Commissioner Lori Stegmann was adopted as an infant from Seoul and raised by a White family in Gresham, so she never developed a close connection to her Korean heritage. In 2017, she returned to Korea for the first time. That trip made her want to learn more about her history, as well as the history and culture of Korea.
At age 59, she’s studying Korean and hopes to visit Seoul again.
“Culturally, I think I am a bit of a late bloomer. But as they say, ‘better late than never,'” Stegmann said at a celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Month on May 3.
Community members and Multnomah County employees gathered Friday to celebrate with curry and phad thai, Hawaiian prayer, Japanese drumming, and the stories of finding identity in the United States. The event was hosted by the Multnomah County Employees of Color Employee Resource Group.
“I have always struggled to find my place in the world. But I have to tell you that I have found it in our API community,’’ Stegmann said. “Our diversity is our strength. We all come from such vast backgrounds, life experiences, and upbringings. And it is this diversity that enables us to see the challenges before us and address them head on.”
Among those who came out for the Friday afternoon event was artist Jennifer Lor, who displayed hand-made cards, bags and tiles. Her art marries signature designs of Hmong culture with western traditions, such as holiday cards featuring snow women dressed in traditional Hmong hats and jewelry.
Lor’s parents fled Southeast Asia in 1970 — just as President Richard Nixon was expanding the Vietnam War. Her mother urged Lor and her 11 siblings to keep the culture alive when they arrived in Portland, but Lor also wanted to fit in among her classmates.
“My cultural identity has always been in conflict,” Lor said. “Art has taught me that I can be both Hmong and American.”
Neisha Saxena, economic opportunity supervisor with the Department of Human Services, said she tries to attend cultural events whenever her schedule allows.
“I appreciate that the County creates this space to celebrate and join in community,” she said. “Often times we’re focused on deficit and need, and this is a chance to focus on resilience.”
Amy Cooper, a finance specialist with the Department of Human Services, said she loves hearing people’s stories and exploring the foods and music from other countries and cultures.
“It provides an opportunity for me to learn,” she said.
Diversity coach urges listening
Guest speakers included Steve Hanamura, who coaches businesses and governments on building diverse and effective teams and managing organizational change.
“I am blind, so if you raise your hand I will never call on you,” Hanamura joked before asking the room to stand and sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game — twice.
Hanamura was born in Colorado. His mother had gone to a local doctor who refused to deliver the baby of a Japanese-American woman. Baby Hanamura was pulled out with forceps. And he was born unable to see.
“I grew up never knowing why people discriminated against me. Was it because I was blind, or Japanese?” he said.
“The problem early on was going on dates. Did girls discriminate against me because I was blind or Japanese? Someone said, ‘You know there’s a third possible reason — because you’re a jerk.”
All joking aside, Hanamura said, there are some assumptions we can make about people: We are more alike than we are different, and each person has something unique to bring. We honor the diversity in experience, skill and story when we treat people the way they want to be treated, he said, not the way we think others should be treated.
“Ask questions. Whatever that is, it’s their answer,” he said. “Please keep it going. It is so good.”
A Tale of Two Axes
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, a former general counsel at Adidas America who has sat on numerous nonprofit boards, does not emote. She does not over-share. But the celebration on May 3 touched her.
“It’s so joyful to come into a room like this and see and feel our stories and culture and tradition being honored and centered,” she said. “Each of us comes with different experience but there’s this common thread.”
Her experience — and the intimacy which she shared — brought tears and laughter to many gathered Friday.
Jayapal was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The legend goes that the narrow coastal state was created by the warrior sage, Parasurama, one of the ten embodiments or incarnations of the Hindu God, Lord Vishnu. Parasurama stood on a cliff and ordered the seas to recede, then threw his axe into the water. The sea obeyed his commands and the land that rose out of the sea came to be known as Kerala, the land of abundance.
“When I think of an axe, I think of Oregon. I think of the Portland Timbers, and that ad campaign of Timbers fans holding an axe,” Jayapal said. “I think of Oregon’s timber and lumberjack history. I don’t — or didn’t — think of Kerala.”
But then she discovered Parasurama was a lumberjack and the axe was his tool of choice.
“I find more and more that when we look back through our stories, we find these unexpected threads that connect them, and run through our narratives,” she said. “The fact that both my homes — my birth home and my adopted home — have lumberjacks as part of their mythology meant that I was meant to be here, in this place.”
Jayapal described her childhood, from the beaches to thick forests, and a canal system used to transport everything from rice to cattle. The curries were spicy and coconut-based; and they prepared crispy dosa pancake made of fermented rice (“Tiffin Asha, on NE Killingsworth and 16th, serves a really good dosa,” she added).
Kerala is religiously diverse — about half its residents are Hindu, a quarter Muslim and another 20 percent Christian. It had once been home to a sizable Jewish population and been colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British. As someone from Kerala, Jayapal speaks Malayalam and identifies as Malayalee.
“So that lush tropical landscape I mentioned, it’s a really layered landscape, with coconut palms, and canals, and temples, and mosques, and churches, and synagogues; and very British Victorian buildings right next to traditional carved wooden houses.”
Jayapal grew up in a historically matrilineal society, where property passed through the women, and where the family name passed through the female side of the family.
“This didn’t mean that power passed through the female side,’’ she said. “Not by a long shot.”
Houses had names, even small wooden ones, and her mother’s was Pudasherry Kolaikal. And so her mother, Maya, was named Pudasherry Kolaikal Maya, shortened to P.K. Maya.
“Under this tradition, I should have been Pudasherry Kolaikal Susheela — or P.K. Susheela,” she explained. But her parents were among the first generation to use Western naming conventions and Jayapal was instead given her father’s name as her family name, becoming Susheela Jayapal.
The family moved to Indonesia, a country comprised of hundreds of islands and more than 300 ethnic groups, when Jayapal was 7. They later moved to Singapore, and then back to Indonesia, where Jayapal attended high school.
But each summer they returned to Kerala. She spent days on her grandfather’s porch, lounging in a giant cane chair and reading Archie comics while her grandfather read the newspaper. Overhead, a ceiling fan ran on high to deter the mosquitoes. Her grandmother prepared lime juice and shakarauppery — fried banana coated in brown sugar.
“When I was thinking about some of the factors that have enabled me to bring forward my whole self as an API leader who helps to foster harmony in diversity, what I thought about was these formative experiences,” she said. “But It hasn’t always been easy to bring that whole self forward.”
Building a life in the United States
Jayapal moved to the United States at 16 to a suburban Pennsylvania campus. She was one of only a handful of students from other countries and only about a dozen students of color.
“I dealt with loneliness and alienation,” she said. “And the infuriation of questions like, “Did you use elephants to get around in India?” (“Yes, I was really asked that question,” she added. “And no, we did not.”)
When she took a job at a law firm in San Francisco, she was one of three lawyers of color; and the only API lawyer in a firm of about 100.
“It was often very difficult to bring my whole self forward, sometimes because I felt it would make my alienation worse,” she said. “And sometimes because it was such an effort to insist on that whole self.”
But those same things that made her feel different also gave her strength. A connection to family, place, food.
“One of the great things about getting older, I think, is that we keep becoming more who we are -- we recognize that we don’t really have time to be somebody else,” she said.
And then she had children.
“Thinking about my children, brown children, mixed-race children, growing up in Portland; and wanting them to be able to bring their whole selves to their lives, has been critical to my own journey,” she said.
“I think this might be one of the most important contributions we, as leaders of our diverse communities can make. Sharing our stories. Listening to each others’ stories. Honoring both the differences between our stories and the common threads — Family. Place. Food. And Lumberjacks.”