Bullying, stereotyping must give way to acceptance, say Asian-American women of Utah

Story and photos by KAREN HOLT BENNION

No one realized that when she entered the room, this petite 5-foot-2-inch tall frame would pack such a powerful punch.

Linda Oda grew up in Ogden’s “Red Light District.” It was known for being the toughest and most violent section of town. At an early age, she learned how to protect herself from bullies and thieves. When she was 12 years old, she stood up to a potential thief (called a “dorobo” in the Japanese culture). He pressed a knife against her stomach and told her he could kill her. She then flashed a knife she had been using to trim heads of lettuce and said, ” I could kill you too.” She was unhurt. Even more tragic was the death of her father. One day, he came upon a “dorobo” robbing the store. The thief took $100.

Then he bludgeoned her father to death.

These experiences were some of the many that toughened Oda on a daily basis and drove her into survival mode. In elementary school, Oda soon found out that fighting back was the only way she could endure. “A lot of times I had to fight for my life,” Oda said. Name calling and being driven apart from the “white kids” was her way of life. It was yet another element that motivated her to eventually stand up and walk away from being labeled as an “other” by students with racist attitudes.

Oda said that during the 1940s and 1950s, Japanese-Americans who were not sent to internment camps were relegated to the lower-income neighborhoods. They were ignored and made to feel invisible. For her, it was all a matter of having to prove herself and to break out of the tightly-woven stereotypical mold of being a soft-spoken, passive Asian-American woman.

She admits that her hard childhood was the key motivator for her to succeed as an adult. Right after high school she headed to college and eventually earned her doctorate at Weber State University. She has been an elementary school  teacher, a middle school principal and a dominant figure in helping new refugees adjust to life in Utah and find well paying jobs.

She is now the director of Asian Affairs for the Governor’s Office of Ethnic Affairs. Although she has made a name for herself, she admits that even today she still feels that she must constantly prove herself in the “white man’s world,” as she calls it. Her optimism overflows as she speaks of communities in Utah helping the growing number of minorities and immigrants feel included, especially women. She is driven to bring positive changes to her community. For example, Oda is currently working on bringing young Asian men and women together for an Asian Youth Leadership Summit. The conference will teach teens to overcome feelings of doubt and offer them tools to be successful in education and in leadership roles after high school graduation.

Today, the number of Asian-Americans in Utah is steadily increasing. According to both the U.S. Census Bureau and The Utah Minority Bar Association, the Asian-American population is second only to the Hispanic population. Asian-Americans make up 4.1 percent of the state’s citizens.

Another advocate for the Asian-American community works at the University of Utah. Tricia Sugiyma works at the Student Center for Ethnic Affairs and is the adviser for the school’s Asian-American Student Association. At the AASA’s first meeting of the fall semester, Sugiyama’s face lit up as more and more curious students entered the room. Soon, more than 40 students filled the room. Their families had come from places such as Southern China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea.

Chaw Wguyen, left, and Ming Lam attend AASA's first meeting of fall term.

After hearing the story about Oda, a small group of freshman women said they hadn’t experienced the same type of bullying that she did. They said their families and friends are supportive of them and have encouraged them to get a good education. Chaw Wguyen and Ming Lam, both 18, said the U is already pretty diverse and so far they haven’t noticed any kind of outward bullying. However, others in the group said they have noticed a more subtle type of disdain arising from various comments they hear. One student said because she is Asian, people automatically expect her to be extremely smart. “I’m really not; I have to study hard like everybody else.”

“I know,” said another student. “I get so sick of complete strangers coming up to me and telling me how silky and smooth my skin looks, like I’m some sort of a doll or something.”

Sugiyama said the definition of bullying has changed since the days of WWII. “Taunting of Asian-Americans still exists,” she said, “just in different ways.” “Cyber bullying” is a real danger, especially among young girls. Other methods of intimidation aren’t as extreme; however, the impact can be felt just the same.

“Asians-Americans are viewed by many, especially in the media as perpetual foreigners,” Sugiyama said. She believes that many movies and televisions programs portray Asian women as exotic looking seductresses, or passive subservient women who make good wives. Men don’t fare much better. They are depicted as warriors and Kung-Fu fighters.

Talking with peers is a good way to feel secure about oneself, say Linda Oda and Tricia Sugiyama.

Sugiyama’s parents were born in Japan, but she grew up in Sandy. She was raised and assimilated into the prevailing culture of that area. It was when she was in college that she realized much of her family’s culture had been forgotten. She now maintains a balance of being “Americanized” as she puts it, and still celebrates her family’s heritage while helping other young women find their own place in today’s society.

Both Oda and Sugiyama feel all young women need a support system. Becoming involved with clubs and organizations is a good way to secure and build confidence. Sharing feelings of being left out with a trusted peer or mentor can also help students realize they aren’t alone, they aren’t invisible, they don’t have to be an  “other.”