Elevating Asian Voices in the South

Story #4

Sometimes you have to leave home to discover who you are and where you belong.

Ricky Leung was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Greensboro, N.C. when he was 8-years-old. This AAPI advocate and activist now calls Raleigh home. He identifies as Asian American, but there was a time when his identity felt split, or more compartmentalized. He either felt one or the other, but not both. 

His discovery of Asian American activists who played integral roles in the civil rights and labor movements throughout American history shaped the man that he’s become and led him to the work he’s doing now. 

More of Ricky's Story


Either Asian or American

His family’s move from Hong Kong to Greensboro didn’t appear to make as big an impact on him, Leung says.

He was only 8, and didn’t find the transition too difficult. It was much harder on his parents, who moved for better work opportunities. His older brother, a teenager, also found it more challenging to acclimate to a different school and make new friends. An aunt owned a Chinese restaurant, where his mom initially worked. Leung missed his extended family, which included many cousins with whom he was close. In Greensboro, the Chinese Christian Church became the family’s social and cultural outlet. At home and at church, Leung felt Chinese.

“Celebrating traditional Chinese holidays was super important to my parents, so we did a lot of things with our own family and also with the local Chinese church,” he recalls. “Most of the festivals were celebrated that way. On occasion we celebrated with my aunt and her family.”

At school and elsewhere, he embraced the American side of his life.

“My school and friend life did very much feel separate from my family and heritage part of myself. It was very compartmentalized that way,” he says.

Leung became aware of social justice issues and identity through ANYTOWN, a program for high school students sponsored by the human relations organization, NCCJ, which works to build communities free of bias, bigotry and racism by promoting understanding and respect for all.

“I think in school, the values from my parents and from my church, is to care for people. So social justice was very important to me. I did not connect that to Asian American issues until really after college,” he reflects.

There was one memorable moment in college. It was his freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. There’s an event called Fall Fest, a showcase for all of the clubs and organizations on campus. Leung found himself at the ASA table — Asian Students Association. Suddenly, he was surrounded by so many Asian students. It freaked him out, and he ran away.

“Looking back, I may regret that, but at the same time, I’m still where I am today. I would definitely act differently with the knowledge that I have now, but it was intense,” he says. “Maybe if I had signed up I would have learned about my Asian American identity sooner.”

An Asian American Awakening

Leung pursued both pre-med and journalism in college. But honors organic chemistry revealed that it would be difficult to pursue both, and he chose journalism.

After graduation, he landed an internship, then a short-term contract job at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. While there, he made a friend, who had no idea that she’d play an instrumental role in shaping his future.

Leung remembers it this way:

“One of my co-workers at the time, her name was Asia and she was Asian-American. Those little Razors (scooters) were the hot thing at the time, and people would ride them in offices to go from cubicle to cubicle. I just remember Asia coming down the hall to my cubicle on the Razor and she puts this packet on my desk and she says, ‘Apply for this.’

Then she scooted away. I looked at it, and it was a job application. She knew that my contract job at National Geographic was coming to an end and likely not to be renewed. It was at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. I didn’t think I’d get it so I applied anyway.”

By the time he heard from the Smithsonian, Leung had forgotten that he had applied for the job there.

“I went in for the interview, and half didn’t know what I was doing. Then I also was like, ‘I just want to do my own thing — freelance and maybe take some photos.’ They let me do that, so I was like, ‘Awesome, I’ll take the job.’

I think that career-wise, that was one of the most formative decisions I made, and that started off my career and awareness of my Asian American identity.”

The director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institute then was Dr. Franklin Odo, a Japanese American author, scholar, activist and historian.

“I learned so much from him, including where the term Asian American came from and the history of Asian American activism,” Leung says.

He learned about Asian activists that hadn’t been a part of mainstream U.S. History curriculum at any time during his high school or college years.

There was Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American whose family was interned during World War II and who was known for her association with Malcolm X. And American author, philosopher, social activist and feminist Grace Lee Boggs. He learned about Filipino American labor activist Larry Itliong, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. The men, along with Delores Huerta, mobilized Mexican and Asian farm workers.

These discoveries prompted him to question his own history and the role of identity throughout his life: “It was really inspiring to the point where I really thought about growing up in N.C. Why didn’t I feel like there was this rootedness to American identity and Asian identity together? Rather, I just thought of myself as an American citizen who was also of Asian heritage. Having that Asian American identity to me was very crucial to really think of myself as part of the country in a radically different way.”

But it was reading Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, by journalist and activist Helen Zia that connected the dots for him. Reading this book was pivotal for Leung.

“It was the first book that Franklin Odo suggested I read. I loved that book, and I would definitely point to it as the book that flipped the switch for me in terms of making me aware of this Asian American identity,” Leung says.

He got to meet Zia while working at Smithsonian, and requested she sign his copy of her book. He keeps the book jacket separate from the book to preserve her autograph.

He finds so much of her writing relatable to his own story: “I think in more ways than one, there’s the Asian American identity, Chinese identity, journalist, and also Helen identifies as Queer as well, and so do I. On multiple fronts I was encountering intersectionality before I realized it was a term. Now that I think about it, that was me encountering intersectionality — without knowing what it was.”

A Community Coming Together

Although Leung’s parents had moved to Texas, he felt compelled to return to North Carolina.

“I was just thinking that I just need to bring back this knowledge and share it with people that I know and organize Asian Americans in North Carolina in some way. I didn’t even think about what it would look like at the time,” he says.

He applied for a job with the N.C. Justice Center, as funding for his job at Smithsonian was nearing an end.

“One of the things that I brought up (in the interview) was that I really wanted to work on things that pertained to Asian American activism, so throughout my time at the Justice Center, I worked on things like hosting voter registration drives.”

These efforts led to his connecting with Chavi Khanna Koneru. Together, they would co-found North Carolina Asian Americans Together. Leung currently serves as Senior Director of Programs, and Koneru is Executive Director. The organization’s guiding principles include increasing visibility of the rapidly growing Asian American population statewide, building a pipeline for the next generation of Asian American leaders, and empowering Asian Americans statewide in civic engagement and movement building.

Many of those he works with are younger Asian Americans and emerging leaders, who are the age that he was when he began working at Smithsonian. Now, 35, Leung says that working with young people is inspiring.

“I think that the young people that I’m working with now are much further along in their analysis and awareness of their Asian American identity than I was at their age,” he says. “Working with them, I realize I was totally clueless. It does make me think back to how different it would have been if I had gotten involved with the Asian Students Association.”

The increase in attacks against Asian Americans have led to more activism, he says.

“It was probably one of the first times when so many people I knew who identify as Asian American, who before maybe had not really been engaged, voiced a lot of the feelings and concerns, particularly around invisibility,” he says. “That really resonated with me. Also the underlying issues that led to violence and the violence themselves — it was a lot to unpack within a very short period of time. One of the things that we’re trying to do at NCAAT is to create Pan-Asian space and support for our community.”

It can be a heavy responsibility, Leung says. In particular, because sometimes organizers themselves don’t have time to process their own feelings until much later. But the attacks over the past year have led to opportunities for people to share stories and become united.

“It’s a way for us to uplift our issues and mobilize together. That all is very encouraging for me, despite the challenges that we’re facing multiple fronts right now,” he says. “I think the main thing is knowing that we’re not alone, that we have community is the biggest takeaway.

Whether it is for folks to join us at NCAAT or not, I’m so glad there’s this growing Asian American community here in North Carolina. Also, I see it growing in a way that is also very mindful of the diversity of our community as well. That makes me very happy that I’m also learning so much from everyone. And I am excited to see what we can do together moving forward to continue to build and mobilize our community power here in NC, in our nation, and in our world.”

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