Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: Shaun Bai
A lot of children of immigrants struggle with a disconnect between their cultural background and their American upbringing. Customer Success Engineer Shaun Bai talks about moving from Beijing to the deep South, his experience moving to a diverse city like Houston, and how he’s connected with his Chinese roots through martial arts. Shaun previously worked as a consultant and software engineer at Quorum Software, which builds cloud based software for the energy industry.
You moved to Mississippi from China when you were 5 years old. Did you experience any culture shock?
I was only 5, and my parents told me we were going on vacation to America, and next thing I knew, they enrolled me in school. It definitely wasn't easy because I didn't speak English, but, looking back, I can see that it was preferable to start out young. I feel pretty American.
I grew up on the college campus while my parents were going through school. My dad transferred from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, to the University of Mississippi, and my mom ended up enrolling there as well. They both already had degrees in China. But coming to America meant speaking English which prevented them from using their Chinese degrees in the US, so they both decided to go a different path and re-enrolled in school to learn computer science.
They were working on the side while taking care of me, but I had a blast. There were a lot of other kids who were in the same boat. We lived in this area with a bunch of international parents and their young kids live there as well. We could just go untethered and had minimal parental supervision, because all the parents were going to school and it was actually a very safe area. It was like a kid's paradise.
You mentioned that your parents didn’t tell you that you were moving to the U.S. until you arrived and they enrolled you in school. Why do you think that is?
My dad was the first wave. He moved to Louisiana for a work-study program, and he saw how great life was in America, especially compared to China in the early ‘90s. So he was like, Oh, I have to bring my family over.
So he called my mom and was like, oh, let's bring Shaun over and surprise him. I don't know how the actual conversation went down, but I think they thought that it would be easier because I wouldn't have time to feel sad about leaving my friends in China.
How have you felt your perception of your Asian American identity change from then until now?
When I was younger, I just wanted to assimilate because I didn't want to be the “foreign kid.” I wanted to be American, and I wanted to be a part of my peers. For the longest time, that meant moving away from my Chinese roots, moving away from eating Chinese food. It was reflected in how I dressed and how I presented myself.
But as I got older, I started to look back and wonder where I came from. I became more and more interested in my history, my family line, and my culture, to the point where I started learning this Chinese kung fu style called Wing Chun.
You now live in Houston, which is a very diverse city with a large Asian population. What was that like?
Houston is the first city I've lived in that actually has a Chinatown. I love having access to food that I've grown up with and can go back and enjoy. That was huge.
Aside from the food, it was also the first time I’ve lived in a city where Asian made up the majority of the population. I was used to growing up around mostly white people. So having a broader base of Asian people inside of Houston was a little bit new to me, and it felt comfortable to hang out with people who can really relate to me and are familiar with the kind of things I eat and grew up with.
Also relating to the immigrant story — to understand that is a huge part of our identities, especially if you were part of that first generation that wasn't born in America, and you still have roots elsewhere. My parents are my only link back to my family in China. One day that link will be gone, and I won’t have as much of a claim to them, because how do I talk to them? I can speak and understand Mandarin, but I can’t really write, so how do I maintain that? The only thing I can think of is continuing to visit China, show our faces, and remind them that they’ve got family in America still.
As many people know, the pandemic led to a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. Has that affected you in any way?
I definitely felt more self-conscious about being Asian at that time. Luckily, in Houston, I never personally experienced any racism against Asian people, although I have heard that there have been upticks in attacks.
I have seen in local news that some Asian people were targeted in crimes or attacks, but Houston is also a very diverse city. In my neighborhood, I'm bumping up against Pakistani people, Indian people, Vietnamese, Chinese — it's a huge melting pot.
Has Wing Chun helped you connect more with your Chinese roots?
It’s helped me better understand how we — Chinese people — think. The way we perform techniques and the principles inside martial arts really explain how Eastern thought works. It explained a lot about how certain methods and techniques work, but also how they were ultimately used to create a good life, create peace, and help everybody become stronger together. Wing Chun imbued me with a way of deeper thinking and reevaluated my approach towards life itself.
How do you feel Treasury Prime supports your cultural heritage?
I definitely feel that Treasure Prime's been attentive to our cultures. They’ve spotlighted big cultural holidays such as Lunar New Year and actually educate people on what it’s about. They share stories from people with different cultural backgrounds to help us understand various experiences.
Sharing our identities, how we think, and where we come from creates a stronger team. We can create that bridge of understanding and communication with each other. I know I've certainly learned a lot more about other identities.
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