Community Productions

2010: From East To West: Journeying Through The Lives Of Asian-Americans In Champaign-Urbana


Sharon Lee never felt like she fit in growing up in Cleveland in the ’70s and ’80s. As the only Korean American at her high school, she was asked if she knew karate or if she was related to Bruce Lee. “I was very aware, when I was very young, of not being white, and I really struggled with that, growing up, feeling embarrassed about my parents, not feeling like I fit in, always wishing I was taller and had bigger eyes,” she said.

Lee, who recently earned a doctorate in educational policy from the University of Illinois, is featured in the radio documentary by Urbana University Laboratory High School students, From East to West: Journeying through the Lives of Asian-Americans in Champaign-Urbana.

Several of the student executive producers, Asian American themselves, said they had felt some of the same feelings that Lee and other interviewees expressed. That made them passionate about the project, said students Linda Ly and Maria Gao.

"I identified with how she wanted to fit in and how her parents were breathing down her neck academically because they were very traditional like my parents,” said Ly, whose Vietnamese parents immigrated 20 years ago. Gao said she too identified with Lee’s feelings growing up. “I found out I’m not alone in feeling this way,” she said.

Uni students from the class of 2013 interviewed 16 people with connections to Champaign-Urbana. They were ethnic Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, Taiwanese and Indian. They were first, second and third generation Asian American.

“People often see Asian Americans as examples of success, but they overlook the history of bias, discrimination and oppression against them, not only on a personal basis, but in the law, which was very anti-Asian until after World War II,” said Janet Morford, the Uni High teacher who directed the project along with Illinois Public Media’s Dave Dickey.

Among others interviewed are Yukiko Okinaga Llewellyn of Champaign, who was interned at Manzanar with her family during World War II; David Lin, Regent Ballroom owner; Anh Ha Ho, who helps immigrants in Champaign Urbana as director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center; U of I Asian American Studies professor Kent Ono; K.W. Lee, known as the father of Asian American journalism; and Betty Lee Sung, who was one of three Asian women on campus when she came to the U of I in 1944.

Sung’s father disowned her when she came to the U of I in 1944. “My father said, ‘No, you don’t go to college, you get married and just raise your family and take care of your husband’,” said Sung, who wrote “Mountain of Gold: Chinese in America,” published in 1967, about the experiences of Chinese immigrants.

The third student executive producer, Maritza Mestre, said it was interesting to compare the experiences at the U of I of Sharon Lee, who used all the resources available on campus for Asian Americans, and someone like Sung, who came before they were available.

From East to West: Journeying through the Lives of Asian-Americans in Champaign-Urbana aired on WILL-AM on August 28, 2010.