The Power To Do Something

By Anastasia N. Kaup

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with a male “C-suite” officer at a prominent investment fund, with whom I’ve worked for years. Among other topics, our conversation touched on diversity and inclusion, and on that topic, the officer said: “we’ll never improve diversity and inclusion numbers in business or law unless those who are in positions with the power to do something, actually do something, to support others who are diverse or women.” That comment really struck a chord with and inspired me, and I couldn’t agree more.

One recent estimate put the percentage of diverse CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at 5%, in the aggregate across all diverse groups, and the estimate of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at 7% total. The proportions of diverse and female employees of those companies, and in the general population, are of course much, much higher.

Most large law firms aren’t faring much better than Fortune 500 companies. Fewer than 7% of all equity partners in the largest law firms are diverse, and fewer than 20% of all equity partners at those firms are women. Diverse individuals comprise around 30% of all law students. Women comprise over 50% of graduates from top law schools.

Somewhere along the way, diverse individuals and women are getting lost in the shuffle or pushed aside while non-diverse individuals and men are succeeding to the highest positions in business and the law. While diverse and female representation at the highest levels in large businesses and law firms has been increasing, by a tiny amount, each year over the past decade or so, there’s still a long way to go until diverse individuals and women achieve parity with their non-diverse and male peers.

The question is, how can we affect positive change and increase the numbers of diverse individuals and women represented in positions of leadership in business, and in the equity partnership ranks at law firms? There are many ways that might work, but one key way that is almost certain to work is for clients to use their power and influence to be a force for positive change.

As the “C-suite” officer I spoke with said, clients (both those who are diverse and/or female individuals themselves, and allies who are non-diverse and/or male), with the power to direct business to other businesses or to law firms, can make it known that they want talented and qualified diverse individuals and/or women working on their matters. They can also insist upon those individuals receiving the credit for that work.

I am proud to and fortunate enough to work with one of the top banks in the world, which happens to have a brilliant in-house legal team that is ~80% female and/or diverse, who have used their influence with my law firm to insist that I, as a diverse and female Partner, receive the credit for the work performed (by me or other attorneys) on their matters. Having clients like that advocate for attorneys like me, can make all the difference for change. (Though I’m also grateful to work for a law firm that recognizes the importance of supporting its attorneys, particularly diverse and female attorneys, and to have the support of firm management (including from non-diverse and male allies at the highest levels), who value diversity and makes sure to provide credit where due, anyway. That’s not usually the case for many diverse and female partners at other law firms.)

Some of the best mentors and sponsors I’ve had in my career have been non-diverse and male individuals. In order to achieve parity and representation in the highest levels of business and law, those of us who are diverse and/or women will need allies, particularly those in positions of power, who understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, just as much as we’ll need other diverse individuals and women, to support us. There aren’t enough of us who are diverse and/or women in businesses or the law yet, to lift each other up and achieve parity on our own.

Here’s to hoping that those in positions of power with the power to do something, actually do something, tangible and today, to support diverse individuals and women, in business and in law.

We Must Not Overlook Recent Historic Diversity Milestones

By Neville Bilimoria

During the pandemic, it is so hard for us to stay connected and focused, much less remember what day of the week it is. Some, like myself, seem like we are glued to our screens, working away, and have little time to look up and focus on what is happening outside of our isolated home offices. That’s why I feel we have to step back, take a breath, and really internalize and absorb some of the historic diversity milestones that have occurred just recently over the last month, and not let the coronavirus and our collective isolation divert our attention away from these history-making milestones:

1) The Passing of a Hero (July 17, 2020): First, there’s Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death last month. Congressman Lewis showed us all that is right and good with the important Civil Rights Movement over the years. His passing allowed us to look back upon his storied life, urging us to continue his legacy of making “good trouble.” His historic march on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., his march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” where he was beaten almost to death by State police, and his general march for equality will remain ingrained in our history despite his death, with his legacy marching on in the conscience of all Americans that he so duly affected to implement change. In his legacy, watching his funeral, I saw the numerous depictions of his amazing life. I realized that we have to honor his great legacy by continuing his pioneering ways as we all strive toward equality and justice for all, to a time where we can eliminate racism, bias, and inequality in America.

2) Equality Takes Flight (July 31, 2020): Second, there was the announcement that Lt. j.g. Madeline G. Swegle would be the U.S. Navy’s first Black female tactical aircraft pilot, marking a historic milestone for naval aviation. This one even I couldn’t believe. What was shocking to me was that only now did we have the first Black female to break this Navy glass ceiling! Also shocking was the fact that the only other time the glass ceiling was broken in the Navy for women was way back when Rosemary Mariner became the first female jet pilot in 1974, and when Brenda Robinson became the first Black woman to become a Navy flight instructor, evaluator and VIP transport pilot in the 1980s. What an achievement for Lt. Swegle, especially significant given the particular timing this summer of her ascendance, placing hope in our hearts for continued change in a year that has been fraught with social unrest. Did anyone else shed a tear when they saw the images of her receiving her “golden wings”? Truly historic, and an event that had everyone saying “it’s about time!”

3) A New Race In A Political Race (August 12, 2020): And then there was the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden of his choice for his Vice Presidential running mate, Congresswoman Kamala Harris. This is now another first for Black women, and Asian women, with Harris becoming the first Black and Indian woman ever to be considered for the vice presidency on a major campaign ticket. Should Biden and Harris win, this will be yet another watershed moment in our history for African Americans everywhere, and will undoubtedly help to strengthen the ongoing fight for equality in our country. Her acceptance speech as the running mate of Joe Biden on August 12, 2020 was heartfelt and poised. Her speech and her ascendancy also showed everyone that she was taking center stage not just as a “diverse” candidate in front of America, but as a strong, powerful woman deserving of her role as possibly the next Vice President.

Bringing the historic events full circle, in her speech Congresswoman Harris honored John Lewis and his legacy by demanding passage of the Voters Rights Act championed by John Lewis, tipping her hand to those that fought before her, and who paved the way to allow her to ascend to her mark as the first Black female Vice Presidential candidate.
These three historic moments help us to gain hope for acceptance in these times of despair and social unrest. I am thankful for these glimmers of hope that not only make us proud to be Americans, but that also compel us and inspire us to do more to achieve the true diversity and inclusion that is still needed in America.

Representation Matters and It’s Good Business

By Mark Lerner 

When I started my legal career at a small firm over 25 years ago, I had trepidations over whether I could be myself and practice law.  Would partners want to work with me?  Would clients?  I had come out of the closet before going to law school and was even a member of the law school’s LGBT law student group. I didn’t want to be back in the closet at work, but I was also afraid to be fully out.

After I received an offer, I “outed” myself to a hiring partner who seemed sympathetic so I could test the waters and see if I would be able to be open.  That went OK, and I accepted the offer.  However, after I arrived, I was warned by a couple of associates that I might want to be careful around certain partners, including, the head of the firm.  (My mentor advised that it wasn’t that he was homophobic, rather he just didn’t really want to know about anybody’s love life.  Over time I realized that this was a rationalization and wasn’t really true.)  I didn’t exactly go back in the closet, but I found myself censoring myself.  I carefully excised references to my partner and was a bit vague and cagey in discussing what I had done over a weekend.  (Back then, before we were married, I called him my partner.  It was confusing in the law firm context.  It’s much easier now that I can just call him my husband.)

After a while, when I was more confident that my legal skills were appreciated and that I was valued, I became more open and eventually brought my husband to firm events. The sky didn’t fall.  Nonetheless I was still often reserved with clients. I engaged in the same self-censorship when meeting new clients for the first time, and even beyond.  I didn’t fully answer questions and in casual conversation would elide facts that would signal I was gay.  Eventually, I forced myself to end this practice as well. It seemed to me that the deepest client relationships were those in which clients were or became friends. How could this happen if they didn’t actually know me?  So I let down my guard and began being more authentic in conversations.  Again the sky didn’t fall.

In fact, from both these new coming out journeys there were really only positive effects. First, I became more invested in the firm, since it was somewhere I could be comfortable being myself. Second, partners who I had been warned about became some of my biggest supporters. One shared with me the joy he experienced going to his first same-sex wedding. When I adopted a baby, another even commented that he thought I was doing a wonderful thing. Finally, I did indeed develop stronger relationships with my clients who came to know me as a person.  I’m not sure that being out has helped be get new business, but it has certainly strengthened my existing client relationships.  It also made me a better lawyer, since it eliminated the unnecessary expenditure of psychic energy that is involved in worrying about who will know or find out or what I can say in a business setting.  As a bonus, I believe that by being out and true to myself I changed some hearts and minds – of partners, and likely clients as well. Just being visible erased some of the mystery for them and made it harder for the to see me as somehow “other.”  I realize how much representation and people hearing personal stories matters.  It makes people realize there are more points of connection than differences: I’m a dad as much as I’m a “gay dad.”  I have the same joys and struggles as a parent. I know I have been so appreciative of hearing the stories of diverse friends and colleagues over the past month.

I would like to think the world has changed enough that today a young lawyer would never even have to think twice about being authentically themselves. (And thankfully the Supreme Court has now made it the law of the land that one cannot be fired for being authentically one’s own gender or sexuality.)  As Pride month comes to a close and we reflect on what is hopefully a meaningful awakening in this country to “white privilege”/“white fragility.” I hope that young lawyers will keep moving the profession forward and pushing the system to truly recognize that our diversity is our greatest strength.  It is true for the country as a whole and true for the practice and business of law.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride. 

An LGBTQ Associate’s Guide To My New Large Firm

By Alain Villeneuve

Chapter 2: The Annual Review

As a young associate making my way to partnership, each year in the early fall, I felt myself slowly become more agitated and a feeling of unease arose within me. Routine criticisms about my response times, my legal work, or even clerical mistakes somehow punched deeper under the armor. I figured it was due to the arrival of fall or the workload of the yearly billable hour clock about to hit noon.

Being promoted to partner did not resolve the problem; in fact, it was just exacerbated. After years of therapy, I was finally able to pinpoint the source of my unrest and put a name to this inner demon: The Annual Review.

Numbers do not lie. Some experts have found the LGBTQ community is at most 7% of the population. Since high school, I slowly managed to increase the proportion of LGBT people around me. On social media I joined LGBTQ groups, and my network of friends is almost exclusively from my community. But, at work there is no hiding the fact most everyone around me is not LGBTQ. In fact, at a minimum, 93% of my work colleagues are straight. That number in large law firms can reach a whopping 98-99%.

At the time of the annual review, even in the most diversified of firms, almost everyone entering reviews for me is different from me in this fundamental way. Straight associates are reviewed almost entirely by straight lawyers, but LGBTQ associates are also reviewed almost exclusively by straight lawyers. These reviewers are then asked to converge into a computer system and give their opinions. It is natural to fear this process.

But, each year, to my surprise a strange thing happens. I resent and worry about the process, feel vulnerable, brace myself for the worst outcome, and with amazed relief, each time the review comes back positive. The annual review feels to me like a six-month wait for a cancer screening. My mind braces for discrimination and strangely, like a tornado warning, it leaves in silence without destruction. Each year I tell myself next fall will be different and each year the problem is back.

I know as a diverse associate, this annual feeling of powerlessness adds to the heavy workload and stress facing you. Why do I fear these reviews so damn much? My experience shows me that it makes no sense. And yet, my mind inevitably goes directly to imagining the worst possible outcome.

Unlike work criticism, discrimination hurts on a much deeper level. It does so for a simple reason: discrimination attacks who you are and not what you do. It chips away the fabric of your inner self. The same way you cannot force another to fall in love with you, it is impossible to fix any problem at work based on bias, discrimination or personal animus. If your work was shoddy or rushed, you know the problem and can fix it. Discrimination or bias is a different beast.

Diverse attorneys must triage any criticism. They ask themselves, “Is this poor, fixable performance or bias?” I won’t lie, the months before my annual review, I tend to slide more things into the “bias” column than the “poor performance” category. Then I put names to my fear. Let’s not kid ourselves, I won’t pretend to fix this problem, the world is what it is and honestly these odds are what they are. But, at a minimum, what we can do is see this problem as it approaches. At my first firm, the review came in November, and at the second it took place in February. Each time, I would start being rather insecure 2-3 months before the review. This feeling actually got better weeks before the results. What you need to do is to perceive and quantify the unease you’re experiencing so you can better name it and manage it. I had a calendar and I would put a red marker on the day of the review.

So next time you get nervous, anxious, and feel like you are frustrated by negative feedback, ask yourself what time of year it is. If you are close to your review, I have a little tip. I love the real Starbucks coffee from across the street—its half-decaf triple lattes, the non-fat kind. The drink is nothing short of $6, which I reserve for my special occasions. So, in the two months leading up to my review, each time that I get something that sends me to a bad place I simply grab my coat and walk to Starbucks without my cell phone. Don’t bring the emails along. Give this 30 minutes, that’s all.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride. 

Telling Stories and Learning to Listen

By Mark Roy

On February 4, 2005, I drank on the job. At the time, I worked for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. The Center is where New York City’s LGBT community has gathered for community organizing, to express our rage and sorrow, and to celebrate major victories along our march toward justice through civil rights litigation and legislation. On that particular evening, I joined a couple hundred members of our community along with several “electeds” to raise a glass toasting Lambda Legal’s victory in New York state court that found it was unconstitutional to ban marriages of same-sex couples in New York. Later that same year, I’d go on to join Lambda Legal and lead the organization’s PR activities in support of our marriage equality cases in New York, California and Washington.

Whenever I’m asked in a job interview or on a panel about the work that I’ve done that has been most rewarding, I always come back to the work I was privileged to do with the plaintiffs in Lambda Legal’s marriage equality lawsuits. Because they had the courage to sue their government for the same rights and protections different-sex couples were afforded through marriage, I had the opportunity to help same-sex marriage plaintiffs and their families tell their stories and share them broadly through the media. Moreover, I had the opportunity to media train grassroots activists to help them tell their own stories and share them with their local news outlets (which still existed at the time, barely) and with their elected officials. Our efforts helped us win the case for marriage equality in the court of public opinion in New York, where we shifted the percentage of the population in favor of marriage equality from a minority to a majority as people became more familiar with our stories and the basic protections our families lacked because we were barred from marriage.

Fast forward to June 2020, and my husband and I will celebrate 22 years together give or take a day from when this post lands on this blog—12 of those years as a married couple (thank you Canada!). I’m grateful for my job at this amazing Am Law 100 firm, but I’m forever indebted to the brave plaintiffs who fought for the rights that my family and I now get to enjoy. Our six year-old daughter will never have to worry about whether or not she’s covered under our family health insurance plan. My husband and I don’t have to worry about what will happen to our estate if and when one of us predeceases the other. My straight colleagues (many of them, at least) no longer pause awkwardly when I claim my gayness every time I refer to “my husband” in conversation.

This June, I’m being particularly mindful that I need to listen more. People listened when we shared our families’ stories, which led to securing some of the legal protections for which our community has been fighting. Now, people are taking to the streets in part because we’ve been ignoring their stories and the subtext of our national narrative for centuries.

As we share our stories, we become more relatable because we make ourselves vulnerable as we air our wounds. As we become more relatable, we begin to be in relationship with one another. This Pride season, I look forward to hearing the stories that are currently being written in the streets, classrooms, conference rooms and boardrooms around the world.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride. 

Federal Law Protects LGBT workers from Discrimination

By Eve Klein

Today SCOTUS ruled in a 6-3 decision addressing three pending similar cases that discrimination against an employee because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is indeed discrimination because of their sex prohibited by Title VII. The Court explained that at the very heart of a decision to deny employment to a person because they are gay is the employer’s reliance on the fact that they are attracted to the same gender as their assigned gender at birth. If a man is attracted to a man that is problematic but if that man was a woman attracted to a man then the employer would have no issue and no adverse employment action would result. As such, it is the individual’s assigned gender that is determinative or the “but for” cause of their discharge. The same analysis applies to gender identify. If an employer finds a female employee’s display of masculine traits objectionable but not a male employee’s display of those same traits objectionable, the basis of the objection comes down to the employee’s assigned gender.

The majority rejected key dissent arguments such as that the 1964 legislature did not intend Title VII to include sexual orientation and gender identity given the state of the times, the lack of explicit reference to these characteristics and repeated efforts over the years to amend Title VII to include them. However, the Court explained that none of these points are relevant on the ground that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination against any individual because of their sex is broad, clear and unambiguous, requiring no legislative history, express inclusion or analysis of subsequent legislative actions.

The upshot of this decision will be felt more acutely in those states and localities that do not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual identity. Currently, slightly less than half of all states and approximately 400 jurisdictions prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

An LGBTQ Associate’s Guide to Succeeding in a Large Firm

By Alain Villeneuve

Chapter 1: The Dreaded Golf Outing

“Alain, we need you. As a new partner, the IP Associates will only come if you do. They like you… for some reason,” joked the head of the IP Group. He knew emotions worked on me every time. Golf, now that hit a nerve.

I had never travelled from Chicago to Indiana and much less entered a guarded community where each suburban house paraded a golf cart. Unsurprisingly, most straight partners bowed out after learning I had agreed to attend for the sole benefit of our eclectic group of associates. Bob, the head of IP, knew one thing too well about the LGBTQ hospitality. If I was there, everyone, even our most reclusive, would be entertained and that mattered to him.

Associates today are all equally unique. Thanks to the millennials, I lost any power to define anyone using sexual orientation, gender or even color. Some skydive, while others master in darkness Call of Duty. Frankly speaking, today, everyone is shockingly different physically, mentally, ethically, or sociologically. There is no mold, no normal. I am not surprised to read that few of them enjoy hitting the proverbial Links, but those who do excel at it.

As a true victim of fashion, my first obstacle was the dress code. I own no shoes ready to be ‘greenified’ by a fresh cut lawn. My legs refuse to wear any pair of shorts dropping to my knees and I simply cannot wear a single color t-shirt. Being outside in the sun means to this queen wearing something tight, colorful and breezy. But, I was a partner and life had to go on and as others had cancelled, I was all there was left and I refused to let Bob regret his decision to invite me. Guess what, for $39.99, I dressed myself from head to toe. The next week, I donated these clothes to the local charity.

Between you and me, my first real shock of the day came on the first tee. I saw my seven classmates each amusingly fail miserably at securing a drive that even a grossly inebriated Tiger Woods could launch. There was no ‘clink’ or ‘snap’ in the silent fields but instead two dozen ‘wooshes’ by embarrassed players. As it turns out, I spent most of my teens hiding away from the jocks by being a caddy at the local golf club. As my hormones kicked in overdrive, I quickly stored those memories far away. Like riding a bicycle, to my surprise, golf cannot be forgotten so easily.

In my dreams, I stepped on the tee to be ridiculed. But instead, everyone unimpressed by their own performances was looking down at their shoes. The sound of the 300 meter drive was perfection in the silent morning. There was awe, shock, but more importantly relief in their eyes.

I tell this story not because I overcame something but quite the contrary. I am, to say it mildly, an insecure overachiever as are most in my community. I fear the images I play over and over in my head. In my little stupid mind, for several sleepless nights, I envisioned being ridiculed by foursomes of pro-golfers. Golf seriously was seriously not the point of the day.

I spent a wonderful day getting to know others as they transformed grass into brown and green Swiss cheese. Golf was the great equalizer in that no one, except the head of IP cared about or even counted strokes. One associate, Lucy, had a couple of great putts. Lucy hit one amazing ball out of the sand trap. Half way into the night, back at the club house where salads are roadkill to microwaved burgers, I finally understood law is like golf. When you begin, out of a hundred swings, a handful at best will feel good. The rest, you know, will suck. As you master this activity (because I can’t get myself to call this a sport), you feel better about a handful of swings, then a few more and so on. Even a pro golfer can be humbled as his ball hits water next to a beginner who manages across the distance. Law is quite similar. Even the best litigators will look at your work and once in a while, they will be amazed by an argument or two. With time, as you get better, more arguments will land, but the game is never about a single shot. A legal problem is not about one brilliant idea. It requires hard work, time and dedication.

But, let’s be honest. To this day I cringe each time I see on the firm’s website images of myself wearing khaki pants.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride. 

What Being an Asian American Means To Me? It’s All About Family . . .


By Neville M. Bilimoria

As an individual born in the United States to parents who were born and raised in India, I take a lot of pride in the sacrifices and hard work of my parents who made my life possible here in the U.S.

My father was born in a small town north of Mumbai called, Bilimora, where I get my last name. It is more of what we call today, a village, with no paved roads and for a while, no running water. He lived in poverty in that town and grew up sometimes shoeless and hungry with his parents and brother and sisters. Early on, amidst the stench of squalor and almost hopelessness in that village, he had a hard work ethic and he studied very hard. His hard work paid off, earning him a rare Tata Scholarship that allowed him to exit India, travel abroad, and obtain a scholarship to study in the U.S. At that time, only 10 Tata scholarships were awarded in the entire country of India. My father worked and studied very hard to obtain that notable award, and gain freedom outside of his small village to encounter new and exciting opportunities in the United States.

My dad studied and worked very hard at Tennessee University and Roosevelt University, earning many advanced graduate engineering and managerial degrees, only to land a highly sought after job working for General Electric Company for 35 years as a manager of refrigeration and range in Chicago. At one point he oversaw a busy manufacturing plant in Cicero, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where he managed over 16,000 employees. He brought my mom over from Mumbai in 1965 and my brother and I were born here in the U.S. shortly thereafter.

As wonderful a story as it was, and one that I am thankful for every day, my dad did experience discrimination during his time here, especially in the late 1960s. My dad made it a point to keep his experiences private, perhaps to save us from the excruciating pain of discrimination, and to perhaps shield us as best he could from the darker side of the U.S. — our free country that he loved. Even when he died early in 2002 from a bout with prostate cancer, he never showed us or told us about his discrimination, though we knew he encountered it. He always tried to be brave for me and my brother, but we knew being brown skinned and in the U.S. most of his life that he did encounter discrimination.

For example, it was only recently that my mother told us of a story about my father when the movie Green Book came out. Travelling in Tennessee, my father entered a diner (nerdy and clueless) and waited for a long time to be served. Finally, seeing no one that would take his order, a patron walked up and said “we don’t serve your kind around here.” At that point my father, always embracing Gandhi’s anti-violence teachings, packed up and walked out of the diner.

Indeed, growing up in Chicago, I myself faced instances of hatred based on my ethnicity, often misplaced and mistaken. For example, as a young boy in Chicago, I experienced many folks in school (often older kids) telling me to go back to Iran, or calling me derogatory terms that didn’t even match my ethnicity. Many kids in school also called me “Dot head” or “Gandhi”. I didn’t think too much of it then, adopting my Dad’s philosophy of just focusing, studying hard, and choosing to turn the other cheek.
In this month of Asian Heritage, I now look back on those instances of discrimination, and posit to you that these horrible acts actually made me and my family stronger.

Looking back, I’m glad that kids made fun of me and called me Gandhi. In essence, they were honoring my father and his peaceful, hardworking way of life. And I just worked harder in school to honor my family.

In even these recent times of hate crimes, the one solace we all have is our family and each other. That sense of family will continue to drive Asian Americans through any tough times ahead.

*This series has been created to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

What Being an Asian American Means To Me

By Cyndie M. Chang

It means resilience. One of the reasons we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage in May is to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants, and one of them was my great great grandfather. Since then, Asians and Pacific Islanders immigrated to the United States and have made significant contributions to our country. My great great grandpa worked under dangerous conditions to build something, in a literal and figurative sense. He was not only building the railroad, but establishing a better life here for his family.

That eventually led to the opportunity for my grandpa and his partners to start a humble little Chinese restaurant in 1935 serving the Japanese American community. The Far East Café neon sign that says “Chop Suey” is still lit up in what is now called Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. My dad bused tables there while Mom was in nearby Chinatown, where she was a seamstress at a sewing factory. After WWII and the internment camps, many Japanese Americans came back home to nothing, but they returned to the Far East Cafe that continued to serve families needing to rebuild. Apparently, the Far East Cafe was popular to generations of Japanese Americans who wanted to celebrate weddings, birthday parties, and other milestones. If one didn’t have enough money to pay for a meal, that was OK there cause you could just wash dishes or you’d make it up next time because there was an understanding that we all had to stick together and look out for each other in hard times. While the restaurant had great starchy Chinese food, its greater significance was it being an informal hub of the Japanese American community after the camps. And, the building is now designated a National Historic Landmark.

Fast forward, I persevered to be the first lawyer in my family. I became the president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) in 2016-2017. At the time, there was a resurgence of anti-immigrant racism and hate crimes. NAPABA led hate crime advocacy and coordinated with other bar organizations on civil rights issues. I was proud to lead NAPABA then being an American with deep immigrant roots of six generations overcoming racism and hate, including the worst kind of hatred — I no longer have an uncle because a white supremacist took his life decades ago due to a hatred for others of a different skin color.

There is resilience in generations before me and the Asian American community. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Japanese Internment camps to the xenophobia after 9/11 against Muslims/South Asians to the continued racism in recent times, Asian Americans continue to face being the perpetual foreigner. I embrace and appreciate the stories of resilience from my family and from others. All of us have stories of overcoming adversity and I hope that this global pandemic gives everyone a deeper appreciation and respect of our collective experiences. What is important from these stories is how we’ve overcome challenges, and how those stories drive what we do every day in setting a path for this generation and for those who come after us.

*This series has been created to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

What Being Asian American Means To Me

By Deborah Lu

It means food. Food is community, food is family and food is universal.

I am an “ABC”—an American Born Chinese. I grew up in Belleville, Montville and Westfield, New Jersey. I was fortunate to have many aunts, uncles and cousins who also lived in New Jersey, so large family dinners were common. Phrases of “have you eaten”, “are you hungry” or “here, try this” were expressions of love. I have fond memories of making wontons and hot pot dinners, where cooking and retrieving food from the hot pot was a full contact sport.

My mother was a wonderful cook and she made me care packages of my favorite dinners when I was in college. Unfortunately, they were very popular with my roommates so I had to eat quickly before they were gone. My mother’s response was to cook more so there was enough for everyone.

Today, I keep these traditions alive by hosting dinners, especially hot pot dinners. I have watched the children first refusing to eat hot pot (too foreign) and then eagerly asking when was the next dinner. Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered won tons but when I do so, it will be a welcome addition to the hot pot.

I remember my neighbor the Italian grandmother and my Shanghainese grandmother who could not speak to each other, but communicated through their mutual love of cooking. A friend’s German mother feeds me her special potato salad. I have been fortunate to be invited for meals all over the world, and there is nothing like home cooking.

It is no wonder that client relations blossom over lunches and dinners and deals are often closed over meals. Even though the new normal includes more videoconferences than meals, I am optimistic that we will return to a time where sharing food takes center stage.

*This series has been created to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.