Asian Pacific American Conference Explores “Generation Heroes”

BY SARAH PARK

Students at the Asian Pacific American Conference applaud keynote speaker Carol Lam, one of eight U.S. Attorneys fired by the current administration’s Department of Justice. Media Credit

The 14th Annual Asian Pacific American Conference on Law and Public Policy, dubbed “Generation Heroes,” took place from February 29 to March 1. The conference was jointly hosted by the Law School’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and the Kennedy School of Government’s Asian American Policy Review. The conference theme of Generation Heroes conveyed a hopeful message of overcoming adversity, according conference co-chairs 2Ls Chieh-Ting Yeh and Shirley Lo.

The Saturday keynote address recounted the story of a hero whose mettle was recently tested in a very public manner. Carol Lam was the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California from 2002 to 2007 and had served as Assistant US Attorney for fourteen years prior. In 2007, she made headlines for being one of the eight U.S. Attorneys to be fired from their positions by the current administration’s Department of Justice, prompting Congressional investigations and the resignation of prominent DOJ officials, including then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.

Lam related how she came to terms with the unforeseen dismissal, and how it felt to be “caught up in something bigger than” herself. Ironically, she had avoided politics her entire life, and she had always believed that this precise quality was what qualified her to be a prosecutor. She explained that her reputation and record of service in the public interest saved her from any truly adverse consequences from the firing, and her grace and sense of humor regarding the episode were evident.

The other keynote address by Sichan Siv, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, also exemplified the conference’s theme of heroism. Siv explained how, in 1975, he missed a US evacuation helicopter out of Cambodia by a mere 30 minutes. Upon his subsequent capture, he survived a Khmer Rouge labor camp and two death sentences, and then escaped to Thailand on foot through the jungle, falling into a human trap replete with sharpened bamboo sticks along the way.

Siv arrived in the United States with two dollars to his name. He managed to parlay a stint as a taxi driver in New York into a scholarship at Columbia University and eventually an ambassadorship. As ambassador, Siv championed the rights of refugees, among many others. According to Siv, what he wanted above all was to “adapt and be adopted” in what he viewed as the “Promised Land” of the US.

Later the same evening, the documentary The Cats of Mirikitani was screened, depicting the story of an artist of Japanese descent living on the streets of New York City, unable to forget his past as a World War II internment camp survivor. Throughout the movie, Mirikitani painted vibrant scenes of cats, flowers and landscapes, but most haunting were his numerous paintings of the California internment camp. While Siv enthralled with tales of triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds, Mr. Mirikitani’s story reminded conference attendants of the permanent scars that adversity can leave on the psyche, condemning one to forever relive the past.

In addition to these remarkable individuals, the conference brought together a collection of many other Asian Pacific Americans who have found success in their fields as scholars, business people, policymakers, and lawyers. Panels focused on Immigration and the APA Community, Election 2008 and APAs, Opportunities and Obstacles faced by APAs in Law Firms and Public Service, Human Trafficking, and Breaking APA Stereotypes.

In the latter panel, Ed Chen gave an account of his career as a journalist, culminating in his current position as senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and president of the White House Correspondents Association. Dr. Henry Lee, another panelist, regaled the audience with his stories as a foremost forensic scientist who has worked on prominent cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenet Ramsey case, the reinvestigation of the Kennedy assassination, and others. Lee cautioned the audience that APAs would always be viewed as “different,” and that it would be up to them to do their best work and establish their reputations.

The Law Firms panel also discussed common perceptions of APAs. While acknowledging that stereotypes of APAs as hardworking and respectful could be positive, the panelists noted that APAs may encounter relatively negative stereotypes as being quiet, passive, and unsuitable for leadership roles.

At the conference banquet in the Sheraton Commander hotel, Vienna Teng provided the entertainment, playing the piano to accompany her original folk and classically-inspired songs. Teng diverted dinner guests with stories of her relatively conventional background as a computer science engineer from Stanford, which she abandoned to pursue her musical career. She ended the set with an interpretation of a traditional Chinese love song, and then joined the festivities at the after-party at Noir Bar at the Charles Hotel.

Sponsors for the conference included Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, and many others.

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