Growing up, I used to think being Asian was an impediment. Something that held me back from being really good at things. And now, looking back, all the skills I’ve picked up in my career have come from being part of the Asian American community. And that’s the kind of environment we try and emulate for our youth at Apex.
When I was a kid I felt like an outsider everywhere I went. Not just because I was an Asian in an Italian neighborhood or one of the few Asians going to Saint Ann’s, a private school in Brooklyn. I didn’t know any of the public school kids in the neighborhood because I went to a private school outside the neighborhood.
I didn’t fit in with the Chinese either. I didn’t speak Chinese. I was the well-to-do kid that got dropped off in Chinatown. I’m glad I had that experience though. My grandparents were true immigrants who barely spoke English. They had this tenement apartment and my most vivid memories are being able to see light through cracks in the staircase as you’d walk up. And the fact that they did not have a shower. You’d take the kitchen counter top off next to the sink and then hook up the kitchen sink to a shower head or tube. I only remember taking one bath in there. I don’t want to know what my grandparents did.
And because I didn’t fit in, I stereotyped myself a lot. I thought I didn’t read or write well because I was Asian. I thought I could only do math and science well. I didn’t really speak up a lot in school. We had this Jew-Asian basketball game and the Asians actually won one year (I always had to guard the tallest person on the opposing team). I remember I tried to announce our victory at our school assembly and it came out in this garbled mess like “Jew Asian Ball We Won!” I guess I got my point across but it wasn’t a complete sentence. Looking back, Saint Ann’s had one of the best arts, literary, and theater programs you can ever imagine, and I never really took part in it because I thought I wouldn’t be any good.
I really don’t think I developed my confidence about my identity and race until I got to college. All of a sudden everyone was Asian. I went to UPenn and 25% of the school was Asian. All of my friends were Asian. I joined the Asian fraternity, Lambda Phi Epsilon. I went as a physics major and all my classmates were Asian.
I think once I started to accept my race I started to develop myself in ways I didn’t know I could. I quit physics because I realized I was not that good at math (and all of my classmates in second year were almost all international students from Korea or Russia) and started taking film classes. I took on leadership positions, becoming President of the fraternity. I starred in the Chinese Student Association and Korean Student Association plays. I made the Korean paper and I was famous in Philly’s K-Town. I wrote my own play my senior year which I never dreamed I could do.
And when I started to work, I went to work at a nonprofit called the Committee of 100, which is a membership organization of extremely accomplished Chinese Americans. I got to meet people like I.M. Pei, and Jerry Yang the founder of Yahoo! And the famous AIDS doctor, David Ho. And I thought to myself, these people are incredible. And they look like me. And they seem like normal people too. I started to learn how to network with them, do fundraising with them, and really felt empowered by just hanging out with them.
Now here I am speaking with you all. When we label things Asian, we tend to look down on it. The Asian fraternity is not a real fraternity. The Asian basketball game is not that good. But for me, that’s where I flourished, that’s where I built up my skills. I think feeling comfortable with my race was something I needed as part of my development. It helped me gain confidence to push myself to become better. I am not saying everyone needs it, but I needed it. And I hope the community we’re building at Apex helps our kids and our volunteers the same way the Asian community helped me. I hope they never think of it as an impediment but as a place where they are proud to grow.
Michael Lee is Executive Director of Apex for Youth, a nonprofit that enables underserved youth from the Asian community in NYC to become confident, be ready for college and give back to the community.
Prior to joining Apex, Michael, a native New Yorker, served as the Director of Development at the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese American leaders that addresses issues concerning Asian Americans and U.S.-China Relations. In this role, Michael was responsible for executing the Committee’s fundraising strategies and cultivating relationships with the organization’s members and supporters.
Michael received an M.S. in Fundraising and Philanthropy from New York University and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in East Asian Studies. He teaches martial arts and lion dance at Norman Chin’s Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu School in Chinatown and is a member of the Chinatown Rotary Club. He, his wife, Grace, and three children Connor, Maxwell, and Annisa reside in Brooklyn, NY.
Apex for Youth
Apex for Youth is a NYC-based organization that delivers possibilities to underserved Asian youth in NYC. It recruits volunteers to be positive role models who guide and inspire youth to become confident young adults who are ready for college and give back to the community.