply know and understand two cultures is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been blessed with.
My omma is now facing an uphill life challenge, and it has caused me to reflect on my life and identity like never before. I feel a deep connection to my Korean lineage because of the resilient Korean woman who raised me.
Corey Chan, Obama Presidential Center Compliance Associate
I’m a first-generation American born in the Canadian Prairies to first-generation Canadians; my parents are Hong Kong natives who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. Growing up in Saskatchewan, my sisters and I were the only Asian Canadians in our entire K-8 school. I distinctly remember thinking how strange it must be for my fellow Caucasian classmates to speak to their parents without a separate language for the home. We attended Chinese school on Saturdays, which connected us to the wider Chinese immigrant community in the area, many of whom were my relatives.
My Asian identity has evolved consistently throughout my life. When we moved to the States, I attended a school in California that had a majority Asian American student body. From being the only Asian person in class, I suddenly found myself surrounded by Asian Americans from all walks of life, leading me to begin examining my conceptions of identity and belonging.
Since moving to Chicago, I’ve found myself in spaces again where I’m the only Asian American present. I’ve also delved more deeply into what it means to be Asian American which, as it turns out, is so much more complex and wonderful than can be distilled in any meaningful way. I’m grateful to be on this journey, and I continue to seek opportunities and community to help me develop and understand this identity, and to celebrate it together.
Jeanelle Sora Chang, Deputy Director of Development, Chicago Campaign & Leadership Councils
Since I remember, my dad would underline anything with a tag that said Made in Korea. He is such a proud Korean. I asked him why he would give up everything and move to America. He said, “I wanted to eat a McDonald’s all American hamburger, drink a Coca-Cola, and be in a land that never rains.” (Albert Hammond fan, anyone?)
Real story was that my paternal grandfather was a civilian officer for the US Army in Korea. After 25 years of dedicated service, he earned the right to immigrate. He came first with my grandmother in 1977, followed by my dad, then my mom. My parent’s dream was truly to live as an American family. Advertised by the US Army: America is the land of opportunity and abundance for the family. They rarely ever talk about the challenges of being immigrants, though looking back I’ve clued into the struggles and sacrifices they made: poverty, xenophobia, culture shock, etc.
Born and raised in California, I struggled with my identity. Unfortunately, I felt conflicted between Korean culture and American lifestyle. I was constantly pitted against myself by social biases, racism, stereotypes, which led to feeling less than a whole person. Connecting with other AANHPI folks and learning their stories/struggles gives me a sense of belonging and better understanding of my own intersectionality. I’ve learned to evolve with my growing interests and learned experiences. I believe this is why my Grandparents and Parents came to America, so I can have the freedom to embrace the many sides of me, to live a happy, abundant life.
I recently asked my parents, was it worth it to come to America? Without a beat, my dad goes, “Yes, look at you, you are our success.”
Cris Concepcion, Director of Engineering
I was born in Manila, and in the 80s my family fled from political instability in the Philippines and moved to Vancouver, Canada. I attended university in Boston and have built my life in New England. As a result, I love a good adobo. I think waiting in queues is the mark of a civilized society, and I value being kind and blunt, over being nice but unkind.
With a career spanning Wayfair, O’Reilly Media, AmWell, and Capital One, I’ve had the fortune to build some great software products. However, I was also inspired by President Obama’s creation of the US Digital Service, and wanted to find ways to use my technical skills to give back to the country.
In 2019, I chose to work for the DNC Tech Team, leading teams in charge of voter protection and data engineering during the 2020 election. I was also in the middle of applying for my citizenship. I was given the opportunity to swear my oath, but the date conflicted with Super Tuesday 2020. I chose duty and rescheduled the ceremony so I could help support the primaries, then all ceremonies got canceled because of COVID. I thought that I missed my chance, but threw myself into the work. Eventually in July 2020, with the first lull in COVID waves, USCIS was able to reschedule me and I got to be a citizen and vote!
Having worked so hard to become a citizen, I have felt a call to continue giving back and supporting the fragile democracy that we have. I want this to be worth it for everyone else who comes after me.
Todd Diemer, Staff User Researcher
I’m a Thai-white American who grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Indiana. That mashup of cultures has defined much of who I am, transitioning between eating durian (which I think is delicious) to eating fresh corn on the cob (also delicious). It’s ingrained in me a sense of finding common ground across cultures and celebrating elements unique to any given culture.
I joined the Obama Foundation in January of 2022 as a user researcher on the Product + Technology team. My background is with mission driven organizations like the Peace Corps and most recently, Khan Academy.
Outside of work, I’m a part-time photographer, regular of stout beers, and full-time Christmas enthusiast.
Samina Kapadia, Director of Compliance & Controls
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but my ancestors are originally from Gujarat, India. My grandparents emigrated to Karachi from India during the partition of India and Pakistan. Growing up, my Dad would often travel to Chicago to visit his brothers and their families, and he always wanted to live here. He finally got his chance in 1994 and he moved our whole family that summer. I was eight years old and still remember thinking it was just an extended vacation, until it finally sunk in after a few months that we were not going back.
Soon after moving to Chicago, my parents invested all of our savings into a business but it failed within a few months. We struggled for years, and we really missed our life in Karachi. But over time, and after years of hard work by my parents, Chicago became home and now I can't imagine growing up elsewhere.
I remain closely connected to my family in Pakistan, and go visit as often as I can.
Libby Otto, Global Program & Learning Design Senior Associate
I find myself asking often, what does it mean to be Asian American? Am I doing this right?
I am a proud transracial Korean adoptee. My heart feels most at peace in the pine trees of northern Minnesota, where my family first set up home many generations ago. If you look at the wall full of family pictures, you will see many faces that do not look like mine, but the backdrop of the Chippewa National Forest remains the same.
I grew up eating hotdish, listening to country music, and dancing on stages to Tchaikovsky. Today, as I learn to cook Korean meals from ajummas online, as I watch K-dramas with subtitles, and as I dance along to Kpop in my kitchen, I recognize that for much of my life I was being told implicitly that my Asian-self had to be a dichotomy to my American-self. I have now realized that these things that may seem like opposites are actually cohesive. For me, mixing country and K-pop or hotdish and kimchi is what being Asian American means.
So, am I doing this right? As I set my dinner table in Chicago, as I swim in the lakes of Minnesota, and as I read and listen to stories from other Asian Americans, my answer is simply, yes, I am doing this right; because there is no wrong way to be Asian American.
Risa Pieters, Global Program Associate
I’m the daughter of immigrants—my mother from Japan and my father from South Africa—and a proud hāfu. I feel at ‘home’ in many places, whether I’m in Nishinomiya, Cape Town, Seattle, or Hong Kong (where I lived for half of the last decade). Despite growing up not feeling enough of one culture, I believe, in the words of Tash Aw, we find “ways to say what we are not, to begin the story of who we are.” It means so much to me to work with fellow AANHPI staff who reflect the diversity and strength of the story of who we are.
I’m on the Asia-Pacific team here at the Foundation, and it’s been an honor to be a part of building the Asia-Pacific Obama Leaders community. It’s always been a dream of mine to help build a world that is “open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter.” (President Obama’s 2012 reelection speech) Through this role, I’ve had the privilege of working with emerging leaders in the region who truly are doing the work to create a more inclusive, sustainable, and flourishing future for all.
Casimiro Pena, Community Organizer
My parents each are passionate (former) entrepreneurs, who at one point each owned a small business just up the block from one another. In the city of Long Beach, California my mom owned a nail salon, following after her mom. And, my dad owned a panederia (bakery) and pasteleria (cake decorating), following the steps of his parents.
My mom was raised in Vietnam and came to the United States at the age of 9. My dad was raised in the Long Beach area working our family’s grocery produce truck. I was raised by my dad and abuelos to be a proud Asian Chicano. I embrace my mixed identity and celebrate the diversity in my family.
It doesn’t matter if it is 100 degrees outside, I love a good soup/stew. Pho, & Frijol con Puerco are my all time favorite dishes.
Sam Razi, Associate General Counsel, Real Estate Obama Presidential Center
My parents immigrated to the US from Hyderabad, India in the mid-70s. Their first US-based home was in Seattle, and that’s where my brother was born. They later moved to the Chicago area, where I was born, and we’ve been here ever since. It was just the four of us while I was growing up, as all of our extended family was still back in India. We’d go there for a few weeks every other summer, and I always enjoyed getting a chance to visit my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and hanging out with my cousins. Over the years, my parents were able to sponsor other relatives, and more and more of my extended family eventually immigrated to Chicago also, to the point where now I have more family here than back in India. It’s great being able to frequently get together for large family gatherings during holidays and other celebrations, something that I didn’t have much exposure to when I was younger.
My wife is Chinese, born and raised in Shanghai, she moved here with her parents when she was in 4th grade. She and I met in college. We got married in Chicago, but over the course of the following year, had wedding receptions in Hyderabad with my extended family and in Shanghai with hers. It was amazing to experience, take part in the customs, and meet family and friends from different parts of Asia. We now have two children, and we’ve loved raising multicultural Asian kids, and being able to teach them about, and celebrate, both Chinese and Indian traditions and culture.
Kate Saetang, Director of Strategy and Impact
My father immigrated from Thailand to Chicago in the early 70s, and after a decade-long long-distance courtship, my mother followed in the mid-80s. Like many immigrant families, the concepts of community and family were fluid. My parents found community with other Thai immigrants in the city and surrounding suburbs, and my extended family in Thailand was a faraway dream.
My brother and I grew up going to a small Buddhist temple inside a house in Burbank, Illinois every Sunday. There, Thailand was recreated through the chants of monks, fidgety meditation sessions, smells of gai palo and noodles, and the chattering of Thai. This was where we dutifully greeted our “aunties” and “uncles” and where our parents could linger and catch up with their friends and brag about their kids, momentarily freed from the survival instincts that governed the rest of their lives.
As we got older, our visits became less frequent and halted when my brother and I moved out of Chicago at different times. But I last visited the temple a few months ago and brought my newborn son, wanting to introduce him to a corner of where I grew up. The structure of the building was the same, but there were also extensions and new furniture. The temple had adapted to a new community, but it still was a home for those who had left home.
Jeong Weon Shin, Staff Accountant
My parents left South Korea for the same reasons that many immigrants choose to upend their lives: leave political unrest and search for economic opportunity. My father was a professional judo athlete and met other Korean American immigrants during his competition circuit. One of these connections agreed to sponsor our family to the U.S. and we were able to immigrate to the U.S. in the late 1970’s. I grew up in Indianapolis, which is a largely suburban city that had a small Korean immigrant community.
Having other AANHPI coworkers has been a rarity for me. So I truly appreciate the opportunity that the foundation provides to us to further develop and nurture this community.
Arpan Somani, Head of Technology Partnerships
I grew up in New Jersey to Indian parents who immigrated to the US in the 80s. My parents were lucky enough to build a strong community of Indian immigrants in our little pocket of central NJ and the next generation (AND the newly born 3rd gen!) of that community is stronger than ever - they are my family! Given the distance between my immediate family in India and only visiting every few years, this chosen family in NJ has really become my support system and helps me form my Indian-American identity.
I’ve been based in NYC for the last 11 years, working across the music industry, education technology, and now the Obama Foundation! In my free time (if you can call it that) I serve on the development board for a music education non-profit, host and produce a local NYC politics podcast, manage a reporter for ABC News, and somehow find time for movies, music, travel and hanging out with my wife!
Mauli Whitney, Global Programs Associate, Obama Foundation Scholars
I grew up against the backdrop of two booming metropolises in Indonesia and Korea, and to this day I feel most at home in the bustling streets of a big city. Being born and raised in Jakarta as a half-Indonesian, half-American—while never actually living in the U.S. until adulthood—often left me feeling pulled in two different directions. With my mother’s side of the family, whose culture is rooted in the traditions of the Batak clan in Northern Sumatra, I felt acutely aware of my American identity. On the other hand, my life overseas was a stark contrast to my father’s side of the family in small town Maine. I now realize the immense gift of having these intertwined histories to inform my perspective on the world.
I am grateful to have attended international schools and grown up with friends from all corners of the world. I believe these experiences have been my greatest influence in drawing me to the work I do now on the Global Programs team: bringing together leaders from across the globe, finding similarities across differences, and supporting others to better their communities.