A great interest in traveling and international development led Debbie to a fulfilling career in working for government in the USDA in Washington DC. With her unique start living in Moldova through work with the Peace Corps, Debbie has come full circle and has plans to return to her hometown in Queens, NY where she was born.
A: Tell us more about the work you do and your experience with Peace Corps.
D: After my Peace Corps service, I wanted to continue working in the government so I moved to DC in 2005. I like the job there but I don’t like living there. For the longest time since 2005 I did international development work and traveled overseas pretty often-supporting developing countries to make sure that their food system was safe and also to promote biotechnology for food security so that they grow food that’s sustainable especially in light of climate change. Three years ago I switched to another position within the agency where I don’t have to travel as much. Now it’s more about promoting international trade. My portfolio covers vegetables and fruits –one of them is the blueberry industry. We give organizations money in order to market their products in other countries. There is an organization that represents all the U.S. blueberry growers and packers and we give them funds to export and promote fresh, frozen, and dried blueberries to other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. I’ve worked with a broad range of countries and various topics of agricultural development.
I studied international relations and anthropology in college at Syracuse and then after worked a few years in publishing. I just knew I wanted to do something that involved outside of the U.S. During college I learned about Russian history. Learning about their history and their perspective piqued my interest even more. So I went to grad school in London-University College London because I just wanted to leave the U.S., but I was also very interested in Russian studies and over there they had a school that was specifically for former Soviet Union country studies –SSEES-School of Slavonic & East European Studies.
In order to work in international development I had to pay my dues first and be in the thick of it, learn and work my way up, so people suggested I go into Peace Corps. I was assigned to go to Russia but just before I was to fly out there, Peace Corps got kicked out of Russia because it was a political thing- they accused Peace Corps of being spies. I was reassigned to Armenia but I refused because I wanted to learn Russian so they sent me to Moldova instead. Moldova is where I learned how to speak Russian from the first day I arrived. It was a crash course. As soon as I arrived they started the first lesson. I was like I am so jet lagged- this is not sticking. I was there for two years and a few months. I was in the countryside and I walked by cows, the place didn’t have much of an infrastructure. But I stuck it out and it was an incredible experience. I learned a lot from everyone there. Sometimes there was no electricity or running water. In a lot of Peace Corps countries there’s no indoor bathroom. There was an outhouse and we had to get water from the communal well. Peace Corps volunteers are expected to live just like the locals. Nothing fancy so if the locals didn’t bathe, the volunteers didn’t bathe either. It turned out to be a blessing I didn’t go to Vladivostok because someone I knew who was assigned there told me Asians experienced a lot of discrimination.
Moldova is a very small country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, part of the Soviet Union back in the days. Some still speak Russian but many speak Romanian, which is the official language. They call it Moldovan language since it’s more about politics and nationalism. Gagauzia is an autonomous region within Moldova and the people are called Gagauz, who have closer ethnic ties to Turkey. They look different than most of the other ethnic Moldovans, they’re darker skin and more like Turkish folks. They experience discrimination and racism. I taught at a university there and ethnic Moldovans would call them black ants. That region speaks Russian and because language is a political thing, in some towns, Romanians look down on them, and vice versa.
A: What is the most unusual thing you’ve seen in your travels?
D: In Turkmenistan, an embassy worker and I were driving around in a residential area and I saw a camel in the backyard and I wasn’t expecting that. Turkmenistan is in Central Asia with a history of the Soviet Union and has a strong sense of heritage. They speak Russian. I did learn Russian but it’s been such a long time but I still understand it. I speak Cantonese and my parents who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the 60’s spoke to me at home, but I wish I understood Cantonese more. I can’t read or write it. I can’t count higher than 4.
During my travels the locals could tell that I’m American. I went to Beijing and even though my background is Chinese they could tell I’m American.
In Egypt, I went to the museum and there were these tour groups and I was hoping to join, blend in and sneak in with the Asian group and the guard immediately knew that I was not with them and he even spoke English to me. He could tell the difference that I wasn’t part of the Asian tour group but in the U.S. they probably would assume and think that I was part of the Asian group.
A: What stereotypes have you experienced or what notions do people have about Asians?
D: I frequently get “Oh you speak English so well” even though I was born and raised in the U.S. And of course there are guys who have an Asian fetish. Also, people think that I’m probably subservient because I’m Asian. My personality, I‘m an introvert, so I tend to be quiet and I stay away from crowds, but they think it’s because I’m Asian.
There is colorism especially in Asian cultures. In the Chinese culture, traditionally the lighter your complexion, the better and prettier you are, at least that’s the mentality of a lot of folks. I have freckles and when I was younger my mom used to take me to these spas to try to lighten them but I like my freckles. In college, I had a roommate who is Chinese and she said, “oh they’re so ugly”. Also you shouldn’t tan. I love tanning. The older generation would always say, choose a boy, not too dark but I dated who ever I liked. I dated all ethnicities and races. Overtime my parents said I should date whoever treats you right instead of focusing on looks or heritage. Overtime, my parents just wanted to know that I was secure. They hoped I would marry a businessman or Dr. or someone who makes money-that was the ideal but turns out I never met anybody that I want to marry. Another stereotype is you must be super thin and that’s definitely a big thing in Asian culture and I am not naturally thin.
A: Positive aspects?
D: I think that my life is enriched with a Chinese heritage but also growing up in the U.S., so it’s a blend of cultures. I think that’s a blessing.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
D: I identify as Asian but what I identify with also is a New Yorker, not so much American, but as a New Yorker. In general in the U.S. there tend to be a lot more ignorance but in NYC it doesn’t feel so. In smaller towns people may have not been exposed to other cultures. When I go to smaller towns, folks think I am a foreigner.
A: What are your thoughts about the term people of color?
D: It’s a new term. Growing up the term that we used was minorities or non whites. I don’t have a positive or negative view- its just terminology changing. I don’t automatically think of that term. Asian is part of my identity because of how I grew up but I don’t think about that first. In the beginning when I first heard POC term, I thought more of Black and Latinos as POC, but then when this Black lady said to me “you are also a person of color”, I said “yeah, you’re right!”. It’s more broad and encompasses different perspectives.
A: Have you experienced any verbal or physical assaults being an Asian?
D: I experienced verbal assault especially in DC from both White and Black folks, saying terrible things, not exactly derogatory terms but saying how nasty I am. One day, I was waiting at a bus stop in DC and two Black women in their car at the traffic stop yelled, “you think you’re so much better, you think you’re so good but you're just nasty”. I ignored them I didn't want to engage and give them that power.
A: What message do you want to impart to others?
D: That we’re Americans too- that we’re just like everyone else. That we go through the same pressures, trying to meet the high expectations of our parents while also fitting in, and trying to make our own way.