May Chen is the co-founder and former CEO of Asian Services in Action. She was born in Hong Kong after her parents fled the communists in China. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1954. Being intimately involved in the lives of refugees in Akron through her counseling and social work, May has devoted her life to advocate for those who do not have a voice and to support new Americans in cultural- and linguistic-specific ways. May’s newest project, Jin Huo Community Senior Center, aims to support immigrant and refugee elders in the Akron area by improving quality of life through education, cultural exchange and enrichment.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between May and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 9, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): May, do you have a Chinese name?
May Chen (MC): Ruan Aimei (阮爱梅).
RC: Does that mean anything?
MC: A lover of roses. I think my mother — she loves roses a lot. And that’s why she named her daughter. And she never really explained to me the symbolism. But I think for her is just the beauty of the flower and hope that my life will reflect that beauty in the way I live.
RC: Where were you born?
MC: I was born in Hong Kong.
RC: What was that like?
MC: I was very fortunate because my parents fled the communists in China, and they came to Hong Kong. And, of course, my father’s father had a business in Hong Kong. And so that made his livelihood somewhat easier compared to other refugees who came from China. But they had a heart for those who fled China with no resources, with no home. So they opened our home to help them. And that was my first experience with what I call refugee resettlement.
RC: How old were you when all that was happening?
MC: Well, I was born in Hong Kong. And I remember even when I was three, four years old, that we had many people come into the home and my parents helped them find work, offered them a place to live. And my parents took me to refugee camps where people live in cardboard boxes and the United Nations helps by distributing basic meat products for them.
RC: And what year was that?
MC: It was around 1954. I would be around seven years old, six years old.
RC: And that had a big influence on you.
MC: That’s why I am a firm believer that t’s important that children be exposed and experience the hardships of people who come over as immigrants and refugees in the community.
RC: And when you first came to the U.S., what was it like?
MC: Well, we landed in San Francisco. Again, we were very fortunate. We live with my uncle and he had a gift shop on Grand Street, the main route of Chinatown in San Francisco. And my aunt, who spoke no English but was an outstanding seamstress — she made all the Chinese clothing for him to sell at his gift shop. And I thought that was one of the most fun places I’ve ever been. Because in Hong Kong, I have never been to any kind of gift shop before or see people make clothes before. It was very social-work-oriented. So that was a new experience for me.
RC: And when you first came, did you have to learn English?
MC: No. When I was in Hong Kong, I went to an Anglican school. So I learned English since I was in kindergarten. And the funny part was when I was enrolled at the San Mateo Elementary School, the kids kind of snickered because I spoke with a British accent.
RC: Can you tell me a little bit about your parents and what kind of value or home they brought you up in and how that influenced you?
MC: Well, my mother was brought up in an Anglican minister’s home. He was the first Anglican minister in China. And that was in Wuhu Anhui. So, there has been strong values instilled in her with love, compassion, philanthropy — and also, the spiritual side, the faith in her.
RC: So there was obviously a shift from Hong Kong to San Francisco. What was that shift like for you as a young person?
MC: Well, you know, when we landed in Chinatown, again Chinatown is probably pretty much populated by all Chinese. Communication was not a problem. We all spoke Cantonese. And then when we moved to the Bay Area, when I was in San Mateo, which is a suburb at that time, I realized that even though many of my classmates were Asians, they were very different from me. I found myself trying to figure out how to sit in that cohort. Many of them were Japanese, their parents were second and third generation in the States. These kids all knew each other, their families all knew each other. And they were not really interested in accepting or knowing someone who just immigrated from overseas. So, I felt very much like an outsider, even though I was in a very heavily populated Asian community.
RC: And did you ever come into contact with other races during that time, since America is such a melting pot?
MC: In Hong Kong, we knew a lot of white British citizens. In America, we’re not taken aback by white Anglos in this country. But, I think we also realized there were many Black Americans in our country. And so it was interesting to realize that you’re no longer the majority — that you are the minority. And it wasn’t until I lived in the South, in Waco, Texas, that I realized the Black Americans were treated very, very differently. The segregation was pretty strong during that time — Black people at certain places on the bus and the restaurants and the restrooms. And for me, at that time, I was about nine years old. It was difficult for me to figure out, “How do I fit? I’m neither white or Black, is there a certain place that I am supposed to be in this community?” So that was a little challenging for me.
RC: And what did you end up doing?
MC: What I figured out was that I would sit in the middle.
RC: In your family, was it important to celebrate Chinese traditions?
MC: Oh, certainly. My mother always reminded us, “You’re always Chinese.” And so she made sure that even when we’re in the States, that we follow certain traditions, doing New Year. We always get our red envelope. We’d always have to bow. We would always have a meal together. And, at that time, where we live, there wasn’t a critical mass of Chinese people, let’s say, in Waco, Texas. How many Chinese would you think there’ll be there? So we celebrated pretty much as a nuclear family. And there were other places where we didn’t know a lot of other Chinese, so my mother still kept the tradition.
And I still do with my own children and my grandchildren. And, the grandkids always look forward to the Chinese New Year. And they say “red envelope” very well: hong bao.
RC: You have been in the United States for a long time.
RC: And so, at what point did these traditions or the Chinese side of you become Americanized? Is there some “fusion” aspects of American culture in your upbringing? How American do you feel?
MC: It wasn’t until I was probably working more in the mainstream that I feel that, in order for the work that I want to do, I have to know more about what it means to be American. I gave it a lot of thought. I feel that the profession I chose in helping people in counseling, if it was not for the education here and the community here, I don’t think I would have gone so far. And I’m very grateful for that. So, that really helped me to want to be more engaged, be more active, and be a fully contributing citizen of this country.
Because before, I pretty much was very steeped in my Chinese identity; I didn’t feel like I was really mainstream. But it was when I started working, I realized that is something we have to do. We live here, we have to be engaged, we have to know about the culture. Even though some parts of it we don’t particularly accept, or like, I think we need to understand it.
One of my good friends was telling me that Asian kids and families are not really into wanting to mix deeply into American culture. So they don’t want to do a lot of small talk. They don’t want to know what Americans like to talk about. And that really doesn’t help them to join in the community.
So one thing my son taught me: he played football, and at first I said, “Oh, my, that’s the last thing I want him to do. I don’t want him to get hurt.” And so, I just realized this country is deeply into football. I mean, some parts of it shocked me. But I think it’s interesting. So, I started to watch it and I started to understand it, and you know, it really helps me in my conversations with people I need to network with — you know — to start with small talk. And I think these are some of the things that our Asian kids need to do; like learning how to play golf, learning how to join your colleagues, go for a drink after work and not having to work every minute on your job. I think that’s very important.
RC: Can you talk a little bit about some initiatives that you’ve done involving young people and getting them more active in society?
MC: Well, I think what’s important first is that we help them complete their education because many of them struggle. When we are able to provide that help, we actually have a captive audience of kids, right? If they are able to maintain their academic performance, then we introduce other things, because you don’t want to introduce leadership when they’re failing in school, right?
When I attended many of the mainstream conferences for youth, locally and statewide, I did not see Asian young people there. And that was 20-some years ago. But I asked myself, “Oh, this is such a wonderful experience; our young people would enjoy that. How can I get it to happen?” First of all, I have to get the trust of the parents to allow them to be engaged in this kind of activity. And then you have to choose something that they can make an impact on — and not too political. And so I always felt health and wellness are unifying factors for any community of race and ethnicity. And so we chose a health problem for the kids to address. And at that time, it was tobacco use, which was highly prevalent in our Asian community. Well the project first started in Akron and Cleveland. Then we branched out to Toledo, Cincinnati and Columbus. We had to identify young people who are willing to work with these youth, to help them build the capacity, to learn how to be a leader.
I have to be very grateful because I myself never really experienced leadership training. I was trained as a counselor, a family therapist — and I just saw clients in the office. I was challenged to take a lot of my counseling skills and therapy skills on a different level. And so the client was my community and I had to look at the community. What can I do to improve the functioning of the community, so they can serve their members better? We have this opportunity for this experience provided by Asian Pacific Islander Leadership and Empowerment. And they offered us the training first in San Francisco, and they offered it in Hawaii. There, I say, for the first time in my life, I saw Asian young people engage. And that was because it was at the West Coast. And what was wonderful was, they were willing to offer it to us in Ohio. Our kids experienced the same leadership training as their kids. I thought that’s really wonderful. And our kids actually won a national award for their project, you know, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is still in existence in D.C.
RC: I’m gonna step back a little bit, because I realize we skipped how you got into the state of Ohio and how you started ASIA. Could you recap that here?
MC: It’s really interesting. I came to Ohio because my husband found his first job at the University of Akron. And we got married and we settled here. Pretty much I was somewhat familiar with Ohio. Because about 40 or 50 years ago, my mother actually gave birth to my sister in Glendale, Ohio, at a convent where nuns were missionaries in China in the ’20s. But then I lived in Akron, Ohio, because as I said, my husband taught here, and for a while, I stayed home and raised the family. But I felt that I wanted to go back to the counseling profession that I have chosen. And I did, so then I was able to finish my degree and got my master’s in marriage and family therapy. And I worked at a mainstream agency, and there, pretty much I just saw Anglo-American white clients. And I said, “This is really interesting.” I said, “How come there are no Asian clients coming into this agency?” That was my first thought: “How come we don’t have Asians? I know living in the community, we all have problems. So what is it that is keeping them not utilizing the service?”
And so, when an opportunity opened up at the International Institute of Akron for the supervisor for refugee resettlement, I applied for it. And that was very fulfilling because I saw many Asian refugees and I knew nothing about them because they were Southeast Asian refugees. They came from war-torn countries, and I couldn’t communicate with them because most of them didn’t know English. “Wow, I have a whole body of knowledge I need to catch up on.” So you know, it doesn’t matter if you have a lot of alphabet after your name. But when you work with a community that is new in this country, you have to eat a lot of humble pie and learn from them. And this is what I did. I allow them to be my teachers.
And I did a lot of listening to what they think that they need help with. I did a lot of home visits. You know, here, the mentality is we go to the provider, we go to her office. You know for these people, that is an experience they’ve never had before in their lives, and, for thousands of years, they’ve existed, they’ve thrived. And so I think it’s a new behavior for them; it’s not easy for them to practice. So I think it’s really important that I go to them and learn about them. And I really felt that was one of the most powerful experiences I could have ever allowed myself to have. It gave me ideas as to what are things that will be relevant for them.
RC: So what were some of the things that you did learn from going into these homes?
MC: First of all, you have to know, they have solved problems in their lives very differently from the way we solve problems. They solve problems by going to their leadership — not necessarily a licensed social worker. In order to be effective in helping the family, I think you need to ask them, “Who do they trust, who do they go to for help?” and try to ally themselves with these individuals to work together, to help this person.
RC: You’ve learned so much from these communities, but what do you think future generations can learn from these families? What can they get from these experiences?
MC: Well, first of all, you have to allow yourself to venture into a different frontier or experience. That’s not easy, okay? Because there’s so many competing experiences young people want to have. And I’ve always said, you don’t need to spend so much money, thousands of dollars, going overseas for missionary experience. We have such diversity locally. Start locally and think globally, allowing yourself to know what are the volunteer opportunities to serve these immigrants and refugees.
RC: I’m wondering what led you to your latest project at Jin Huo Community Senior Center.
MC: I realized this program is not only for Asian elders, but for all elders, because they’re not as much a priority in terms of resources and funding, and I think it’s important that we have people to advocate on their behalf — especially for many of our immigrant and refugee elders who don’t have a voice because they do not know the language. Pretty much, they rely on families, and so the more they rely on family, the more their own independence is lacking. And I’m sure that’s not where they want to be either. That’s why I think it is a real void and gap in our service delivery system, that our seniors have not been adequately served.
And I’m going to go back to this recent incident in Monterey Park and the Bay Area. I think it’s because our mental health system, our social services, were not adequately developed to help these two seniors who commit these tragic crimes. And, you know, because a lot of them are suffering in silence from the trauma that they have experienced in their homeland, many of the scenes, atrocities with wars that you and I couldn’t even imagine. And I’m sure there were no counselors around, there were no support groups around. So they pretty much go on with life the way it is. And some manage to function normally, but I’m sure some have not.
So, I think this is why this kind of program that is staffed by culturally and linguistically relevant individuals can really support seniors’ quality of life here and their independence. I think it’s something that is long overdue. But I want to see these seniors have some quality of life as they ride toward the sunset. And, of course, being a senior myself, I feel I’m very blessed. And I always look at what helps me to have a better quality of life. How can I help make that happen with other seniors — to maybe not the same extent, but at least to some extent?
RC: Do you think that in this country, there’s still that need to bridge the gap between the Asian American experience that you’re talking about with American mainstream populations and how they recognize one another?
MC: Oh I think there’s a tremendous need. We cannot keep talking about the blame game: “They should have done this. They should have done [that].” I think it’s working together, coming together and providing opportunities for them to be together. And this is what I hope to do.
It’s really interesting. I always love to talk to our seniors here. It isn’t that when they come, “You’re gonna do X, Y and Z.” No. I always believe in evaluations. I always believe in feedback. So I asked them, I said, “We want to hear from you. We want this place to be your second home. We want this place to be relevant to you. So tell us, what are more things we can do to help that happen?” And you know what? You ask the right questions and they share.
Recently, we were told they want ESL. I’m very glad to hear that. I think that’s very important, even basic conversation. At least they can say something to maybe the doctor they see, or their neighbors, right? And what they also say is, “We want to know more about this community. We want to know more about the resources to help us. We like to have our citizenship.” So I thought those are great feedback.
What I like to introduce for mainstream organizations who are interested in helping our seniors is: First of all, I want to provide them with cultural sensitivity training. Because they have to know who these [people] are. Many of them don’t, they have never even met one. So how can you help people if you don’t know much about them? Then certainly, we would need to have translation and interpretation. And I want the providers to come here. You know, it’s certainly ideal for the elders to come to their office but I see that as remotely possible. It’s hard. First of all, they have to be willing to take public transportation. They have to feel safe and confident. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t happen. I think it should happen — eventually. But I think the provider needs to make that effort to reach out. And I often think that underutilization of our resources in our community also has to do with the failure to reach out. Because, you know, it’s hard. You have to get out of your comfort zone to do that.
RC: So is this one of the main missions here then?
MC: Yes, to bring people together. And I want to have a cultural exchange. You know, our elders, they may not know English well, but certainly, they know their culture well, and they’re so talented. They are so good with their hands, they cook the best food and they have stories to tell. What are some things I really want to do? Every immigrant refugee in this community has a compelling story, and we need to record it. The seniors, we need to record because they’re not going to be around too long. And I think it is an inspiration for other people.
RC: You’ve done so much, founded so many organizations. But what’s that passion that drives you, and what’s the legacy that you want to leave?
MC: I think the legacy I want to leave is that even though I always viewed myself as an ordinary woman — really, I was very shy when I was very little. My mother had to make me learn to do public speaking because she knew I was so shy. And it was not easy. And I think what I want to help young people know is that, even though you may feel that you’re ordinary, but truly, you can do extraordinary things. But it must start with your heart. It must start with your heart, and also to have the right values in your life to help people. It doesn’t have to be just Asian people. It could be people from all walks of life, to help them to have hope, to have a quality of life, to help them realize their dreams, because they gave up so much — with our immigrants and refugees — to come to this country, to help them realize their dreams for themselves or their families. And it’s possible because I hope that they see me as living proof that it is possible. Then you would really see that your life has such a wonderful purpose. And you will see life in a very meaningful way. And I think that will really help you rise above many of the challenges that you think your life is presenting to you. It really helps you see life differently.