Building a Career and a Legacy around My Family’s Asian American Identities

My high school lunches were the first hint that I was born to connect people

Growing up, I was an “only.” From kindergarten through high school graduation, my brother and I were the only ones in our school who had one white parent and one Asian parent.

When I was in high school, the lunchroom was pretty much segregated, every day: The white kids sat together, the Asian kids sat together, and the Black students sat together. I had friends across all ethnic groups and races, and I would go from table to table visiting all of them. At the white table, I never felt that I quite belonged, so I visited my Asian friends. I still felt that I was missing friends from the other groups, so I would visit my friends at the Black table. It didn’t feel right to me that everyone was so separated. It also felt like I didn’t make sense—me, personally, as a multiracial person.

Ultimately, that time in my life solidified my calling to be a connector, someone who brings together people of different backgrounds. 

I didn’t just learn it during lunch period, though; it’s essentially what I learned from my parents’ marriage. My mother, Linda Lee, had German-Hungarian roots and grew up in Pennsylvania. My father, Chen Lok Lee, was born and raised in China. He fled Communist China for Hong Kong in 1951 and about eight years later moved to the United States, continuing his journey by eventually studying art, his passion and dream and the reason he left China. He never returned—not even to visit.

My parents met while they were studying art in Rome. They returned to Pennsylvania, and my father got a job at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. They settled close to the city, and that’s where my brother and I were raised.

Romana Lee-Akiyama with her father, Chen Lok Lee

Romana Lee-Akiyama stands in 2004 with her father next to some of his ink paintings that had been recently mounted. Photo: Linda Lee

My father was both a painter and a printmaker, and he had a major influence on me and how I think about the world and my place in it. After leaving his entire family behind in China, he married a white American whose family embraced him as one of their own. He lived in a bifurcated world, expressing his experience through his art, which westerners often consider Asian, and Chinese people think looks western. 

My father passed away at the end of 2020. Soon after, I was promoted from director of multicultural affairs in the city of Philadelphia’s office of immigrant affairs to deputy director of that office. Losing him at that moment was particularly bittersweet; he would have been so proud, and I wish he could have seen me in my current role, director of the mayor’s office of public engagement for the city of Philadelphia.

Though my father and I were connected by love, our relationship was as complex as our respective identities, in part because of the dynamic around being caught between two worlds. For a while, I felt very hurt because he had said that I wasn’t Chinese. For him, being Chinese meant being born and raised in China; I understand now that he didn’t mean to hurt me.

Chen Lok Lee. Untitled. C. 1985

Chen Lok Lee. Untitled. C. 1985. 35 x 25 inches. Color lithograph. Photo: Sara Havekotte

When I was figuring out my identity, I leaned on him and his stories. When I asked him if he’d experienced racism, he would tell me, “Of course.” He didn’t want to burden me with that, but it was also hard for him to understand what it was like for me to be Asian American—he always thought of himself as a Chinese person who was raising American kids. For example, he wanted us to speak English well, and was surprised when I wanted to learn Mandarin. It was different for him than it was for me. 

I wrestled a lot with my identity as an “only” in high school. I wanted to lean into my Asian American roots, and when I went to Tufts, that feeling grew. I wanted somewhere to belong, and across the hall from me was another student who had a white mom and a Chinese father. In that moment, I realized, “There are other people like me.”

The following year, I became an Asian American peer leader at Start House, through the Asian American Center, and started living there. I finally felt as if I had found my place, my purpose, and my community. I learned about leadership development and Asian American history, and I grew close to about 20 of my fellow peer leaders; they’re still some of my best friends. I also became the Asian culture representative to the Tufts Community Union Senate. That was my first experience with government and through it, I saw that representation is vitally important. 

Romana Lee-Akiyama’s father, Chen Lok Lee, visited the Asian American Center at Tufts to demonstrate Chinese painting and calligraphy

When Romana Lee-Akiyama’s father, Chen Lok Lee, visited the Asian American Center at Tufts to demonstrate Chinese painting and calligraphy, he left a piece of art for the center, where it still hangs (at left above) today. Photo: Courtesy of Tufts Asian American Center

While I was at Tufts, I co-organized many Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrations. One year, we invited my father to do a Chinese calligraphy and painting demonstration on campus. He drove up from Philadelphia with his materials to do the demonstration and he left a painting behind—it’s still hanging in the Asian American Center today. 

When my father died, I started working on the Chen Lok Lee Legacy Project to honor his art and legacy. The project is about telling his story and showing people who Asian Americans are beyond the surface level.

Our community has been experiencing astronomical levels of anti-Asian hate and violence. I launched the project a week and a half before eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in Atlanta in March 2021. It’s a way to stand up for Asian Americans as nuanced, complete human beings, rather than as model minorities or perpetual foreigners.

On a personal level, examining my father’s work has been illuminating and emotional; he was really such a mystery to me in many ways, and this project has helped me understand him better. As a mom raising a child, I want to appreciate my father’s legacy and pass it down to our family.

My work for Philadelphia and the legacy project are both reflections of my identity. A big part of my passion and my values is belonging and inclusion—creating environments, communities, and systems where everyone feels welcomed and everyone can contribute.

—As told to Heather Beasley Doyle

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