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INL celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 23, 2017

By Idaho National Laboratory

In May, the United States celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. The month has been commemorated in some form since 1977, when a House Joint Resolution proclaimed the first 10 days in May Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week. May was selected because the first Japanese immigrated to the United States in May 1843 and the transcontinental railroad, assembled largely by Chinese immigrant laborers, was completed in May in 1869.

According to the 2017 presidential proclamation, the U.S. has over 20 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The largest ethnic populations of AAPI in the U.S. are Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. At INL, we value the contributions of all our employees and embrace inclusive diversity. This month, we are spotlighting three employees who have AAPI heritage. They share their perspectives on coming to work at INL and some of their cultural traditions, and explain their thoughts on how embracing and learning about the different cultures of our colleagues helps us do more creative, collaborative work.

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Don Hong                                                                                                                 

Don Hong has had positions in many places at the site over the past 20 years, and now works as an Advanced Test Reactor systems engineer.

Hong is a first-generation Chinese American who grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho. “Growing up, I didn’t even think about cultural differences, but I certainly have an appreciation for them,” he said. Hong’s family emigrated to Idaho in the 1950s and started a Chinese restaurant called the Cathay Cafe in Blackfoot.

One of the things he has carried with him throughout his life is an appreciation for people who speak different languages. “When people come to the U.S. and English is not their first language, I have an appreciation for their struggles and challenges because that’s how it was for my mom [when she first came to the U.S.]. She didn’t speak any English.” Hong says his upbringing has made him mindful and considerate of those who are not native English speakers.

In addition to English, Hong speaks Taishanese, a subdialect of Cantonese spoken in the southern Guangdong province of China. A vast number of Taishanese-speaking immigrants came to the Americas in the early 20th century and established many of the Chinatowns throughout North America. Hong grew up working in his father’s restaurant, where he and his siblings chipped in to wash dishes, wait tables, and cook. Because of this experience, all of his brothers and sisters know how to cook. During the holidays, they all get together and enjoy both traditional American and Chinese dishes. “At Thanksgiving, we have both a turkey and a roast duck, plus a lot of Chinese dishes that are comfort food.”

Hong encourages employees to get to know their colleagues and members of the community. “I think everybody here is more than willing to help someone who is a stranger or who is lonely. All they need to do is ask.”

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Dr. Rekha Pillai

Dr. Rekha Pillai is INL’s director of strategic planning and investment. She has been in this role for approximately two years, but has worked in the R&D world for many years. Before coming to INL, she was employed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and then in Qatar, where she worked on a project to set up an R&D enterprise for the country.

“Coming to Idaho from Qatar was quite a change,” Pillai said. She is originally from Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), the most populous city in India with over 12 million people. She said her heritage has an impact on her work and life in Idaho, but in a different way than it did in Qatar.

“There is a perception of what Indians are supposed to be – their accomplishments, behavior, attitude. It can both hinder and help,” she said. “Some positive perceptions of Indians are that they are very smart and hardworking, but there are also several negative perceptions, including that Indian women are passive, quiet, introverted and lack leadership skills. I’ve found you can alter people’s perceptions in how you conduct yourself and in your outward appearance. I am very forthright, confident, committed and positive in my dialogue and actions.”

One thing Pillai misses from India are the vibrant colors. “I think we should hold a Festival of Colors or Festival of Love here in Idaho. India is a sea of colors and diversity. A Festival of Colors celebrates the arrival of spring and all of the things it brings with it,” she said. During the festival, people of all ages and walks of life come dressed in white, but leave covered in bright-colored powders. Entire communities come together to celebrate with food (every season has its own food), games and songs. “Young and old, friends and strangers, rich and poor, men and women – everyone comes together, has fun, forgets their differences, makes new friends and enjoys the changing season.”

Pillai is encouraged to see more inclusion and diversity efforts at the lab. “It’s not easy being an outsider in Idaho. It is tough to break into the cliques, especially when you look different, speak with a different accent, dress differently, and have different mannerisms and gestures,” she said. “When you arrive somewhere new, you look for people like you in your community to get advice. Where should I go to eat dinner or go shopping? How do I find a doctor familiar with Asian physiology and needs? Who’s a good hair stylist familiar with ethnic constraints?” Those who have been in Idaho for a long period of time can help newcomers with simple tips like these.

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Dr. Cheng Sun

Dr. Cheng Sun is a researcher in the advanced characterization department at the Materials & Fuels Complex. Originally from the Hubei province in China, he came to the U.S. in 2009 to study materials science and engineering at Texas A&M University. Sun started at INL in September 2016.

He said he has enjoyed his time at the lab. “INL is a good environment for people with different backgrounds,” he said. “My co-workers have been really nice to each other. No one has treated me differently because I’m from another country.”

When Sun moved to Idaho, he did not know anyone. Getting involved in groups helped him not feel as isolated. “The most critical thing for someone new coming to the lab is to get involved in different groups and activities, for instance, basketball and fishing groups. That’s how I got to know a lot of people here,” he said.

The nature of his work, researching radiation effects of nuclear materials, has also allowed him to meet people. “My research is very collaborative. Collaboration at work is one of the best ways for me to meet people and move my research forward effectively.”

Sun also recommends learning more than one language. “Learning new languages helps people make new friends and get familiar with other cultures.”

For more information on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, view:


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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted May 23, 2017

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