Story of Donna Wang Su

Donna Wang Su is the Associate Director of Graduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. A parent of two kids in Evanston schools, Donna also serves on the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board. Her parents immigrated to the United States and came to Evanston for Northwestern. The oldest of 5, Donna identifies as second-generation Taiwanese American.

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DONNA WANG SU — on learning from your kids, and letting them lead difficult conversations 

 

Donna Wang Su is the Associate Director of Graduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. A parent of two kids in Evanston schools, Donna also serves on the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board. Her parents immigrated to the United States and came to Evanston for Northwestern. The oldest of 5, Donna identifies as second-generation Taiwanese American.

 

While Donna was born in Evanston, her family shortly moved out to the west suburbs, and then to Southern California when she was in high school. After she graduated from undergrad, she returned to Chicago, and she has been living in Evanston since 2006. 

 

In our conversation, we talked about her family’s immigration story, her kids experiences in Evanston’s public school system and what makes her hopeful for the future. This interview contains mentions of anti-Asian hate and gun violence and has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

YIMING: To start, tell me a little bit about the story behind your name!

 

DONNA: Sure! My full name is actually Donna Maria Su Wang Su. It’s a little confusing because my middle name was Su, it just my mother’s maiden name, and I never expected to marry someone with the same last name as my middle name. My mom picked Donna because it was actually her first English teacher. My dad’s name is John Wang, and he really wanted a John Wang Jr. and he had to go through four girls before he got it, so each time my mom got to name me and my sisters. 

 

YIMING: What is your family’s story in coming to this country? 

 

DONNA: My grandparents, all four of them, the highest they ever went to school was maybe 4th- or 5th-grade. My dad’s younger too and my mom was 12th of 14. No one in their families went off to college.

 

My dad was the first one who went to college and he actually came to Northwestern. And my mom tried for two to three years to try to get into the country. But they were still limiting the number of people that could come into the country from Chinese speaking countries. This was back in the 70s. So it took her several times around to get in the country. They picked very Anglo-Catholic names like Maria and John and they converted to Catholicism to better their chances. 

 

So they came here, I was born, they stayed here just until my dad finished his degree. And I think he struggled a lot with trying to be in the working world in the midwest. I remember him telling us later he was passed over for two promotions because he had one manager tell him that “Asians didn’t make good leaders.” He felt if he went back to Taiwan, he would be better accepted amongst his own people. 

 

YIMING: Tell me more about your mom’s story. You said they were restricting immigration in the 1970s?

 

DONNA: I think it was a bit left over from the Chinese Exclusion Act. When they started letting immigrants in, they only let 105 people in from Chinese speaking countries. I think it was hard, and I think for her, she wanted to be able to stand on her own merits. I remember my dad was saying he would just marry her, and she didn’t want to come in just because she was someone’s spouse. She wanted to come in because she was standing on her own merits. 

 

There’s so many girls in my family, you always have to be able to stand on your own. You don’t want to be completely dependent. And I wonder how much of that was also because of her consistent drive and wanting to be accepted on her own terms. 

 

YIMING: How does knowing your family’s journey impact the way you see yourself and your work?

 

DONNA: Whenever I’m dealing with international students, in some ways, I can't help but think like “could this be my dad.” They don’t know, coming from a completely different culture and background. And I think for me, a lot of the work I do is to show that extra piece of grace and empathy. And so especially when working with a lot of international students, there’s that extra piece that I think drives me. 

 

YIMING: I’m also curious, how much have your parents shared about their personal history? And what was it like to navigate conversations about their past?

 

DONNA: My parents have always been very careful about what stories they have shared. But what I found interesting is when my kids are asking questions, they’re just so curious. I’m learning so much more about my parents from what the kids are asking, and I can’t help but think half the time, like “I didn’t know this. I don’t know this story.”

 

I don’t know how much of it was (my parents) being so set on the model minority. I think in the generation I grew up in, it was like “keep your head down, be a doctor or a lawyer, and it was always like don’t cause a fuss.”

 

I struggled with that at the beginning of the pandemic. My family and I dealt with anti-Asian hate. My daughter got yelled at in the grocery store. I had a drink thrown at me. And I remember when I first started posting about this on my Facebook and Instagram, immediately I had my mom’s generation reaching out to me and saying “Hey! Why are you airing your dirty laundry? We don’t do this.” And I said, “Do you know the shock I get from my community?” 

 

YIMING: So, how did the pandemic impact you and your family?

 

DONNA: It was pretty stressful. I have two young-ish children. They’re 13 and 10. When the pandemic hit, they were suddenly at home. Their dad owns his own business and he had to shutter it, so just seeing him struggle through that was really tough.

 

And then there was the added fear with all the anti-Asian sentiments. Before the shutdown even happened, my daughter got the flu. She was coughing and I made her wear a mask because in Asian cultures, it’s like — pollution’s bad? Wear a mask. Got a cold? Wear a mask. Don’t get other people sick. And we were at the Whole Foods here in Evanston and this lady just started yelling at my daughter calling us “dirty Chinese.” And she was just so scared. 

 

YIMING: What has it been like watching the rise of anti-Asian hate across the country? 

 

DONNA: Earlier this year was really really hard. Just last month in Evanston, at a local elementary school there were nooses that got hung up. That was a clear display of hate directed at our Black superintendent, their Black president and our Black president of the school board. And then I think right after that happened, you had the shooting in Buffalo at the grocery store, there was the shooting at the Taiwanese church in Irvine, and there was another shooting at a Korean spa in Texas. And that all happened within the same week. And then to top it all off, there was a shooting in Uvalde, Texas in the elementary school.

 

And I remember the hardest thing was talking to my daughter who was saying “They’ve taken all the safe spaces, your schools, your churches, your grocery stores, even a spa where you go to relax.” She’s like “they’ve taken that and made it a place to fear. And how much of it is because of what I look like and the color of my skin?”

 

It’s been very difficult parenting and navigating through all that and just talking about it. I don’t want to not talk about it, because by not talking about it you make it seem like it’s something that’s scary. And I don’t want to do that.

 

I think when my son faced racism — he had some guy yelling the F word at him and trying to follow him in his car — when he came back he was very reflective. He said that was the first time he felt targeted because of the color of his skin. And what he said was scary to him, was he was pretty sure that’s how his Black friends have felt every day, pandemic or not. And so a lot of the anti-Asian hate has made me more empathetic and wanting to ally more with other minorities. 

 

YIMING: So, how do you navigate these conversations with your children?

 

DONNA: I think I let them lead a little bit. I always ask them, “well, how is this making you feel?” I’ll give them a little bit of background history, and I’ll ask them “well what do you guys already know about this?” And one of the things that I like to try to end every conversation with is, well, we talked about it, what do we want to do with this? Do we want to attend a rally? Do we want to write a letter about it? I don’t want it to just be talk. I want the walk and the actions to be reflective of what we believe in and what we’ve talked about. 

 

YIMING: I’m also wondering, have you yourself had experiences with anti-Asian hate in Evanston?

 

DONNA: Yeah. The first time was just in a Walgreens parking lot. Someone rolled down their window, threw a drink at me and told me to go back to China. I just remember feeling shocked. I first thought to myself thank god that drink missed me, but then I started to think to myself, what point of hate do you get to when you feel like throwing your trash at someone else? 

 

And then pretty early in the pandemic, on the bus stop next to us they spray painted “make China pay.” No race should be blamed. I don’t know. It was just awful. I don’t know if I have the right words to describe it. I think my daughter, though, has been the target more than the rest of us, and I don’t know what it is.

 

YIMING: Overall, though, Donna says her kids are proud to be Taiwanese and Japanese American. 

 

DONNA: And I think that pride is just something I don’t think I experienced as much growing up. And I think that I’m starting to feel it more and more, seeing how proud they are of their culture.

 

YIMING: What do you think makes them so proud?

 

DONNA: Maybe it is being in Evanston and being in such a diverse town that everyone does have their different cultures and stories. In May, for Asian American heritage month, I read some books to a kindergarten class at my daughter’s elementary school. 

 

The second book was a book I liked because the main character called her grandma “amma” and that’s what I called my grandma, and I’ve never seen it elsewhere. And I asked the kids “what do you call your grandparents besides grandma and grandpa?” And then people were able to raise their hands and share — so you heard, you know, “grandma” in  Korean, or I think someone had it in Polish, and it was just such a beautiful mix there. I think that helps my kids see that it's okay to stand out. Because there's so many others that stand out too. 

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