By Corrie Martin
Stephen Chahn Lee believes every family has a trove of incredible stories. Even more, he believes in the value and joy of talking with our elders and prompting them to open up about the past.
Unfortunately, Lee explains to AsAmNews, despite good intentions many families simply never have these conversations. “When do we actually make the time to ask these questions? We tend to put off these conversations because we are too busy and take for granted that we have lots of time with our loved ones.”
Having experienced the untimely deaths of his father and then his sister as a young man, Lee cautions, “often we wait too long and then it’s too late.”
This year as APA Heritage Month approached, Lee felt like it was time to do something different, something big. It didn’t feel satisfying to plan another luncheon at work, attend a local rally, or help organize booking a speaker. “I woke up one morning a few weeks ago and I realized I could directly help people discover and share their own family stories,” Lee recalls.
So, with just about a week left in April, Lee created #ourapaheritage on Facebook and Instagram, and launched the website Our APA Heritage just in time for APA Heritage Month 2021.
A former journalist and ex-federal prosecutor, Lee has himself interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people, deftly coaxing from them their stories, memories, and testimonies. Lee recounts, “I am actually a naturally reserved person so in order to do my job I had to learn how to start out easy, cultivate rapport, and build up to the question I really wanted to ask to get them to open up to me.”
Over the years, Lee says, “I developed the necessary skill set to the point where asking questions started to feel natural. Then I started applying that skill to my own family members. I couldn’t believe all these crazy, amazing stories that they had, such as the one involving my father and mother-in-law that ended up featured on an episode of This American Life. Every family has them but, you know, if you don’t ask, you won’t ever know about them!”
Visitors to the website OurAPAHeritage.com will find tools, templates, and guidance for conducting interviews, as well as resources for researching historical context to help inform an interviewer’s approach. “For example,” Lee explains, “knowing that during the Japanese occupation of Korea everyone was forced to take a Japanese name enabled me to ask my mother in-law about her experience with this. It opened up a whole new set of stories and emotions I wouldn’t have tapped into without this knowledge.”
Lee hopes that the project will elicit a broad range of diverse APA stories and envisions that it could catch on for all the various “heritage” months of the year. “I would love to see all the heritage and history months take on a project like this and excite their communities about learning and recording their stories. These heritage months are a great opportunity for all of us to mobilize around having conversations about our histories,” Lee explains. He practically jumps out of his chair in excitement imagining all the family conversations taking place across dining room tables, on the couch, or being recorded over Zoom. Lee offers, “I would love to help anyone who needs some coaching or even if they want me to conduct an interview with their parents or grandparents to help them get them started.”
By posting these stories on social media, Lee says that “total strangers are being exposed to the richness of APA history and so far are responding positively to our stories.” Lee is hopeful that “we will reach a whole new group of people who know very little about our diverse communities and their experiences.”
There’s still plenty of time this APA Heritage Month to sit down with a loved one to say, “tell me a story.” If it doesn’t happen this month, don’t worry as the project is ongoing and open-ended and full of possibility.
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