Former Ms. Editor Helen Zia Speaks at Bryn Mawr
By Cho Park
The Asian Student Association welcomed Helen Zia to Bryn Mawr College on Wednesday, April 24. An activist for Asian-American, gay, and women’s rights, Zia talked about the importance of student activism.
To give the audience an idea of how she came to be an activist, Zia spent time describing her childhood. She was born in New Jersey to second generation immigrants at a time when few Asian Americans were living in the United States.
“Names I got to know very well were ‘chink,’ ‘gook,’ ‘kamikaze,’ ‘Hindu,’ ‘slit,’ and ‘dragon lady.’ You see, I was taught to be proud of my heritage from my immigrant parents, but they didn’t know how to teach me [to be] American,” she said.
Growing up, Zia’s parents taught her about many aspects of Asian cultural. Of these traits, her family considered obedience to parents, female submissiveness, and the three obediences of Confucius—the daughter must obey the father, the wife must obey the husband, and the widow must obey the son—to be the most important.
“Even as a girl, I knew something was very wrong with this system. However, even when I wanted to speak up, I always got messages from the society that it didn’t really matter, so I didn’t,” said Zia. “That’s why I feel like today, the biggest challenge for groups that aren’t marginalized within society, especially women, is to trust [them]selves and tell the truth of [their] lives, even if we’re so bombarded by these messages from society.”
While learning about internment campuses, the result of unfair discrimination against the Japanese during World War II, and the struggle for women’s rights, Zia discovered that, if she did not like the world the way it was, she had an obligation to change it.
This realization eventually led her to defy her father and go to college instead of becoming a stay-at-home mother. It also led to Zia’s decision to drop out of medical school and move to Detroit, which she had heard was the heartland of America. Zia believed she could truly make significant social change there.
She worked at a plant for two years until a recession led to downsizing in the 1980s. It was during this time that Vincent Chin was murdered in a hate crime and Zia found her role as an activist. Chin’s murderers were sentenced to probation even though the evidence clearly indicated their guilt.
“Asian Americans truly started getting together because of this, even those who had never communicated together before. Even other races that had not cared before, people of consciences, came together to work for basic human dignity and justice. I was very privileged to be a part of that,” Zia said.
Other issues that Zia addressed concerned gay, ethnic, and women’s rights. She challenged the idea that there is no fluidity between activist movements, that a person can only work for one cause. Anyone who works for any type of rights are part of one movement, she said.
Zia also emphasized early action, and not waiting for a ‘big’ issue to galvanize people into action. Instead, it is important to be unified and organized to bring about change.
She said, “Even if you look at issues today, there are no lack of ‘big’ issues, if ‘big’ even exists. There are constant issues that affect the Asian American community.”
Zia concluded with a take home message for everyone:
“This is a critical time to be a college student, as an Asian American , as a woman, and as a person. In the midst of the most demographic shift that this country has ever had, we can start to look at Americans as a race with no majority race at all, but all minority. We don’t know what history is going to record about this great time period. However, this is your time and whatever you do today and these years is critically important. I really hope you all raise a lot of hell.”
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