May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and as a fourth generation Chinese American, Brig. Gen. Mark Toy, the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division, described this week what the event means to him in an emotion-filled recollection of the journey his family made from Asia to the United States beginning in the 1890's.
In an address to Corps employees at the division's San Francisco District headquarters to mark the month-long celebration, Toy recalled how his great-grandfather arrived in America to run a general store in Montana, earning enough money to bring his great-grandmother over, with the family eventually settling in Bakersfield, Calif.
"You just wish that when you were younger you could appreciate the sacrifices of the older generation and what they brought and what a struggle it must have been for them to come across the sea from China to make a better life for their family," said Toy. His grandfather had only a high school education, his grandmother never got beyond the eighth grade "but was able to send all three of her sons to college. That was an American success story."
Growing up, "My parents wouldn't let me work. They always wanted me to study," said Toy who -- nearly three decades after graduating from West Point and with advanced degrees from Boston University, USC and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces -- commands a workforce of more than 2,300 military and civilian employees and a $1.5 billion portfolio of Corps projects spanning much of the western United States.
For Toy, one of the Corps' two most senior Asian Americans, it is the emphasis on education and respect for elders that are fundamental to Asian American culture.
"It's a culture of working hard and devotion to family. That has always stuck with me."
Toy took command of the division nearly a year ago and has long stressed that building strong and taking care of people are his key goals. But he also believes his heritage and history can help inspire others, allowing him to give back to a nation which gave him so much.
"I feel it's the idea of giving back and helping younger Asian Americans find a path to what their true passion is. That's what we should be doing in the Corps, helping people find their passion."
May has been designated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States in May of 1843. It is also intended to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad a few years later whose tracks were laid largely by Chinese immigrants.