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White House Initiative visits St. Louis to listen to Asian-Americans here

Caroline Fan

For the first time, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is focusing its attention on St. Louis. 

On Saturday, representatives of federal agencies will be in Creve Coeur to hear members of some Asian-Americans discuss their concerns and experiences.

In the last decade, the region's Asian population has grown more than 66 percent. It's one of the most diverse groups to be categorized under one blanket term. "Asian American and Pacific Islander" can include Chinese-, Filipino-, Japanese-, Korean-, Fijian-, Pakistani-, Indian-, Vietnamese-, Cambodian-, Thai-, Hmong- and Laotian-Americans.

Federal agencies acknowledge that they don't keep separate data on the distinct populations that come into federal offices or the languages they speak. This limits how much agencies can help these communities, said Dave Hung, a former senior regional advisor to the initiative.

He points to the Social Security Administration. The agency has many publications in English and Spanish, but very few in Asian or Pacific Island languages.

"What we need our community to do is go into our offices and request the services in language, instead of trying to speak English," said Hung, of Kansas City." And I would use my parents as an example ... trying to get by understanding enough of the conversation to leave the office confident with only 30 percent of what you heard.”

Asian-Americans, especially those who are new to Missouri or the United States, should not shy away from asking for needed services, he said.

Caroline Fan, president of OCA St. Louis, the area’s oldest Asian-American organization, welcomed the federal attention.

“A lot of times I think we get overlooked,” Fan said.  “We don’t really have any local elected officials who are Asian-American. If you don’t walk in those shoes, you don’t necessarily have those lived experiences when you’re making policy.”

For Fan, the federal government's outreach effort is an important way to spotlight local Asian-Americans, while helping private organizations better serve those communities. She also points to a lack of translation services, specifically in hospitals.

“We’re taking our elders to the hospitals and doing the translations for them," she said. "If there aren’t government or hospital employees who speak the language and they don’t fully understand what’s going on, we as non-medical professionals have to translate dosage — and in some cases that can mean the difference between life and death.”

Organizers from OCA and the Korean American Association of St. Louis expect the conversations through the White House initiative will help federal agencies better serve the community.

Earlier this week, another White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans met at Harris-Stowe State University. Organizers hosted two panels of student experts. The theme of those sessions was how educators, administrators, and community organizers how to better serve the needs of African-American students.
 Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn.