‘Yes, I do belong here’: AAPI staffers on a tough year working for Congress

Things got ‘raw and personal,’ Asian American aides recall

Helen Beaudreau hopes the enactment of her boss Rep. Grace Meng’s anti-AAPI hate crimes bill is a signal of better things to come.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Helen Beaudreau hopes the enactment of her boss Rep. Grace Meng’s anti-AAPI hate crimes bill is a signal of better things to come. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 30, 2021 at 5:00am

Helen Beaudreau brought a bowl of sundubu jjigae for lunch several years ago, earlier in her career as a congressional staffer. The Korean soft tofu soup is a personal favorite, and this was her mother’s recipe.

“Ew, what’s that smell? It smells like s---,” a few of her co-workers told her.

Beaudreau left the office, went to another floor and cried in the bathroom. Memories of her kindergarten days of bringing kimbap, or Korean rice rolls, rushed back to her.

“I had that quintessential lunch box moment that a lot of immigrant kids have,” says Beaudreau, who adopted the name Helen around that same time because teachers couldn’t pronounce her Korean name. 

“I remember kids standing around me in a circle, pointing down, making faces, making noises, saying, ‘Ew, she’s eating sushi.’”

But here she was decades later in a congressional office that purportedly celebrated progressive values being told by co-workers that her favorite food was disgusting.

“I was furious, I was hurt. I called my mom and told her I can’t bring this to work again,” she says. “The feeling that I had when I was in kindergarten — and it all resurfaced painfully again. Those feelings of being shamed.”

She seldom talks about this. Yet like many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States today, Beaudreau is starting to open up about her experiences of feeling invisible or “othered.”

For the past year, AAPI staffers have been doing their jobs while also dealing with the emotional toll of a nationwide rise in discrimination. Policymaking hit close to home as they saw a bill passed to curb violent hate crimes — even as some felt excluded on Capitol Hill. In dozens of recent interviews, current and former staffers described what it’s like for them to work for Congress.

‘You don’t belong’

The stereotype of being a “perpetual foreigner” follows AAPI staffers to the hallways and offices of the legislative branch, says Gregg Orton, a former chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas who now serves as national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. 

“Asian American staffers on a day-to-day basis face racial microaggressions that can make the experience quite isolating and frustrating. Some of these elicit amusement, others elicit much more painful responses,” he told the House Modernization of Congress Committee last month.

Orton has his own memories. He worked on the Hill during the contentious debate over the 2010 health care law that attracted demonstrators to the Capitol. 

“I remember riding an elevator in Longworth, standing next to a few of those protesters … and receiving a look of a mixture of disdain and disbelief and being told they couldn’t believe that they let foreigners work in Congress,” says Orton, a Korean American adoptee.

Former staffer Dao Nguyen remembers “constant reminders that you don’t belong.” 

One time as a junior staffer, Nguyen took a meeting with someone who started by bowing to her and greeting her with “ni hao” (a Chinese greeting similar to “hello”). “I’m Vietnamese American,” she says, looking back at the experience. “It was mortifying. That kind of memory just sticks with you.”

Jacqueline Hsieh, recently a senior policy adviser to Rep. Grace Meng, was one of the only AAPI staffers for another New York Democrat, former Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, when she worked in his district office. Interacting with constituents was a big part of her job.

“I would get comments from them: Wow, you speak English so well, you don’t even sound like you’re Asian,” says Hsieh, whose family is Taiwanese.

Alice Lin leads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association. She felt something shift over the past year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

COVID and hate

For many staffers working on the Hill through the coronavirus pandemic, the pace has been exhausting and relentless, making it difficult to detach. And AAPI staffers say they carry an added burden — fearing both the virus and hate. 

Hsieh hails from Elmhurst, one of the hardest-hit sections of New York City in the early days of the pandemic. While preparing health care policy options for Meng, her mind would race back home.

“Every time I hear stories of somebody getting punched, shoved, pushed in subways or just walking on a sidewalk, I’m afraid that may be my sister or my parents,” Hsieh says. “Any one of our family members can be the next victim, and all because this is what we look like. … We’ve been wrongfully blamed for what’s going on.”

Tensions flared as President Donald Trump and congressional allies blamed China for the pandemic, using phrases like “Chinese virus,” “kung flu” or “Asian invader.” More than 6,600 hate incident reports poured into Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition, from mid-March 2020 to March 2021.

Seeing violence toward elders especially rocked AAPI staffers. Many come from multigenerational homes, where the grandparent is an instrumental and revered part of the household.

“I’ve learned from a young age how important it is to separate everything out, but when work starts becoming really personal, it’s a little bit harder to turn that off at the end of the day,” says Ngoc Nguyen, a senior legislative staffer to Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California.

Ken Farnaso, press secretary to Sen. Tim Scott, believes the AAPI community now has a collective goal of empowerment that will lead to a new generation of public servants. (Courtesy Ken Farnaso)

Ken Farnaso thinks often of his mother, a retired Filipina nurse who went back to volunteer in the health care industry after she got vaccinated. 

“I am just as American as anyone else. My parents are just as American as anyone else,” says Farnaso, press secretary to Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. 

As difficult as the past year has been, Farnaso believes the AAPI community now has a collective goal of empowerment that will lead to a new generation of public servants. Borrowing a term from his parents’ homeland, he describes it as similar to “bayanihan,” which Filipinos view as a spirit of community or a shared sense of purpose.

In the meantime, current staffers are doing what they can. Nandini Narayan, a staffer of Fiji Indian descent in California Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar’s office, has her name printed in both English and Hindi on her business card.

“It’s the little things that allow me to celebrate my culture daily, that remind me: Yes, I do belong here, and it’s part of my job to always use my voice to advocate for the AAPI communities,” she says.

“For a very long time, we’ve been lumped into just Asians, but we’re Koreans, we’re Japanese and Chinese” and more, says Michael Ahn, founder of the Congressional Korean American Staff Association. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

More than networking

Alice Lin felt something shift on the Hill as she led the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association this year. Back when she first joined the group, in 2015, she saw it as a key place for networking, but as the pandemic dragged on, it had to offer even more — support for those struggling with the spate of hate incidents.

She planned Zoom events focused on mental health to deal with the onslaught, including the March shooting in Georgia that left eight people dead, including six of Asian descent. 

“It was also a year where we had to process the George Floyd protests, Jan. 6 … Those are all incidents that affected our members very deeply,” says Lin, who serves as president of the group of roughly 100 members.

Michael Ahn, founder of the Congressional Korean American Staff Association, organized a virtual gathering after the March shooting. Four of the dead were ethnic Koreans.

“Many were calling out of work, even telework. They felt uncomfortable talking to their white counterparts about it because people didn’t really understand,” Ahn says. 

Through all that, the staff associations kept up their mission of helping members’ careers — something especially urgent as long as barriers remain. Ahn says many AAPI staffers grew up with an immigrant mentality of putting the hard work in to succeed, which hurts you in an environment like Capitol Hill because relationship-building and self-branding is weighted over effort. 

“I see a lot of Asian American staffers not getting the positions they want, not becoming leadership staffers,” says Ahn, who now holds a senior role as communications director for Democratic Rep. Kai Kahele of Hawaii. 

Not everyone is lucky enough to find coaching networks like he did in a culture that felt stacked against him. “We’re very soft-spoken,” Ahn says. “We have the booksmarts, but we don’t have the peoplesmarts.”

But Ahn doesn’t want to make generalizations. He founded his staff association for Korean Americans in part to show that the AAPI community is not monolithic. “For a very long time, we’ve been lumped into just Asians, but we’re Koreans, we’re Japanese and Chinese” and more, he says.

Congressional leaders should embrace that nuance and do more to make Capitol Hill an inclusive workplace, several staffers say. 

While Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group in the United States, it’s hard to pinpoint how many work for Congress. Of the nearly 5,300 staffers in 2019 who responded to a House diversity survey, 6.7 percent said they were of Asian descent.

Orton wants to see better tracking of diversity data for the legislative branch and its more than 30,000 employees, while Beaudreau says a little awareness can go a long way.

“You didn’t do your job just by giving them keys to the office and giving them a computer,” Beaudreau says of bosses hiring AAPI staffers. “You have to do the work to check in on their well-being.”

Jacqueline Hsieh, a former senior policy adviser, worked on Meng’s hate crimes bill that eventually became law. “The whole experience was surreal,” she recalls. “I can’t remember the last time someone actually spoke up for us, the greater AAPI community.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Policy gets personal

Whether it was writing legislation or keeping Congress running, many staffers say they found solace in the kind of work that draws people to the Hill.

“We’re not public health people, we’re policy people. The best we can do [is] push money out there,” along with “good oversight policies,” former staffer Liz Lee says. 

She found herself pulling double duty during the pandemic, working not only as a policy adviser, but also with the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans to help translate documents outlining COVID-19 relief programs into Southeast Asian languages such as Hmong that often don’t get translated by the federal government.

As for Hsieh and Beaudreau, they both saw an emotionally draining but empowering slog working for Meng on a bipartisan bill to target the rise in violence against Asian Americans.

“When we were writing talking points or her testimony … I remember crying while I had the document opened up in front of me,” says Beaudreau, Meng’s legislative director. “At the judiciary hearing, I was an emotional wreck the entire day because it just felt so incredibly raw and personal.”

Hsieh describes the cathartic payoff of wrangling the bill, the first she’s ever worked on that became law.

“I was there for the engrossment ceremony, and I was at the White House. … The whole experience was surreal,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time someone actually spoke up for us, the greater AAPI community. … It was priceless. I literally saw this bill from start to finish.”

The emotional riptide continues for Beaudreau. “You felt so seen, but does the passage of this bill and being signed into law, does it bring closure? No, because these incidents are still happening.” 

Still, she hopes the bill is a signal of better things to come on Capitol Hill. “When you have the policy meld so personally to your core to see it come to fruition,” Beaudreau says, “there’s not much else that a staffer can ask for.”