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NEWS | May 12, 2021

NSWCPD Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance Speaker Focuses on Purpose-Driven Service

By Brentan Debysingh

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) virtually hosted its annual Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month Observance with keynote speaker Dr. Thomas C. Fu on May 12, 2021.

Fu, who is a member of the federal government’s Senior Executive Service (SES), serves as the head of the Mission Capable, Persistent and Survivable Naval Platforms Department of the Office of Naval Research (ONR). He oversees a broad range of S&T programs for naval platforms and undersea weapons, with an annual budget of approximately $550 million per year.

Hosted by Kim Yee, Chair of the NSWCPD Naval Asian Society Employee Resource Group (NASERG), the event was highlighted by Fu’s story of his and his family’s journey as they emigrated from China and sought a new life.

Capt. Dana Simon, NSWCPD Commanding Officer, introduced Fu and also shared how much AAPI Heritage Month means to him, saying, “For me this observance is really personal, as my wife is half-Japanese. Both of my sons have Japanese names. In the Navy, I’ve served for five years in Hawaii, two years in Guam, and was able to visit Japan and Malaysia.”

Simon continued, “It was a great learning opportunity to enjoy the different cultures and see the different ethnicities. I gained a much better appreciation for the strength of diversity and inclusion when I was in those areas. It gave me a better perspective on people and made me a better person. That’s why I think this month is important to observe the accomplishments and contributions of AAPI.”

In his presentation, Fu provided insight into his family’s history as they traveled from China to the United States in search of better opportunities. He also chronicled his personal journey about searching for and finding his self-identity, and how purpose-driven service echoed throughout his life.

“With over 56 different ethnic groups and over 100 languages, I have wondered ‘Is there a unique AAPI story? What part of the struggle is mine and what part is the AAPI story?’” said Fu. “That’s something I’ve wrestled with since childhood. ‘Am I Asian American? Am I Chinese American?’ We all have our unique AAPI story. My story is not that of my parents or grandparents. But they all ring true as an AAPI and American story.”

He continued, “When I was in middle school, we were tasked to ask our parents how our families came to America. I thought my story was short and simple: My parents came to the U.S. for an education and moved to the Midwest. When you’re 12 or 13 years old, you’re happy to write two sentences and move on and be done with your homework. The reality was, their story was not quite that simple.”

Fu added, “At age 19, my dad fled to Taiwan from China during the Communist takeover in 1949. His father was a general in the Chinese Army. My father studied electrical engineering at Taiwan University, saw the value of higher education, and went on to grad school at the University of Toronto. Then transferred to the University of Illinois, where he earned his PhD. That story is very common across AAPIs: Go to school. Do well. Go to graduate school, and build and live your new life. His story is of hopes and dreams and hoping to help his family build a new life.”

“My mother’s story was somewhat similar, but more romantic,” he said. “She was born to a family of wealth and power, but watched as the war took it all and had to start all over again. She grew up in Japanese occupied Shanghai, but she knew of America, as her father went to the University of Chicago law school. He convinced her to go to college in the United States. So in the fall of 1950 at the age of 17, she went to America and attended college at the University of Washington. Then she went to the University of Illinois for graduate school, where she met my father.”

Fu’s mother remained a lifelong student and changed her life’s path. She worked as a librarian at the St. Elizabeth’s School of Nursing. That time at the school of nursing inspired her to go back to school for nursing. She reinvented herself at the age of 48 and became a nurse.

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, his mother who lives in Southern California, said she wasn’t worried about herself. She was concerned about taking hospital resources away from a younger person. She was always thinking about sacrifice and purpose-driven service.

“My parents’ life is the AAPI story,” said Fu. “It’s a story of hopes, dreams, rebuilding. Building a family, finding a home, finding a place of belonging. Finding success and building a legacy. It is a story of legacy and purpose-filled service.”

Fu also talked about his time in Washington, D.C. and monuments such as the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery that are constant reminders of sacrifice in service to the Nation. In addition, he detailed his story about the search for belonging as a child.

He said, “For my brother, sister and my story, it was not being on the outside, but not fitting in. We were part of only a handful of Asians other than Purdue University students in town. Our story was of hopes and dreams and finding a place to belong. I almost didn’t make it. As a freshman, I felt like I would never belong. I was truly unhappy. I thought about ending my life one day. It felt like no one cared. But the moment I knew that I hurt that much, I realized that I did care that much. Instead of hoping for the world to change and be disappointed, I focused on changing the part of the world I could.”

He continued, “I dropped out of school because I needed to know what I was going to do with my life. I started volunteering at a Salvation Army afterschool program. There I learned, that if nothing else, I mattered to those kids. From there, I started to build my own life where I felt like I belonged. If I was going to make a difference, I had to be true to who I was.”

“Along the way, I accepted that my life as I created it was part of the AAPI experience,” Fu realized. “If I couldn’t accept the fact that I belonged in America, then how could I expect anybody else to understand that. It became a life of being true to myself and realizing that I was part of the AAPI and the American story. It was okay to be the only AAPI person in the room. It was okay to be the only anything in the room. I wanted people know that it was okay to be unique. There is a place for people to feel safe. At age 18, I realized that was the purpose driven service I was going to have.”

Fu connected with the Navy and Warfare Centers by serendipity. After going to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he realized he was more of an engineer than a scientist. He called a former professor, who mentioned a research position at NSWC Carderock was available and he could fill it while he went to school. This role was more aligned with his mentality.

“The work mattered. It was nice to see my work on real platforms,” said Fu. “Over time, it became about the organization, and then the Navy. How do we make the Navy better, so we can serve better. It became all about purpose-driven service. I wanted to help, but I wanted to be of service. But most of all I wanted to matter and what mattering meant and still means to me is that I needed a bigger mission. I matter to people. And so, the next generation’s story and the generation after that’s unique story will continue to be part of our story, the AAPI story and the American story.”

After concluding his story, Fu answered questions from the audience, followed by a closing statement by the NSWCPD Technical Director Tom Perotti who said, “Thank you for telling your story, but also shedding light on the importance of the AAPI story, the American story and our individual story. The term AAPI represents such a broad and diverse group of people and cultures. It speaks volumes to the incredible experiences you’ve had as a person and as a family.”

Perotti added, “Thank you for also sharing your focus of purpose driven service, which is synonymous with our mission here at the warfare center, as a Navy and a Nation.”

May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, where the Nation recognizes the incredible accomplishments and contributions that AAPI have made to our country.