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Starting Hard Conversations About Asian-American Lives

In the wake of last week’s murder of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, many of Sarin Cheung’s friends wanted to reach out to her.

But most had no idea what to say. Or how even to begin.

Some wrote texts, then waited a day or two before hitting “send.” Others called, and talked about a whole range of topics until they eventually said, “I don’t know how to ask this. But how are you?”

Sarin was grateful for the outreach. It was as difficult for her to talk about violence against Asian-Americans as it was for her friends to ask. But the conversations were necessary and important. Finally, the women talked.

Cheung is Thai and Chinese. She attended an American school in Taiwan, then headed to Boston University. After graduation, and some time back in Thailand, she spent a decade traveling the world with GE’s corporate audit group.

After working for GE in Stamford, then American Express in New York, in 2009 she and her husband — he’s with a hedge fund – moved to Westport. The child of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in the US.

Sarin Cheung and her family. The flags behind them on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge are flown on jUNe Day.

About 15 years ago, Sarin became an American citizen. It seemed a natural next step. She’d gone to an American school, come here for college, and had permanent resident status.

For many years, she did not think much about being an Asian-American. In Taiwan, she did not have much exposure to issues of race. Coming to the US at 18, she says, “I was probably super-naive. I probably couldn’t recognize any racism that was happening around me.”

Sarin and her husband moved to Westport for the schools. She did not think much about Asian in a predominantly white community.

But after the Atlanta murders, she reflected in her life in America. She recalled an incident at a restaurant: The hostess looked right past her and her husband, while seating other people.

“We just left,” she says. “That’s the way Asian-Americans dealt with that type of treatment.”

Yet as she talked with others recently, she realized the pain of situations like that. Racism in Westport can be subtle, she says. “It’s not violent shoving or vandalism. It’s the looks you get.”

As the pandemic began, she seldom left home. When she ventured into a grocery store, she was aware of stares. Was it because she wore a mask — when not everyone else did — or because she is Asian? She’s not sure.

Most prejudice against Asians in Westport is not overt.

The texts and calls from friends — when they eventually came — made an impact on Sarin. The conversations were meaningful. The questions — “What do you need? How can I help? Is there going to be a march?” — made her feel valued. Hearing “I’ll be there for you” was gratifying.

In return, Sarin called other friends who had not yet reached out. They were glad to hear from her.

It was a surprisingly public activity for Sarin, who says, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” A 2-year PTA president at Saugatuck Elementary, she is well-known in her school community. But she’d never spoken out about an issue like racism.

Sarin has asked her children — a 5th grader and 3rd grader — if they have experienced any prejudice. They said no. “But they’re young,” Sarin notes. “Would they be able to recognize it? I’m not sure.”

Sarin says, “Asian-American culture doesn’t verbalize feelings a lot. I don’t want to change that. But we have to be honest, and educate others.”

She and other Asian-Americans are waiting to hear a statement from town officials. 

She knows there are initiatives at Staples High School. At the elementary level, she says, “We need teachers to be empowered to talk about this.” [NOTE: Superintendent of Schools and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released statements fabout the violence yesterday.]

The Asian population in Westport — estimated at 5 to 7%, Sarin says — is mostly affluent. But, she notes, many new immigrants live nearby. Not all are “model citizens.”

“I don’t feel, personally, that my life is in danger. I know who to call for safety,” Sarin says. “But we need to highlight and protect those new immigrants, and our friends’ elderly parents.

“It’s easy to be nice in Westport to Asian-American neighbors. But people of all sorts of demographics are here too. I think about them a lot.”

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