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Asian-Pacific Islanders in DignityUSA (or actually, the lack thereof)

By Leo N. Egashira, DignityUSA Board Member

I wish to present some observations and thoughts about the Asian-Pacific Islander (API) presence in DignityUSA; these strictly personal musings should not be viewed as critiques, nor should they be viewed as prescriptive ideas.

Like the vast majority of DignityUSA members, I feel a strong sense of community and family both within my own individual chapter (Seattle), as well as in the national organization. Over the course of 30 years of being a Dignity member, I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed in nearly two dozen chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. The sense of belonging is especially palpable at the biennial national conventions, when hundreds of kindred spirits gather to celebrate, reconnect, and re-energize.

But, there is one major difference between Dignity “family reunions” and reunions of my family of origin. The former has a handful of brown faces that “kind of look like me,” while the latter is replete with APIs of all stripes who bring rice and noodle dishes of a half-dozen countries (as well as more and more Caucasian spouses of younger relatives).

Frankly, I am rather surprised that our membership rolls on the West Coast count very few Filipino-Americans, most of whom can trace their U.S. family history for four, five, or more generations, are fully acculturated, and overwhelmingly Catholic. The lack of Chinese-American and Japanese-American (like me) Dignity members is more understandable. While most of our families have been here since the late 1800s or early 1900s, Catholics comprise a less-than-five-percent minority in China and Japan. Indeed, most Japanese-American Catholics are descended from ancestors who converted to Catholicism after they reached the West Coast of the U.S.

The aftermath of World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War resulted in many new immigrants from Asia, particularly Korea and Vietnam. Both have substantial minority Catholic populations, so why are there so few Korean-American and Vietnamese-American members in Dignity? These two groups are still experiencing their first or second generations born in the U.S. The traditionally Confucian societies of Korea and Vietnam (like Japan and China) are marked by rigid family relations, responsibilities, and expectations; it often takes two or three generations of acculturation to modify or overcome old country ideals, and make accommodations for LGBT individuals and families.

In 2011, I represented DignityUSA at Dignity/Honolulu’s 35th Anniversary. As one of two API DignityUSA Board Members at the time (the other was from the Honolulu chapter), it seemed absolutely appropriate that I was dispatched to Honolulu. Were it not for my rapid speech cadence and fast walking, I could easily pass as a local ”kama’aina” (long time resident of Hawai'I, regardless of racial background). When I gave my congratulatory address, I was welcomed by the beaming smiles of the colorful ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our 50th State. For once, this Dignity family reunion in Honolulu was like a reunion of my family of origin.

As my own family of origin becomes more and more ethnically diverse, I can only hope and pray that my Dignity family will follow the same path, and hasten to embrace, welcome and celebrate the ethnic diversity that is the future of our organization.