Dr. Yung-Chen Lu is professor emeritus in the mathematics department at the Ohio State University. He is the founder of the Columbus Asian Festival and the Asian Senior Meal program. He currently lives in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Yung-Chen and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 22, 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): The intention is to get a little bit of your story, how you came to spend time giving back to the community and why that’s important to do that. Let’s start with how you came to Ohio.
Yung-Chen Lu (YL): Well, that’s a long story, but I will cut it short. I got my degree, Ph.D., in Berkeley, University of California. And after I got my degree, I got to know Professor Stolz at the University of Notre Dame, and he really wanted me to work more closely with him. So he hired [me], but at that time, he wanted me to go to Notre Dame. And there’s no opening, therefore, turns out that I got a job in Ohio.
RC: Can you tell me where you were born, where you were raised before Berkeley, where you went to school?
YL: I was born in January, 1938. And I was born in Wuhan, Hubei. Because at that time, 1930 was exactly when the anti-Japanese war was going on, and my father was in the military. Therefore, we moved around and ended up in Wan Xian of Sichuan, and then in Wan Xian, my mother passed away because of giving birth to my youngest brother. And so after that, we moved to Chongqing, which, of course, was the wartime capital. And so from Chongqing, then we fought the Japanese, from that point on until 1945. And then we moved to Nanjing and stayed there for two years, and then my father had a job in Taiwan. So we moved to Taiwan. He moved to Taiwan in 1946 and I moved to Taiwan in 1948; that is even before the end of the internal war. So I got to Taiwan in 1948, and stayed in Taiwan for my basic education, and graduated from the National Taiwan University in 1961. And then joined the ROTC for two years, and then came to this country in 1961, as I said, to Berkeley, California.
RC: When you finally came, right after your Berkeley degrees, and finally came to Ohio, you were teaching at Columbus. What was Columbus like at the time for Asian Americans?
YL: Yeah, we came to Ohio and we thought [in] a couple of years, we’ll go back to California because we loved California. However, we realized that Columbus really is a nice city to bring up the family. And because of that reason, we love Columbus, so we stayed. And really we had a good time bringing up the children, bringing up the family in Columbus, Ohio.
RC: What was it about Columbus that made it a good place to live? Because I’m sure there’s not a lot in comparison to California, as much resources for Asians. So at the time, how did you sort of survive?
YL: Basically that, a lot of people got discriminated [against] on the East Coast, and even [in] Pittsburgh, and moved to Columbus, and they happily stayed here, because people here are really nice. And even, they still have discrimination, but a lot milder than other places. And that’s why we chose to stay here.
RC: Okay. What led you to begin all those years of deciding to do public service, active volunteering?
YL: When I was really young, my hope, my goal was to teach. Therefore, I got a teaching job here, which [was] ideal for me. Also, I am quite involved with – in 1969, Diao Yu Tai Student Movements. And because of that, I got to know a lot of people, not only in Ohio, but also in D.C., Michigan, other places. And most importantly is that that movement made me think, just for ourselves is not enough. We have to serve other people and to make our society a better one. And so, that really was the trigger point for me to get involved in many, many incidents or events I engaged in.
RC: Is there a specific need that you saw with the Asian population here in Columbus?
YL: Yes, in the beginning, end of 1972, I got invited to China from the State Department, because of the Diao Yu Tai movements. I was one of the chairs to visit China. And because of that, we got a long, three and three quarter hours meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai. We shared a lot of information at that time. They wanted to know from our perspective about their way to make China better to Taiwanese people. However, the way they handle[d] that kind of involvement was not appropriate. Therefore, we made a lot of comments, and also a lot of suggestions for them to improve what they should do.
Because of that, it made us think [about] a lot of things that happened. Because of that, I [had] also been invited back to Wuhan University, and also Chinese Academia Sinica, and the two gave mathematics speeches. Therefore, I met a lot of students, and also because of that, I had a desire to help the Chinese government to improve their way of thinking. And that’s really the beginning for me to engage into a lot of my speeches and also my engagements to help them out.
RC: And in Columbus here, you started the Asian Health Initiative and that provides – can you talk a little bit about that?
YL: From 1973 until 1985, during that 12 years, I’ve been working, I’ve been traveling back to China many times, and [gave] speeches and help[ed] them, [gave] them some proposals until 1985. In 1983, I started a group of people here to establish the Chinese language school, and to get the kids to learn the Chinese language, and also history and the literature of our history. Because of that, I started my community service. And at that time, I joined a group called East Coast Chinese Family Camp, and our camp is in the Pocono Mountains of Philadelphia. We not only gathered several 100 people with a lot of kids, [we taught] them Chinese culture and heritage.
And because of that, I got quite involved in the planning, etc… And in October, 1993, a group of physicians came to that room. We talked about [what] they want me to establish an Asian… in fact, in the beginning [it] was Chinese. Later on, I convinced them it should be an Asian Health Clinic, a free clinic. So, that’s really [was] the beginning of my second career.
In January, I got a chance to visit a nonprofit organization called LifeCare Alliance. So I visited them and I was stunned. I was surprised. And I’m so surprised that there’s such a nonprofit organization that in one day can produce 4,000 meals by volunteers, deliver them household by household for the elderly. After we toured the kitchen, then we sat down. They asked me to share some of my thoughts, wisdom. I said, “What you are doing, we can not even dream to have this kind of thing in my country, in any country in the Asian continent.” So I said, this is just impossible for me to say anything, but they pressed me to give them some of my impressions.
Finally, I said, “Yeah, if you really want me to say something, I can share my thoughts. I believe that those elderly are lonely. Even [if] you deliver the meals to them household by household, they are still lonely. I am hoping to have them get together in some locations, not only to have hot, nutritious meals, but also to have someone to talk to them, that is a kind of mental health.” And they said, “Well, this is [a] great idea. Why don’t you write us a proposal.” So, after I [came] back, that’s my first proposal I wrote in my life. So I wrote a proposal, and they approved it almost on site.
Therefore, I started my meal program to get the Asian elderly – in fact, including Caucasians — in a restaurant setting, because I know some of the restaurant owners. They [knew] what I’m trying to accomplish, what to do. Therefore, they supported me. At that time, the organization, LifeCare Alliance, only [gave] them $3.25 per head. Even now, this is my 30th year in operation. They only give for them $4.00 a meal. So I started the meal program on February 5, 1994.
And this is the 30th year in operation. But we served thousands of people and they all got a great deal of benefits. Well, however, the task, easy to say, [is] not easy to do, because I have to mobilize my friends with a van to pick them up, have the meal, stay there and then send them home. I have to map out of the map, because this week, A, B, C comes, next week, A, B, C is now coming [and then] X, Y, Z will come. Therefore I have to find out whether they want to come or not, and then provide the transportation. So, it’s not an easy job. And six months later LifeCare Alliance realized how hard I have to work. Therefore, [they] helped me out, provided transportation, but even that, I still have to map out the maps, things like that. And therefore, they also hire a couple part-time people to help me. That’s why the meal program is a huge success.
Because of the success of the meal program, I got to know a lot of leaders in the Asian community and because of that, in June 1994, I established an organization called the Asian-American Community Service Council. That is on June 24, 1994. They wanted me as the president of this organization. In the second meeting, July 25, 1994, we talked about what we should do. The guy sitting next to me, his name’s John Seto, and he worked for Ohio Arts Council. He asked me to propose [an] Asian Festival to the group, and say that he will be my executive director. I don’t have to worry a thing about how to run the Asian Festival. With that said, we unanimously approved the Asian Festival. That’s why I consider July 25 as the birthday of the Asian Festival. However, 40 days later, John Seto got a job in San Francisco, saying bye and therefore, I have no other way, but to pick it up. So, I started to learn how to run a festival. And that is the beginning of my career in the Asian Festival.
RC: So, with the leaders, was that the first time that these disparate leaders are coming together — because they’re different Asian group leaders that you mentioned?
RC: So, I think the success is that the Asian Festival is using the word “Asian” — just like you mentioned, that’s one of the first times in those early ’90s that people are coming together.
YL: Exactly. And before I proposed the Asian Festival, there were not any Asian events. We all [had] our own events like the New Year celebration, Autumn Festival — each one of the communities [had] their own events. But since I proposed the Asian Festival, we got together, and we worked together. Therefore, now I call [the] Asian Festival a big family. That’s why we work so well together harmoniously. And luckily, I’m a kind of leader to work with every ethnic group together. That’s why we are successful from this point of view. My slogan [to] the people together is only three words, “Promote Asian image.” Not only do we have to work together, we have to be a good citizen; not only a good agency, we have to be a good American citizen. This is the reason we are working together so well.
Asian Festival, we brought around 12,000 people in 1995, in Franklin Park, and we’re still in Franklin Park. For the last few years, we plateaued at 160,000 people and therefore, [it] is the largest Asian festival in the whole country. That is pronounced by our previous mayor, Michael Coleman. He made [it] very clear because he did the research, and realized not only so many people who attended the festival, but also 16 ethnic groups that signify the diversity, equity and inclusion. So, this is really the importance of what we’ve accomplished.
RC: Can you speak a little bit on how this is changing perspectives about Asian Americans in a place like Columbus and the Midwest? Do you have any experience with that by doing all of these things?
YL: Yes. Before I answer this particular question, let me say a few words before then, because that’s involved with my third organization. The first one, of course, is the meal program. The second one is the Asian Festival. And after the first festival, in December, we had a reception to thank our sponsors. Let me say this: I have two visions on the Asian Festival. The first one is to showcase Asian culture and heritage to the general public. And that is why we do not charge anyone, even a penny — [it’s] all free. Even [if] we spend a lot of money on performance, everything is free. Second, we work to pay back to society, to the community. Therefore, we are providing free health screenings. We had all kinds of screenings, not only from the western medicine point of view, but also from alternative medicine, like acupuncture and herbal medicine or that kind of thing. We try to educate people as much as we can.
So, with that said, then you know that I had this in mind from the beginning to establish a patient-free clinic. And with this in mind, OSU Medical Center realized my intention, and so the executive director of OSU Medical Center Community Relations, her name is Wanda Dillard. She put me on the side, saying that, “Dr. Lu, I heard your speech, you want to establish a clinic. Now maybe this is a chance for you to do so.” I started from scratch and then finally on June 2, 1997, I finally established the Asian free clinic under an organization called the Asian Health Initiative. I call that initiative because I didn’t know how long I [could] last. And until now, we’re still an initiative.
The clinic is extremely important, because at the Asian Festival, we had plenty of health screenings. And after they’ve been tested as abnormal, what do we do with them — [do] we throw them on the street? You go ahead to find your own way? That’s why I established the clinic. We have a [place] where they can come in to be helped. That’s why it’s kind of a linkage. The follow-up is extremely important.
And so in 1999, I started to think about what we can do for the state of Ohio. And the beginning was very tough. In 2001, I received the funds from Ohio Commission on Minority Health at that time. The executive director’s name is Cheryl Boyce. And she helped me to have a fund, to have the first Asian conference in Columbus. But my idea again, I invited different department heads from Ohio State to talk to us about what they are doing, what they want the nation to do for them, what we can do for them and what they can do for us. Then, I gathered 67 Asian leaders from the state of Ohio. We first talked about what we have accomplished, then we talked about what we should do in the future.
So 2004, I got another grant from the Ohio Commission on Minority Health to help us to have the second conference in Cleveland because I wanted it to be statewide. This second conference was a milestone for the Asian community to grow in the state of Ohio, because we established an organization that is called the Ohio Asian American Health Coalition, OAAHC. Our priorities, one, Hepatitis B, two, domestic violence with mental health, three, diabetic and diabetic problems, the fourth one, smoking cessation.So that is the milestone and after that, my last thing to establish was the 2010 Ohio Asian American Pacific Islander Advisory Council to the governor. So, that organization is extremely important, because that really puts all of us together. And the goal of this is to establish the Asian commission in the state of Ohio, but even so, that organization allows us, the Asian community, to step into the government door to have direct communication with all the departments.
RC: What’s the role for Asian Americans now in Ohio? how are we perceived? What’s the vision for us moving forward?
YL: So now it’s about time for me to tell you why it is so important — all the things I’ve been doing — so important for the settlement for the Asian community in the state of Ohio. Because we are not only focused on the festival, meal program and so on; we really would like to step into the government door and to communicate with them to tell them what we need and how we can help [them] to grow.
I am kind of very lucky because of my relationship with all the major companies, major sponsors — they respect what we’ve been doing. Therefore, they are thinking, maybe someday, we should have an Asian on our board. That is easy to say but not easy to accomplish. Who cares about the Asians? Because in Ohio, we have only 3.25% of the population. In central Ohio, we have 5.5% No matter what you say, it is a small percentage. So why they will look upon you, I think, is because of what has been accomplished. And that’s why you saw so many trophies there. And that’s why we got the recognition from not only the major sponsors, from the government. And because of the Asian Festival, I’ve been traveling around all over the places of the companies in central Ohio, so they know the existence of our population.
RC: What’s your vision for the future generation? Where do you want this to go?
YL: Well, I talked to a lot of younger people. I gave a lot of speeches, and so on and so forth. And I only ask them three criteria: One, no monetary return. [Two,] no fame. The third one — epic heart. So, if we can think of these three criteria, then you can do anything and you accomplish a lot.