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Prominent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on the Heroes Who Inspired Them

Meet the elders who paved the way for these celebrities

greg louganis and duke kahanamoku

Ian Spanier/Bishop Museum Archives

Greg Louganis on hero Duke Kahanamoku

"My parents never hid the fact that I was adopted,” says Greg Louganis, 61. “They told me my birth father was Samoan, but I didn't know what that meant. I only knew that I had darker skin than the other kids.”

Then, when he was 9 years old, the talented young diver traveled to a competition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and saw a statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian swimmer, who died in 1968. “I thought, He kind of looks like me,” Louganis recalls. “It was so gratifying to see that someone I resembled could be a champion."

Louganis researched Kahanamoku and learned he was known not only for his five Olympic medals but for popularizing the sport of surfing, until then largely unknown outside of Hawaii.

Having a Pacific Islander to look up to gave Louganis confidence, he adds. Yet it wasn't until he had won three of his own five Olympic medals that he first connected with his Pacific Island heritage in a personal way. At an appearance in Honolulu, he met his biological father, Fouvale Lutu, who had reluctantly given him up for adoption as an infant 24 years earlier. After more contact with Lutu and his other children — Louganis’ half brother and two half sisters — a bond was established. “They're just wonderful, loving, caring people, and I'm grateful to have them in my life,” Louganis notes.

Now that the parents who raised him have died, Louganis and his husband, Johnny Chaillot, spend Christmas with the Lutus. In Waikiki there's a huge bronze statue of Kahanamoku. When Louganis sees it, he says, “I still feel a connection to him, especially now that I have discovered this part of my heritage."

padma lakshi and madhur jaffrey

Dominic Valente/Hulu; Christopher Hirsheimer

Padma Lakshmi on hero Madhur Jaffrey

Padma Lakshmi had known about Madhur Jaffrey since college. A native of Delhi, the elegant Jaffrey broke barriers — first in the U.K., then in the U.S. — as an award-winning Shakespearean actress, TV host and food writer whose landmark 1973 book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, is credited with introducing Indian cuisine in the West. “She is a great writer and a great artist,” says Lakshmi, 50, who immigrated to the U.S. from India at age 4. “I just never saw a career like that anywhere else. There were not very many Indian women who were known outside of India for anything but being Bollywood actresses. I always admired her ability to be herself and rise.”

When the two women first met in the early 2000s — Lakshmi's then-husband was an old friend of Jaffrey's — Lakshmi was in the process of inventing her own hyphenate career as a model-actress-writer-food expert. “I still didn't know what my professional life was going to look like,” admits the longtime judge on Bravo's Top Chef and host of Hulu's Taste the Nation. “I had a great admiration for Madhur, but I don't think I appreciated her accomplishments then the same way I do today. Now I know what it takes to have done the things she did, especially at the time she achieved them.”

In Jaffrey, Lakshmi found not only a role model but a mentor and friend. The older woman had learned to cook as an adult, via recipes that her mother mailed to her while she was a theater student in London, so she has a studied and intense relationship with the discipline — an intensity she recognized in Lakshmi. “When Padma really got into food, it was very interesting for me to watch how she explored the area, especially the way she brought attention to cuisines from Asia and around the world,” says Jaffrey, 87. “I have a lot of admiration for her for doing this. It's how our relationship grew.”

The two share a conviction that food is more than just sustenance and sensory pleasure. “People often don't take food seriously, but it's a very serious aspect of a culture, because it has roots in history, religion, geography and just about everything else,” Jaffrey notes. “It's an important part of learning about a country, about a people, about every aspect of their lives.”

Adds Lakshmi, “Food is a way for people to pass their heritage and culture on to their children.” Her international cookbook Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet was recently rereleased in paperback.

Asked how she feels about being a pioneer in bringing Indian food to American palates, Jaffrey responds that she doesn't think about it much. “I don't focus on being the first,” she says. “Instead, I think about people carrying on the work that I started. It needs people to take it in all kinds of new directions. I'm so happy to see Padma carry on the work in a wonderful way.”


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amy tan and maxine hong kingston

An Rong Xu/The New York Times/Redux; Michael Lionstar

Amy Tan on hero Maxine Hong Kingston

In 1979, Amy Tan's roommate gave her a copy of The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston's groundbreaking memoir of her experiences as a daughter of parents who had emigrated from China. “I didn't think of myself as a writer at the time,” recalls Tan, 69, a child of Chinese immigrants herself. “I didn't start writing for another four years, but I remember reading the book and loving it. The Woman Warrior gave me the idea that, yes, Asian Americans can write stories, and they don't have to be stories about white people."

Tan published The Joy Luck Club in 1989; it was the first of her six (and counting) best-selling novels. Shortly after the book was released, she went to one of Kingston's readings, introduced herself and received a warm welcome. “The first thing Maxine did was hug me and say, ‘We're sisters,’ “ Tan remembers. The writers stayed in touch and quickly bonded, jokingly sharing anecdotes about people confusing one for the other in public.

When Kingston, 80, started her career, she'd had few models to follow other than Jade Snow Wong, whose book Fifth Chinese Daughter was published in 1950. For guidance, Kingston looked to Black writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Dick Gregory. “I found so much strength in the way they wrote about being invisible or about the inner life,” she recalls. “They wrote about things that had never been written about before. So I said to myself, I can do that, too. No reader has ever been able to read a story like mine.”

To Tan, though, Kingston wasn't just telling her own story. She was creating an opening for other unheard stories to be told. “Maxine is an activist,” Tan says. “She's always championed those who have no voice."

"Now there are more of us Asian American writers coming,” Kingston adds. “There are Vietnamese writers and Hmong writers and writers from the Pacific Islands. And I feel that I'm part of a movement.”

If that movement has brought attention to diverse voices, it has also helped anchor those voices as fully American. At first, Tan notes, her books, along with Kingston's, were shelved in bookstores as “Asian American Literature.” “That divide doesn't occur anymore,” she says. “Our books are in the same section as other fiction writers’ books."

senator mazie hirono and patsy mink

Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Mazie Hirono on hero Patsy Mink

"Patsy Mink was a risk taker,” says Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. A third-generation Japanese Hawaiian, Mink ran for Congress in 1964, “knowing that she would be the first woman of color to be elected if she won — which she did.” In Congress, Mink took a broad view of her responsibilities, championing national causes such as the creation of Medicare and the protection of equal rights. In 1972 she coauthored Title IX, the law that equalized education funding between the sexes. “Patsy really stayed the course,” Hirono recalls. “She kept pushing for what she believed in, and that was an inspiration to me."

A diverse community

  • The term “Asian American” is a surprisingly recent invention. Though people from Asia and the Pacific Islands have been coming to the U.S. mainland since before the country was founded, it wasn't until the 1960s that the term was coined by two activists, to unite Americans with roots from across the Pacific.
  • The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is some 6 percent of the U.S. population. According to 2018 census data, that includes 22.6 million Americans with ancestors from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent, plus 1.6 million with roots in the Pacific Islands, such as native Hawaiians, Samoans and Marshallese.

Hirono, 73, arrived in Hawaii from Japan at almost 8 years old, along with her brother and her mother, who was fleeing a difficult marriage. “I'm grateful that America afforded me many opportunities,” Hirono says, “but my experience as an immigrant from a poor background means I know what it's like to not have opportunities. It's why I so appreciate what Patsy did."

According to Hirono, Mink's signal characteristic was persistence. “She never gave up,” the senator points out. “She just kept fighting.” Mink left her congressional seat in 1976 to run for the Senate, a race she lost. After an appointment to the U.S. State Department and time leading a Washington lobby, Mink went home to Honolulu and won a seat on the city council. Two unsuccessful races later — one for governor, one for mayor of Honolulu — she again ran for Congress in 1990 and won her seat back. She remained a potent force in state and national politics until her death from viral pneumonia in September 2002.

The last time the two women saw each other was in July of that year. “I was the lieutenant governor of Hawaii then, and I was running for governor,” Hirono notes. “We were talking about it over lunch, and Patsy looked at me and said, ‘Mazie, you just have to win.’ I always remember those words. That was the hardest race I've ever run. And I didn't win. But, like Patsy, I didn't give up.” A few years later, Hirono won a seat in Congress, and in 2013 she became the first female Asian American senator. By 2017 there were two others — although one of those two recently stepped down to become the vice president of the United States. Says Hirono, “I think that Patsy would be pleased.”

ronnie del carmen and tyrus wong

Stefan Cohen/Peter Brenner

Ronnie del Carmen on hero Tyrus Wong

When he moved his young family to Los Angeles 30 years ago, Ronnie del Carmen couldn't find a job. He'd worked as an advertising art director in his native Philippines, but ad agencies didn't seem to be hiring. A trained commercial artist, Del Carmen eventually lucked into a position in film animation “because it was the only job in town that required drawing,” he recalls. The career change must have suited him: Del Carmen, 61, is now an accomplished writer and director of animated films, including Pixar's 2015 Inside Out, which he codirected and for whose screenplay he was nominated for an Academy Award.

But Del Carmen knew nothing about animation when he took that first job. To get up to speed, he read books, including what he refers to as “the main bible of all animators” — The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. It was there that he learned about Tyrus Wong, the artist who created the spare, other-worldly backgrounds in Bambi and later helped establish the look of such classic films as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Bunch — all while toiling as a lower-level studio employee and without due recognition. Wong, who died in 2016 at age 106, had come to the U.S. with his father in 1920 as a so-called “paper son,” using an assumed identity to evade a federal ban on immigration from China. (Wong became a U.S. citizen in 1946.)

"Tyrus was someone who, for decades, did not get credit for the monumental design work he did,” says Del Carmen. “All his life, he faced discrimination. But he continued to work on his art.” Toward the end of his life, Wong received many overdue accolades. Still, Del Carmen wonders what Wong could have achieved if he had been allowed to take the lead on film projects. “I wish I could get into a time machine — go back and even the playing field for Tyrus. What more would he have done? We will never know.”

Not long ago, Del Carmen traveled to Southeast Asia, hunting for traditional stories to tell. What he returned with was a sense of wonder and belonging that connected him to that part of the world — and gave him new insight into what drives people to emigrate. “It was humbling. It was crushing,” he reveals. “And I had a quest to tell a story that would echo that journey.” Del Carmen pitched the idea to Netflix, which invited him on board to make the film. “To hear them say, ‘We want you to tell your story’ was amazing to me,” he remembers. “It also makes me feel a debt to people like Tyrus, who never got that chance.”

lisa ling and connie chung

Phil Provencio/Landon Nordeman

Lisa Ling on hero Connie Chung

After she won a public competition for a hosting spot on ABC's The View in 1999, Lisa Ling was overwhelmed with notes from well-wishers. “I received cards from quite a number of high-profile people,” she says, “but the one that just rocked me off my feet was from Connie Chung,” whom she had never met. Although Ling, now 47, doesn't recall the exact wording, she remembers the sentiment: “Congratulations. I'm so proud of you. And I'm watching.”

What AARP is doing

In May the U.S. observes Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, to celebrate the community's contributions to the country. The month of May marks two milestones: the arrival of the first Japanese American immigrants in May 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which was laid by Chinese workers, in May 1869.

To learn how AARP serves the AAPI community, visit aarp.org/aapi or find us on Facebook at facebook.com/aarpaapi.

Growing up near Sacramento, California, Ling, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan and China, idolized Chung, the only Asian American woman in network news at the time. (Chung's parents had emigrated from China before she was born.) “I don't know a single Asian woman journalist of my generation who doesn't cite Connie Chung as her inspiration,” Ling explains. “She really just embodied intelligence and grace and beauty.” Chung's career as a broadcast reporter and anchor took her to all three major networks plus CNN and MSNBC.

Ling and Chung eventually met at an industry event, and they quickly became friends.

Says Chung, 74, “I admired Lisa right from the beginning. I was always working for a company, in a comfortable cocoon, under contract. She wasn't afraid to strike out on her own. I saw her as a pioneer.” A journalist and author, Ling is now host and executive producer of the documentary series This Is Life With Lisa Ling on CNN.

Still, Ling often looked to Chung for advice on navigating their ultracompetitive field. When Chung got her start, as a TV-station gofer in 1969, “there was a push to hire women and minorities,” she recalls. “I looked around and saw a sea of white male faces. And my way of coping with it was to declare in my own mind that I, too, was a white male. In other words, I basically did what they did.” That meant scrambling and hustling for assignments and recognition.

The most memorable piece of advice Ling ever got from Chung: Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself. “I think we, as Asian Americans,” Ling notes, “often suffer from being unseen because we don't speak up for ourselves.”

"And it's not just an Asian thing,” Chung adds. “It's a woman thing. We don't always sing our own praises; we give credit to the team. Whereas a guy might be more than happy to declare that if it were not for him, the job would never get done.”

Today, broadcast journalism is no less competitive, but those just starting out in the field have a broader array of role models to look up to. Says Ling, “Being American means being part of a diverse and, at its core, compassionate country.”

—Interviews by Ellen Lee and Emily Tan

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