REFLECTIONS/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Thoughts on AAPI Heritage

I have been truly blessed in life to know so many fine people from many walks of life and cultural background, almost in spite of the relatively negative racial environment that swirled around from the early days of my youth.

I will always appreciate the upbringing that I received from my parents, Jim and Claire. I cannot remember a time when any racial slur was used in our household, no that my parents would be predisposed to use them. And one of the people in my parents’ lives was Walter Wong, the owner of the Lime House supper club on Bluemound Road in Brookfield. Walter, his wife, my parents and several other couples had their own supper

club where one Saturday a month, they would get together at one of the member’s homes for dinner and socializing. I remember my mom spending much of Saturday afternoon preparing the dinner when it was her turn to cook. We would always be shoed away as kids when we tried to spy on the proceedings.

I bring this up because I feel that this normalcy of having an Asian American man regularly at our home and at other functions shaped our perception of Asian Americans in a small — or big — way.

On the playground, I remember kids pulling up the corners of their eyes as they made fun of Asian Americans. There were all of those negative influences around and television depictions of Asian Americans at the time were not very helpful. I think it was important for me to see Walter Wong as just one member of the group although I have to admit that I knew little of the many Asian American cultures that existed almost “invisible” throughout our country.

As I traveled through life, I got to know several Asian Americans like Sharyl Kato who was the teacher of my stepdaughter’s pre-K class at Red Caboose Day Care shortly before Sharyl founded The Rainbow Project. And then I met Jan Miyasaki back in the 1980s as we were both involved in fair housing efforts.

Some of my earliest Asian American friendships were formed when the Madison Urban League, Centro Hispano and United Refugee Services instituted the Multicultural Agency Training Program where we would spend two days at a non-profit and talk about racial issues and creating a multicultural agencies. It was then that I met members of Madison’s Hmong and Cambodian communities. And during breaks — and presentations — I learned about the Hmong passage from the highlands of Laos to America and the hardships they faced and the strange land they encountered in Madison. Later at The Madison Times, I would often do stories on Kajsiab House where Hmong elders received mental health services to get over the trauma that they experienced.

It wasn’t until I became the editor of The Madison Times back in 1999 that I became engaged with several Asian American communities. Heidi Pascual, a Filipina American, was the associate editor of the Times and so there was a certain amount of infusion of Asian American news into the paper.

I remember back in early September 2001, Shree and Lakshmi Sridharan asked Heidi and I to photograph the wedding of their daughter at Monona Terrace, one of the first traditional Indian weddings held in Madison. It was a privilege to take the photos and to have a center spread of the photographs appear in the paper. And Shree and Lakshmi and I have been friends ever since.

And it was that relationship that led me to the world of classical Indian dance. I was invited to photograph Arangatrams of the students of Meenakshi Ganesan’s Kalaanjali School of Dance and other Indian dance groups in town. Meenakshi’s first dance performance was at the Sridharan wedding. And I learned about India Day, the Association of Indians in America and many other facets of the Indian community in Madison.

And it was around that time when I received a journalism award from the Wisconsin Association for Asian Americans and developed several more friendships there, particularly Paul and Atsuko Kusuda who remained very good friends with Heidi and I until their passing several years ago. They were beautiful souls untarnished by the discrimination and racism they experienced as Japanese Americans during World War II as they were imprisoned in relocation camps. How could I ever hate when I saw the loving nature of people victimized in such a horrible way. I do miss them.

And then there was also the engagement with PAMANA, the Philippine-American Association of Madison and Neighboring Areas. The Filipino community was always tight-knit celebrating holidays like Christmas and the Philippine Independence Day together. Jun Gonzalez, Janette Jordee and other Filipino leaders were always welcoming.

And I could go on and on, but also must mention Peggy Choy, a Korean American dancer who has worked to fuse Asian and hip hop dance and movements. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve written about Peggy and the many dance performances she has created including “The Greatest,” a salute to Muhammed Ali blending boxing and martial arts movements.

I mention this long history and awakening about the complexity and depth of the Asian American Pacific Islander community is that in the wake of the recent — although prevalent for centuries — anti-Asian violence, the cure to the ignorance is for us to get to know each other so that we are a part of the fabric of each other’s lives. In this way, we stand up — beyond slogans and temporary movements — to the violence. Take the time to learn.