Breaking Barriers; A journey of two Airmen

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Seth Stang
  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center Public Affairs

As the country kicks off Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, two officers from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center reflect on what it means to be Asian American.

2nd Lts Derek Huang, Signal Analysis Squadron member and Yuan-Xun Lee, Global Information Exploitation Squadron, Open Skies project engineer, say being Asian American can be either a mark of otherness or a deep connection to heritage and tradition.

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Huang struggled to fit into American society as a child.

“It was challenging. I was the only Asian in my community growing up, so I dealt with a lot of bullying,” Huang said. “However, after I got accepted into an engineering high school I left the bullies behind.”

Huang’s childhood also transpired within the framework of a strict, traditional Chinese family structure in which he says discipline, respect and honor were paramount.

Despite strong familial and societal pressures to stay within the Chinese-American mold, he found himself identifying more as an American than a Chinese-American.

“I’m patriotic because I believe in what America was intended to be -- a land of opportunity, where you get what you put in, no matter your race, religion, sex, et cetera,” Huang said.

Lee’s family history is filled with stories of running away from communism during the Civil War in China.

“Both my grandparents and grandparents-in-law were scholars that were persecuted by communists because they feared that highly educated members of society would speak out against them,” Lee explained.

He said this heritage goes hand-in-hand with his American patriotism, which allows him to embrace democracy and appreciate all the amazing liberties that others do not have.

“It is American democracy that allows me to be as educated as I want to be and use that education to build a better nation,” said Lee. “America also allows me freedom of speech to critique the government when I believe things can be better.”

Just like Huang, Lee says that he also felt the familial pressure to live up to cultural expectations.

“Oh man is there ever a lot of societal pressure to conform American traditions and parental pressures to conform to Chinese traditions,” Lee said with a laugh. “It’s this never ending back and forth tug-of-war. There’s also the pressure that I must succeed because my parents sacrificed everything to make it here to the United States; and their sacrifice must not be in vain.”

Throughout his upbringing, Lee says success was defined in terms of academia and how much a person earned in their chosen profession. As such, his family believed he could have made a better choice than joining the military, by instead going into a field where he would earn a higher income and be closer to home.

Despite the hesitations of his family for him to join the Air Force, Lee says he always had a calling to serve. He applied several times to become an officer through the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs and the U.S. Air Force Academy but was unable to get accepted until he received his engineering degree.

“I wanted to use my degree to help the Air Force develop and maintain its technological advantages. In other words, I wanted to play with expensive toys that I could not pay for,” he joked.

Though he strayed from certain expectations, Lee fully embraced other aspects of his heritage.

“I absolutely love our veneration to our ancestors and elders; we pay tribute to our ancestors and thank them for giving us everything we have today” Lee said. “That their hardship allowed me to be where I am today, and that it will continue to ‘guide’ me in all my future endeavors.”

Regarding their futures in the Air Force, both men have a strong desire to serve as long as possible.
Lee, who said he faced some adversities when he first joined the Air Force, wants to become a career officer to pay back what he described as “the best leadership I could ask for that trusted me and provided shelter and guidance.” He now wishes to carry on that leadership and to take care of Airmen.

Huang stated that his short term goal is to learn as much as he can, as fast as he can, to be useful to his flight. In the long term he dreams of the possibility of becoming the Air Force’s first Asian American general officer.

However, he also isn’t opposed to building the first Iron Man suit either.

“At this fledgling stage of my military life, I’d love to be able to make the military my career,” Huang added. “Serving in my chosen field is a major plus, but I’d do just about anything to serve this country.”