Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: Derek Kwong
The start of the pandemic led to a lot of racial tensions against Asian American Pacific Islander communities and a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate, but even more pernicious are the microaggressions that AAPI face. Customer Success Manager Derek Kwong shares the tough conversations he’s had with friends and colleagues, his own relationship with his Chinese American identity, and what it was like growing up in New York City’s Chinatown. Prior to joining Treasury Prime, Derek took on key technical roles for fintech companies such as Unqork and Plaid, and served as a senior financial services consultant for Ernst & Young.
You grew up in New York City’s Chinatown. What was your childhood like and how has it shaped your identity as a Chinese American?
It was really special to be surrounded by my own culture, day in and day out. I would be able to walk two blocks down the street and have some of the same foods that my mom loved back in Hong Kong. Having that accessible to me and being able to understand my mom’s upbringing and background is something I very much appreciate now.
Chinatown did feel like its own little bubble when I was younger, just because I didn't really explore too many places outside of Chinatown until I was older. But New York is such a diverse city, so it felt a lot easier to acclimate and experience other cultures outside of my own, once I started branching out.
How has your perception of your cultural identity changed from then to now?
I went to high school outside of Chinatown, and that was a bit of a culture shock for me because I went to elementary and middle school in Chinatown. Most of my classmates were also Chinese. When I went to high school, I was one of the few Asian students, let alone Chinese students, in my class and in my school.
It was hard to adjust. I struggled with how much I should share about my own culture. Certain traditions, foods, expressions, or mannerism that were completely normal in Chinatown weren’t so normal for everyone else, especially those who aren’t familiar with Chinese culture.
I started embracing my culture more when I officially moved out of Chinatown, around when I was 25. I started missing some of those things I grew up with and took for granted. As I’ve gotten older, I've learned to champion those aspects of my culture more openly. Being in a place like New York definitely made it easier to make those adjustments.
What are some of your favorite aspects of Chinese culture?
One of the things I appreciate most is how family-oriented Chinese culture is. There is a lot of emphasis on making sure you look out for other family members. It’s from the little things: making sure you always ask how someone's doing, or making sure you always tell your family member you love them. That's always been important to me, and it's something I can carry over to relationships even outside of my family.
I love getting together for family dinners, which were always a big deal. A big part of Chinese culture is the giant, banquet-style dinners with all your relatives. As a kid, I didn’t care as much for that, but the pandemic definitely made me more appreciative of those gatherings.
As many of us know, there has been a significant rise in anti-Asian attacks since the start of the pandemic. How did that affect you and how did you contend with that?
It was infuriating to see. It made me feel terrible that there was so little I could personally do to help prevent that. I'm fortunate enough that I have never been the target of that kind of violence, but it was stressful because I have a lot of family that lives in New York and in Chinatown. It made me worry every day because my mom takes the subway to work. There was always something in the back of my mind that was thinking “what if something happened to her?” I made sure she texted me every single day before she left for work, when she got to work, and when she got home.
Asian Americans have a very different experience than non-Asians. How do you have those tough conversations with your non-Asian friends?
I do have a lot of friends who are not Asian American. They definitely don’t share those negative sentiments towards Asian Americans that some other people might have, but I did have those conversations with them about needing them to stand up for me and other Asian Americans.
I'm very lucky to have a diverse group of friends in New York City that are very open. But I do think it's important to highlight those struggles that go unseen, particularly ones that Asian Americans have to deal with either in the workplace or out on the street. There are a lot of things that some people might not think are offensive or insulting, but still are microaggressive.
What sort of microaggressions have you experienced?
I’ve been called the wrong name just because another coworker was Chinese and had a name that also started with a D, even though our names did not sound similar at all.
In the past, colleagues have mixed me up with other Asian colleagues, and that’s something that’s really insulting to experience because we look nothing alike. We weren’t even the same rank, professionally. It was clearly racially charged. I know they didn’t mean anything by it, but I had to explain to them why that was not ok. And even after then, it happened again.
What drew you to Treasury Prime?
In my career, I’ve found I really enjoy helping others build their companies. I started off at a larger consulting firm, but it was harder to feel like I had made a direct impact. And when I started working at more infrastructure based fintech startups like Treasury Prime, I felt like I had a chance to be more hands-on with helping others build really cool companies. It really helped me learn about the space.
How do you feel Treasury Prime has honored your cultural background?
Treasury Prime has been great in spotlighting cultural holidays like Lunar New Year, and also championing other cultures in general. Treasury Prime has put such a high level of importance on diversity that we've created a culture where everyone here is open to learning about one another. We’re excited to see what other teammates have to share about their own traditions and cultures.
We're a team that's revolutionizing the world of banking and financial services while also celebrating the people who make it happen. Read more about our $40 million Series C Funding. If you're passionate about growing with a company that values and celebrates its people, join us.