Blog: Lawrence Almeda

Lawrence G. (L.G.) Almeda is a lawyer with Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, one of the nation's largest Intellectual Property law firms. L.G. chairs the firm’s Nanotechnology Practice Group and has recently been appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, State Advisory Committee. L.G. will be writing about Michigan's multicultural future as well as his work in IP as it relates to emerging technologies.

Lawrence Almeda - Post 1: A Defining Experience

From migrating to the U.S. in the eighteen hundreds, to working in the California gold mines, to graduating from the nation’s best schools, to living the dreams of their immigrant ancestors, Asian Americans have come a long way. But there is more progress to be done.

I'd like to take you back about 30 years to the mid 1970’s and my first grade class. I attended an elementary school in then Rochester, now Rochester Hills, where my friend of Korean descent, Youngjean, and I were the only Asians, or minorities for that matter, in our entire class.

It was the fall of 1975 and I was just getting to know my classmates. I remember one particular day at school; it was the afternoon and my palms began to sweat as I realized the magnitude of embarrassment that was about to take place. My teacher, Mrs. Randolph, decided to round up the students for gym class by lining us up in order of the breakfast dish we had eaten at home that morning. She would guess the dish aloud and those who consumed such a dish for breakfast would be granted permission to stand up and fall in line.

She probably thought that such an exercise would be a fun and interesting way of obtaining attention and participation from each child. However, like most citizens in my community at that time, she didn’t seem to know anything about any Asian cultures.

As Mrs. Randolph guessed each dish, I felt strangely alone for no good reason other than a lousy gimmick to get first graders to fall in a single filed line for gym class. The last guess, “pancakes or waffles,” rounded up four of my classmates, leaving me as one of the last students still to waiting to line up for gym class. As those four shuffled toward the end of the now populated line, I looked around and soon noticed in horror that practically all eyes were staring at me.

After Mrs. Randolph’s next 3 incorrect guesses, it was clear to me that she would never guess my breakfast dish. However, I could see that it was not yet clear to her. By the look of determination on her face, Mrs. Randolph seemed believe this was a great game of challenge and deduction that she had invented. After several more dreadful guesses, including options like eggs benedict, french toast, and Cream of Wheat, I believe she did finally start to understand how far removed she really was since only Youngjean and I remained. After I noticed the lack of confidence in her facial expressions, I remember the solitary feeling as I, for the first time in my life, grasped why Youngjean and I were still remaining.

I knew that my morning breakfast dish -- fried rice (which was by far my favorite dish) -- would be very embarrassing, but I didn’t realize until right then the degree of publicity I would receive for having it. Finally as time went by, Mrs. Randolph merely walked up to me and quietly asked what I had for breakfast.

Like a first grader who didn’t want anyone to know what he had for breakfast, I softly answered, "fried rice."

Innocently, she then announced "OK, those of you who had FRIED RICE for breakfast, please file in line." There was silence as I stood up with head down and fell in line, knowing that all eyes were on me -- or possibly on Youngjean, since I then heard "and those of you who had FRIED RICE WITH SHRIMP, please fall in line."

It may surprise you, but I have many stories like this growing up in Michigan. Although I typically try to find humor and make light of my experiences, this one was indeed relatively traumatic at the time. I didn’t realize it then, but that experience and many other similar ones during my childhood helped define me and helped me know who I am. I could not put my thoughts into words at that time, but I dreamt what it would have been like for people in the mainstream, such as my first grade teacher and classmates, to understand my family’s ethnicity and culture. Had they done so, that traumatic experience in the fall of '75 would probably not have happened.

The story described above exemplifies the lack of diversity and cultural awareness in Michigan in the 70's. Since then Michigan certainly has come a long way and I am very proud to say I am from suburban Detroit. But our journey is not over.

For example, in the thirty years ago, Asian history was not taught in elementary schools. Today, across Michigan, Asian history is still absent in most elementary schools. Yet look at the dramatic increase in the Asian population in our state. And think about the growing importance of Asian culture on the global economic stage. There is still more work to be done … with more courage…more boldness …and audacity on the part for Asian Americans. When I say audacity… I mean the daring required for Asian Americans to break out of our cultural boundaries. My parents moved themselves here, but it is now the “second generationers” et. al. time to move us forward.

Many of these experiences have taught me, among other things, to have courage and take some risks, knowing that without either, one gets nowhere. I've put everything in perspective. For example, my parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1963. They first started out in The Big Apple, where I was born. In New York City there was a demand, as there is today, for physicians. My father was and still is a physician, and had a dream of raising a family in the United States. Thus, with English as their second language, my soon-to-be parents journeyed halfway around the world to America to make a new life -- a better life as they saw it -- for themselves and their future family.

It has literally taken me years to realize the courage, risk, and determination such an endeavor required of them. Looking back, I can only imagine the challenges we would have faced had my wife and I packed our belongings shortly after taking our marital vows and moved to an unfamiliar country and culture. Taking a step back, my parents took the ultimate risk. And I look where they are today. Whenever I need a boost of courage, I merely imagine the courage my parents had and I immediately get that needed boost.

… There is more work to be done as discussed in my next blog …