Asian Pacific Americans find acceptance on Whidbey
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:39 PM
"Asian community statsLast year, Asian Pacific Americans made up 4.6 percent of Island County's estimated total population of 71,558, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Oak Harbor, Asian Pacific Americans accounted for about 10.4 percent of the total population, estimated at 19,795. Overall, Asian Pacific Americans made up about 5.9 percent of the state's nearly 6 million residents. They are considered the fastest growing racial group in Washington, as well as America. Some of the Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups found locally include Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Guamanian and Hawaiian.When Long Bechard is asked about her culture, she talks about boating in Penn Cove, picking mussels on the nearby shore and chatting with her customers.The Coupeville store owner, one of the few Vietnamese Americans known to live on Whidbey Island, says she's generally felt welcomed and supported by the locals since she moved to town eight years ago. As a result, says Bechard, she's felt no reason to search out the customs of her native land - or, to a large extent, even other Vietnamese.Here, it's just home, said Bechard. I know where I'm going, I know what to do.Bert Letrondo, one of the first ethnic Filipinos to settle in the Oak Harbor area in 1964, says the island's pristine environment and his love of fishing brought him and kept him here. Although he remembers times in the past when the community was more intolerant of people of color, he agreed with Bechard that Whidbey has since proven a place where people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent feel accepted.Bechard and Letrondo represent many in the area's Asian and Pacific Islander communities, who say life on Whidbey is positive and satisfying, even though trappings of their individual cultures, including food, are often inaccessible. To me, as a member of the Asian Pacific Asian community, we are part of the wider community, said Letrondo. We are no longer strangers.Anywhere you go, I think, whether you're a minority or not, there is still that kind of ... discriminatory feeling. You cannot prevent that, he said. But, Whidbey Island is a very diverse area were people from many different backgrounds are able to make a home for themselves.In 2000, Asian Pacific Americans made up 4.6 percent of Island County's estimated total population of 71,558, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. In Oak Harbor, Asian Pacific Americans accounted for about 10.4 percent of the total population, estimated at 19,795. Overall, Asian Pacific Americans made up about 5.9 percent of the state's nearly 6 million residents. They are considered the fastest growing racial group in Washington, as well as America.Miebeth Bustillo-Hutchins, state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs executive director, said Washington contains more than 50 different Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Guamanian and Samoan. Although they are often talked about as one community, there are often more differences than there are similarities, said Bustillo-Hutchins. In order to gain parity, mainstream society needs to understand these complexities and the different experiences of the Asian Pacific American experience.Bechard, who owns and operates the Coupeville Harbor Store on the end of the town's wharf, escaped Vietnam in the final days of the Vietnam War. Along with many other refugees, she was sent to Arkansas, where she lived for about 3 months. After that, she lived with her sponsor in Georgia.Bechard said those first few months were the hardest for her, since she didn't have anyone to speak to in her native language. So, she quickly moved to St. Louis, Mo., when she did make friends with another Vietnamese woman who lived there. Bechard, now the mother of two teenagers, later married a white American man and lived in California, Malaysia and on the other side of the Puget Sound before moving to Coupeville.Her life, she said, has forced her to focus on the challenges of daily living - with little time to pursue experiences of her native culture. But, she added, she's not complaining.I am a foreigner back there now, she said of Vietnam. And the Vietnamese community in larger cities like Seattle don't interest her, because I'm not a night-life people, I'm not a party people ... here, I can row, I can go biking, do anything that I want.Bechard said most of the people she's met on the island have been genuinely nice to her - with a few exceptions. She said she felt those people were more ignorant than malicious.Bechard chuckles when she recalls a woman who recently came into her store and cafe and slowly asked Bechard if she used c-h-o-p-s-t-i-c-k-s?Do you use a F-O-R-K? the feisty storekeeper replied.As it turns out, although Bechard resists the notion of seeking out Vietnamese culture, she's befriended Tuyet Shadell, another of the few Vietnamese living in the area.Shadell, whose father was trained in French fabric design, was educated through a French school system. She immigrated to America in 1965 after marrying an American who worked for the U.S. Diplomatic Corps. Like Bechard, Shadell said she fell in love with Whidbey life and has seen no reason to find something different. As well, she doubts that she would feel comfortable in a larger Vietnamese community, where the social perceptions and expectations are markedly different from those of Western society she's learned to embrace.I live here, I like it here, said Shadell.For Letrondo and others in the Asian Pacific American community, surrounding themselves with the people and customs of the homelands was more important.Letrondo, a retired Naval petty officer, was instrumental in establishing many of the Filipino support groups of what is now the most developed ethnic community in the region. He helped found both the Filipino-American Association and Santa Cruz de Mayo Association.The first impression other Filipinos get when they come here is that we are really close. They feel at home, right away, Letrondo said. Here on Whidbey, it's really different from other cities in the country - as soon as you meet another Filipino here, you're one of them.The community wasn't always so inviting to Filipinos, a majority of whom were brought to Whidbey through the Navy, Letrondo said. Letrondo personally led a campaign in the early 1980s to change the way Whidbey media covered the ethnic community.The city newspaper wrote a story about an on-campus fight between several Filipino American high school boys and one white boy that Letrondo recalls discriminated against the Filipino students because of their race.Letrondo said he personally visited the newspaper office, criticized the staff and demanded the paper change its approach.The newspaper's coverage of local Filipinos in fact became more balanced after that, Letrondo said.If Letrondo faced unfair news about his community, Kun Su Yang, owner of Oak Harbor's Kyoto Japanese restaurant, finds none about his.Yang, a native Korean, moved to Whidbey six years ago when he bought the restaurant. Although there are about 50 Korean Americans living in Oak Harbor, he said, none have yet established a lasting community network or support group. The lack of community activism has kept the Korean community all but invisible to the mainstream community, he lamented.Yang said the absence of Korean culture or community events doesn't deeply affect him or his wife, who typically work long hours at the restaurant. Still, he said, the only way for Koreans to grow as recognized members of Oak Harbor's wider community is for them to take the first steps toward social empowerment.Denise Peralta, who was born and raised in Hawaii and identifies herself as Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese - but identifies most strongly with other Hawaiians - said she's worked hard to fight off pangs of homesickness for Hawaii.There are only a few native Hawaiians on Whidbey. Like most of the other Asian Pacific American communities, they too have not developed a significant support network.There's a different style up here in Washington, said Peralta, a Navy serviceman's wife. Peralta and her family moved to Oak Harbor six years ago.Peralta said people on Whidbey generally seem less friendly than those in Hawaii. At first it made me feel on the outside. But, as long as I have it in my home, it's not a big problem ... it should be coming from the home, she said. Peralta dances the hula in a local dance troupe and plays traditional Hawaiian music on the ukulele.Angela Martin, 26, Letrondo's granddaughter, said finding a group, and culture, in which she felt she belonged was equally important for her. But, during the time she attended Oak Harbor High School, Martin, half Filipino and half white, didn't feel comfortable in any groups comprised of all Filipino or all white. Although Martin says Oak Harbor always seemed a very accepting community, Filipinos at school typically kept to themselves, as did those of other ethnicities. Actually, because of her mixed heritage, Martin felt happiest and most accepted hanging with other mixed-race students.Finding a sense of camaraderie on Whidbey clearly continues to be a priority - and continuing challenge - for those in the Asian Pacific American community.Peralta seemed to sum up the feelings of many Asian Pacific Americans when she said Whidbey Island has given her a valuable life - but she can't ignore the one she had before. It's part of me, she said. These things are part of my heart. "