In honor of Asian-American and Pacific-American Heritage Month, Heart of West Michigan United Way spoke with Crystal Bui, a Grand Rapids lawyer and president of Asian Community Outreach. Together with the West Michigan Asian American Association, Bui’s organization facilitates a United Way-funded program called Connecting Communities, aimed at helping members of the local Asian-American community improve their financial security and employment prospects.
First, tell us about your personal history. Did you grow up in West Michigan?
Yeah, I did. My parents were refugees. They came to West Michigan after the fall of South Vietnam. My mom was sponsored by a Christian Reformed Church in Holland. She became an apprentice seamstress and my father was a jeweler by training in the old country. Eventually they started their own businesses here in the US.
I studied English at Calvin College. Don’t put this in there, but my mom told me I could go to any college and she would pay for it as long as it was Calvin. I earned my JD at Western Michigan after that.
Why have you decided to stay in West Michigan?
There really is no place like home. We’re really fortunate to be a big small city, if that makes sense. If you have want to make your way up in the world, there’s much to be said about going where there’s opportunity and there’s opportunity in West Michigan. The economy, the housing market, the vibrant community – the growth potential is there. It didn’t make sense for me to go anywhere else.
Would you describe what Asian Community Outreach does and tell us a little bit about the Connecting Communities Program?
Basically, this program aims to improve the financial wellbeing and job situation of our clients. A lot of people think that Asians as a group do well, but that’s a stereotype. Yes, we do tend to be entrepreneurial, but there are also many people in our community who struggle. Many people in our community live from paycheck to paycheck, many people receive some form of public assistance. A lot of new immigrants work in factories with lower pay, long hours, in second or third shifts and they also work overtime. We’re talking jobs that are physically demanding and demand long hours and jobs where there isn’t much room for growth.
With this program we’re trying to help them improve their skills and make them more marketable and more eligible for better-paying jobs. There are four parts to this program. First, there’s the English language. A lot of Asian Americans, especially new immigrants, struggle with their English, so we offer vocational ESL classes to help them learn English for the workplace. Second, we educate them about the resources in the community through our seminars where we invite experts to talk about programs, services, and topics relevant to financial security and employment success. The third part is connecting clients with employers who are looking for dedicated, hardworking employees. We’re trying to match them up with good employers and jobs with benefits. And the last part is assimilation: we help clients study and prepare for the U.S naturalization test so they can pass it, and beyond that to feel like they’re a part of this country.
Given the great diversity within the Asian-American community, does your organization need to serve those populations differently?
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the first things we found out with the program. At the Refugee Education Center in Kentwood we have a large number of Bhutanese, many of whom are refugees, and we have a lot of Burmese who come from what’s now called Myanmar. At a Vietnamese Catholic parish in Wyoming we have services for the Vietnamese community, and their needs are different.
If you recall based on what I told you about my family’s background, the Vietnamese started arriving in West Michigan after the end of the Vietnam war, so they’ve been here longer. They’ve got homes, jobs, assets, extended networks, businesses to serve their community like grocers and restaurants, and they have their places of worship like churches or temples. They’re more established. They want to improve their English so they can communicate better at work, but their abilities are at a different level from what we see with the newer Asian immigrants. We find that for some of the more recent Asians groups, particularly those who come from countries with a history of migration or conflict, their English is more at the pre-literate level. Those groups also have a higher number of people with transportation issues and scheduling issues due to their work schedule. So the needs of the latter group are different from those of the former.
What are some of the challenges Asian Americans face in West Michigan and are these challenges different than those faced by other minority groups?
Yes to your first question and no to your second. Every community is going to have challenges unique to them. For many groups within our community, English happens to be a shared challenge. The inability to communicate or understand English is a big barrier. But there are also challenges I see as being common to other minority groups too. One example is that I feel that our Asian communities tend to keep to themselves. Within the “Asian” community, you’ve got a large Vietnamese community, you’ve got Koreans, Chinese, the Bhutanese over here, the Burmese over here, and all of these groups have their own networks amongst themselves. It would be nice to see them become a little more integrated in the greater community.
What will it take for these communities to become more integrated?
I don’t have an answer to that, but I think that it will take effort on the part of the greater community and the minority communities. It really takes outreach on the part of the greater community – local organizations, businesses, institutions, local leaders – and it really takes effort on the part of all the Asian groups. In our program we partner with Calvin College. We have students who are majoring in education who come and teach, but we can only do so much. The clients need to make the effort to learn, to come to class consistently.
United Way, for instance, through their partner agencies, offers so many services and programs that would help people in our Asian communities. But our communities don’t know about many of these programs and services or, if they do, they aren’t taking advantage of them. It needs to be reciprocal, with the greater community doing more to reach out and Asian-American communities being more willing to connect.
What are some of the gifts of your own heritage that you’re particularly grateful for?
You know, I was born here, so I’m as American as you are. Being the oldest I was able to retain the language, so I’m able to communicate with people like the elders in my family, and with my older Vietnamese friends. I can ask them questions and learn about my family’s history and our culture. I can watch and understand old Asian movies or listen to Vietnamese music and find enjoyment in those things. The ability to speak and understand another language is something I’m grateful for though I wish I could communicate better.
I’m concerned that’s something that younger generations of Asian descent won’t have. Many children and grandchildren of Asian descent only speak English. It’s like the oral storytelling tradition. Not all things are written and preserved. If you can understand the language, you can receive the stories. But if you don’t know the language, you’ll never get to hear the stories and they won’t be passed on. I just think that will be a loss for younger generations that many may not fully grasp yet. So, for me, I really appreciate being able to communicate to a limited extent.
To learn more about Heart of West Michigan United Way’s support for Financial Security programs, visit our Agency Partners page.