My name is Christina Hu, and I am a Taiwanese American.
In 2019, I signed on to lead the Write In Taiwanese campaign for the 2020 Census [on behalf of] the Taiwanese American Citizens League.
The pandemic had changed many of our pre planned events, but I have never felt more committed to the goals I had set for the Write In Taiwanese campaign-
1. We care that everyone gets counted, and
2. We care that everyone knows that they can write-in under “Other” categories if they are not represented on the 2020 census. For Taiwanese, we will complete the census by checking the “Other Asian” box and writing in “Taiwanese.”
Interestingly, I rather enjoy being under this “Other” category. It actually makes me feel more special. I know a lot of people would define being “Other” as something negative, but I think the act of writing in is quite empowering because by writing in, I act as the final authority on who I am. There is something tremendously American about not letting anyone else but yourself define who you are or what you are made of.
Also, I think America at its core is a country that is made up of people who at some point or another came from somewhere else and had been an “Other” to one another.
When I immigrated to the United States in the middle of 5th grade, I did not speak English. When I forgot my lunch money for school I had to communicate through miming. I would put my hands into my pocket and turn it inside out and shrug shoulders to signify that I had no money.
Things in my 5th grade classroom went on somewhat the same – I could either just mime my way through science and art classes or just don’t talk to anyone like in math class. But during English class, I just sat in the back of the classroom and drew in my notebook. My 5th grade teacher didn’t know what to do with me at all so she left me alone.
But luckily for me, my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Hwang took it upon herself to make sure I stopped falling behind and learned English. Mrs. Hwang was married to a Chinese American who spoke Mandarin, and I remember meeting them both for the first time toward the end of my fifth grade year. Mr. Hwang explained to me that at the end of my sixth grade year, I would have to pass the literacy test in order to graduate from elementary school, and since I had not done anything during the English class in the fifth grade it was a possibility that I may not be able to graduate.
But Mrs. Hwang had a plan for me. Her goal was to accelerate my English reading and comprehension levels so that I could join the rest of the class and pass the literacy test by the end of sixth grade. She really believed that all I needed was a plan and she had one! I will never forget her voice on that day – she spoke with such a tone of urgency that I understood that she was determined to help me.
As sixth grade year started, Mrs. Hwang had recruited the parents of my classmates to come in to read with me on an one-on-one basis. My classmates would watch me leave when we have English class because I needed to work on catching up. By mid year, my English was good enough to join everyone for spelling tests. I remember being able to spell more words than I understood. I still remember the day it was my turn to not only spell the word but to also put the word in a sentence. My word was “echo.” I remember when I said the word “echo” and I paused – I was in a panic – and then someone shouted the word “echo” (with two hands clasped around the mouth) and then one by one my classmates repeated the word “echo”, “echo”, “echo”, “echo”, I quickly picked up that they were showing me the meaning of the word. It was amazing! I was able to put the word in a sentence that day. I remember feeling like I could do anything after that knowing I have such a supportive community behind me.
Then one day there was a petition that got passed around for signatures. I don’t remember what the petition was about – it could have possibly been about lunch menu selections (for some reason the school consulted six graders about lunch selections), or it could have been about seating assignments (I do remember it was very important for sixth graders who you get to sit next to). I remember being at awe – that as a sixth grader – I got to have a say in school affairs. In Taiwan, when I was a student there, responsibility was taught very differently; for example, classes were assigned bathrooms and stairwells that they would clean each day and seating assignments were determined by your latest test score. So I was excited to engage civically as a sixth grader in my American classroom and I signed the petition without giving it too much thought.
I remember later on when Mrs. Hwang asked me why I signed the petition, I didn’t have a good answer. In my sixth grade mind, all I knew then was that, my signature suddenly meant something to someone of authority and that was exciting. But what she said to me next has stayed with me ever since – she said “your signature represents you”. She was telling me that my signature should mean something to ME too. I have thought many times since then – what it means to live a life where I embody the message that my signature represents me. I have come to believe that her message was not only about being thoughtful and sincere in what I do and say individually, but also about speaking up and paving ways for the truth for myself and my community.
As a Taiwanese American, it has become increasingly important for me to speak up to affirm my own existence and help others understand my community. I see the act of writing in ‘Taiwanese’ under the “Other Asian” box on the Census Form as something beautiful and positive. I think it is because when I write in Taiwanese on the Census form, it feels like I am putting down my own signature of affirmation for who I am as a proud Taiwanese American. When I write in, I am not just getting myself counted for my own representation, but I am also writing in for the community I represent.
I know when Mrs. Hwang told me that “your signature represents you”, she probably only meant that she wanted me to think more carefully where I put down my signature. But this phrase has evolved and expanded in its meaning to me as I accumulate my own life experience. And the more experience I have in life, I realize more just how amazing it was to have a teacher who had believed in me as much as she had.
As my reading comprehension levels improved in sixth grade, I started to be able to read complete stories and novels, and of all the novels that Mrs. Hwang selected for me, my favorite was Charlotte’s Web. It’s a story about the unlikely friendship between a spider and a pig, and the spider Charlotte weaved words in her web about Wilbur (the pig), so the farmer and others would also find Wilbur to be so amazing that the farmer would have to spare Wilbur’s life. I think only in retrospect did I understand what a profound story Charlotte’s Web was.
This particular dialogue had stayed with me too. Wilbur, the little piggy, asking Charlotte, the spider “Why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” And Charlotte replied, “you have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Mrs. Hwang had shown me a type of friendship that was tremendous too that I will never forget to live my life inspired by her actions and words that my signature represents me.
To this day, it surprises me how quickly I learned English, but I know Mrs. Hwang was the reason that I did. At the end of sixth grade, I passed the literacy test and was able to graduate from sixth grade.
Years later, we reconnected and agreed to meet up. I always wanted to thank her for all that she did. But, Mrs. Hwang died in a car accident the year that we had said that we would meet again, so I never got to thank her for the difference she had made in my life.
But wherever she is now, I look to make her proud. I know she would be happy that I have prioritized service and activism in my life. I have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and worked as a Regional Get Out the Vote Director for President Obama.
I also know that if she were here she would probably tell me to not dwell on thanking her but think about how to pay it forward, and I could also hear her say to me that I should really just make myself proud.
So, this year, by leading the Write In Taiwanese Campaign for the 2020 Census, I know I am not only just embracing my American value that everyone counts, but also I am living up to the ideal inspired by Mrs. Hwang that “My Signature Represents Me” when I check that “Other Asian” box and write in “Taiwanese”. Like the Write In Taiwanese Campaign for the 2020 Census slogan says – This is Who We Are. Make It Count!
Christina was born in Taiwan and grew up in Virginia. She was a founding member of the Taiwanese Student Association at University of Virginia, and as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, she helped found the Minority Awareness Group to help support American Minority Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ukraine. At Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she helped organize the National Asian Pacific American Conference on Law and Public Policy as the conference chair representing the Harvard Asian American Policy Review. Christina is passionate about political engagement and community organizing; in 2012, she served as Regional GOTV Director in Virginia for President Obama’s re-election campaign. In 2019, Christina joined the TACL National Board as Director of Civic Engagement to help lead the Census 2020 Initiative. In her free time, Christina produces short documentaries and writes short stories that highlight the Taiwanese American and Asian American experience.