Asian Austin’s A-List: Irwin Tang

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

Irwin Tang was born and raised in College Station, Texas, the son of Chinese immigrants employed by Texas A&M University. He has seen the great arc of Americans rising out of the shacks (literal shacks in College Station) that segregation had put them in, and the explosion of Asian Americans onto the Texas landscape. He is the co-author of “Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives,” a history of Asian Americans in Texas, and “How I Became a Black Man and Other Metamorphoses,” a story collection. He is working on a graphic novel entitled “Lilith.”

AA: Did you know what you wanted to do with your life or did it just happen?
IT: I knew I wanted to tell stories and propagate my opinions as early as high school. But everyone had me pegged for a science and math nerd.

AA: What was your attraction to your vocation? What drew you to do the work you do?
IT: I want to tell stories that no one has ever heard and make people think more incisively about their world. My main income comes not from writing, but from being a professional counselor. I come back to writing because I am obsessed.

AA: What does the American Dream mean to you?
IT: I believe that the United States was not born until Dr. Martin Luther King gave our “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. That was when the Declaration of Independence and Constitution took on real meaning and substance in our nation.
So, the American Dream, to me, can never be the individuals’ dream alone. It is only when all Americans have a reasonable, and reasonably equal, opportunity to achieve their dreams that we will have achieved the American Dream.

Considering our previously-unimaginable wealth as a nation and the fact that opportunity has not improved for about one half of our nation since the 1970s, we are far, far from achieving the American Dream.

AA: Is there anything particular about Austin that inspires you?
IT:  Its zeitgeist and creativity.

AA: Are there generational issues, or cultural issues, or both, between young and old Asian American Austinites?
IT: Of course. But we learn from our differences.

AA: Asian Americans are becoming a powerful force in Austin economically, culturally, politically and otherwise. How do you see Asian Americans fitting into the larger Austin culture and community?
IT: The question, I believe, should be, “will we fit in on our own terms?” Or will we fit in according to how others will allow us to fit in?

The great thing about Austin and Texas is that there have been no protracted anti-Asian movements like there have been in New York and Los Angeles. There is no Rev. Al Sharpton or Mayor Marion Barry inciting the closure of Asian businesses. Those racially-motivated movements really prevented Asians from being included in the power structure.

Take this example. With fewer Asians and more blacks, Hispanics, and whites, Houston has elected more Asians to their city council than Los Angeles. Texas’s atmosphere of inclusion must continue or the weight of American history will pull parties into veiled, or open, anti-Asian rhetoric.

AA: What do you consider the most important cultural value for you and for those close to you?
IT: Does this mean that I have to live up to those values? Family is important. I include friends in that, too. That does not mean I have been a “good son” though. My parents have been far more “filially pious” than I have.

AA: Anything else you’d like to add?
IT: Thank you, Asian Austin and Asian Austinites, for reading my work.

Originally published August 2013

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