Stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Disrupt Aging

#AAPIdisruptaging AAPI disrupt aging AARP is proud to partner with Next Day Better to share stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) disrupting aging. We’re excited to show that AAPIs have a voice — and that our combined voices are loud, proud and clear!

Throughout December, we’ll be adding short stories to this post, so please return to see the latest one at the top of the page. You can also find the latest stories on the AARP AAPI Community page on Facebook.

Do you know any AAPI members who inspire you? We want to tell the stories of how they are disrupting the concept of aging. Have a suggestion? Tell us in the comments below, or comment on the individual stories on Facebook, using the hashtag #AAPIdisruptaging.

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Here are the stories:

Paula Madison
Journalist, filmmaker, business executive
Chinese Diaspora

paula“My parents emigrated to Harlem from Jamaica in 1945 but my parents split when I was three. We lived with my biracial mother; she had a Chinese father and an African-Jamaican mother.

“When I was six years old, I realized that my mother was so sad because she didn’t have a family. Her father left Jamaica to return to China with a second wife and some of his children from his first wife; she was left behind because my grandmother didn’t want her to go with him.

“So I promised myself that I would find her father. I knew little about him: that his name was Samuel Lowe and he was a Hakka Chinese descendant. He was a shopkeeper in Kingston with a dry goods shop and he met my grandmother there.

“When I had my first job at 21, I learned that retirement age was 65. I decided that I would retire at 58 so I would still be young enough and have the time to go find my grandfather.

“When I retired in 2011, I reached out to my relatives in Jamaica. I found out that the Hakka people have a conference in Toronto every four years—and there was one happening in a few months. I found out that the conference co-convenor’s surname was Lowe—same as my grandfather! Eventually, through emails to Hong Kong and the mainland, we found out that his uncle was my grandfather’s son!

“Six weeks later, I flew to Shenzhen, China to meet my 94-year-old aunt, my 88-year-old uncle, and some English-speaking cousins. I had prepared documents, pictures, and newspaper clippings for them to see when I met them, finally. And I had to think about what it meant for me to connect with my grandfather’s family. My husband, in his protective way, had asked me, ‘When you find these Chinese people in your family, what do you want to happen?’ What do you mean, I asked him. ‘Paula, do you know you’re black?’

“It had never occurred to me that they would not accept us because of race—because the woman who loved us, took care of us, and protected us had a Chinese face!

“And I was right. When I met my (Aunt Odessa) she held my hand and said, ‘Bring everybody home. Bring them all here. Our blood has been apart for too long and now that we’ve found each other, we’ll never lose each other again.’

“I’d always thought that, when it comes to race, there’s more that we have in common than we don’t. And when I found my family, meeting more than 300 of my grandfather’s direct descendants in Guangdong, China, that August of 2012, I knew it to be true.”

(NextDayBetter Storyteller: Candice Lopez-Quimpo)


Tony Taguba
Major General (Ret.)
Filipino American

tony-taguba_edited“Some 10 years ago, my mother told us she was dying at a family reunion. It was a shock; we didn’t know what to think. We had no plan. She had cancer and had six months to two years left to live. Our first response was to say, ‘We’ll take care of you, Mom and Dad.’

“There are seven of us, so we came up with a schedule of who were to care for my parents. But two of my brothers couldn’t be available to take their turns. This caused a lot of resentment that carried over to the day my mother died. Meanwhile, my mother didn’t want to have to deal with seven kids. She designated three of us as executors of her wishes—me and my two sisters. After my mom passed away, I found out later that my father made my youngest sister the sole executor, and she didn’t tell me until I confronted her. When the others found out, this led to name-calling and more hostilities.

“When my mom died, I was able to say goodbye but I had to fly home and trust the affairs to my eldest sister. I told her I’d be back after two days. That night, I got a call and found out that my siblings were fighting. There was a lot of anger, distrust, and disappointment. I think it stemmed from the fact that not all of us took care of my mom. I couldn’t do anything from thousands of miles away. I was so frustrated—my mom’s body wasn’t even cold yet!

“When my dad died, I couldn’t let it happen again. I called a family meeting, our kids included, and told them we had to stop this BS of getting at each other’s throats. Otherwise, our kids would be the beneficiaries of our anger and would have to take sides. We can’t pass on our issues to them.

“Now, I tell people to plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you plan for the worst, you can always make the adjustment to make it better. That takes a lot of patience.

“Caregiving is not cyclic. It’s linear. It’s a long-term. You have to start that conversation—sooner not later. That conversation does not happen once but over time. And include your parents in the talks. Then, be realistic. Know this is going to create a lot of tension. But focus on what you want: one, you love your parents. Two, you want them safe and not let anything bad happen. Three, you want them secure—bills paid, mortgage cared for, documents managed. And then show up. Take your turn. Be available. Because one day it will happen to you. You will need someone to take care of you too.

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Candice Lopez-Quimpo


Jon Melegrito, 72 years
Unlearning Racism
Filipino American

jon-final_still“I will confess that I’ve had anti-black sentiments. I don’t make any excuses. When we first moved to Washington DC, we moved into an apartment that was predominantly black. It was in the ‘60s and we just got married. And there was a swimming pool in our apartment and I told my wife not to go because a lot of blacks go there. We thought that the pool was dirty and dangerous.

“I’m ashamed to think about this now, because it’s despicable – but this was the level of thinking we had when we first immigrated into America. We were conditioned to think of blacks as inferior through American media in the Philippines. It took me a while to understand that this type of thinking had no place. I had to educate and unlearn myself to liberate from racism.

“This painful process of unlearning happens when you study history. The author Carlos Bulosan wrote about Filipinos being treated like dogs in the past in America. And now you compare that to black communities – the way they are mistreated and unjustly regarded, especially in light of Black Lives Matter. There are a lot of commonalities between Filipinos and African Americans.

“I have two granddaughters. In my old age, I find that if I do anything worthwhile for the rest of my life, it’s to dedicate myself to making sure that they inherit a world where there is social justice and that there’s a good relationship among races. After all, the struggle of black communities for justice and equality is also our struggle, and it is part of the American story.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Ryan Letada


Mas Matsumoto, 62
Farmer and James Beard Award for Writing and Literature Nominee
Japanese American
Del Rey, California

mas_still“We’ve wrapped up the stone fruit harvest, the peaches and the nectarines. I’m prepping the ground, doing that kind of maintenance work. It’s a summer pruning/early fall pruning on the trees where I go back and shape them, and tag branches that need to be removed. My goal is to touch every tree that we have. And we have about maybe 3,000 trees. It’s a really tedious time, but I really like this time of the year to shape the tree and start looking into the future with each tree.

“The main thing is that you look at the health of the tree, and start interpreting the health of the tree. If it’s not healthy, is it a single tree issue or if it’s part of a field. So it’s a balance between looking at the specific and looking at the larger context. We’re going through global warming, and global warming implies a lot of abnormal weather. We have a lot of swings in weather, especially very hot hot spells, very dry dry spells that we’ve been going through in California, and what effect does this have on the orchard, and how are they responding, and in turn, how do I respond to that.

“In some cases we have wonderfully old, old trees, peaches that are 50 years old, which is unheard of in the industry. Most trees have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, and usually a new variety has taken the place of the old one. But we love working with these older trees, because I think the flavor shifts after it’s been established, and the roots have been planted in the ground established for 10 to 20 years. And the flavor shifts around that 20th year. Extraordinary flavors start to evolve.

“They become richer. And deeper flavored. And I think because the tree’s established, it is able to tolerate, withstand these swings in weather patterns. It’s mature. I like to think it’s the same as people and myself. As I get older I’m a little mature and can tolerate swings and rapid shifts and the changes around me.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sarahlynn Pablo


Susan Matsuko Shinagawa, 59
Cancer Survivor
Japanese American

susan“I was in my early thirties and working at a San Diego cancer center. I didn’t really know anything about cancer. Cancer was something that happened to other people.

“One year, a friend of mine taught a class on breast self-examination. I attended and immediately began practicing it monthly. A few months later, I felt a lump in my right breast. I followed it through a couple of menstrual cycles, got a mammogram, and went to a surgical oncologist based on the radiologist’s recommendation.

“The oncologist conducted a clinical exam and looked at my family history and my films – which didn’t show anything. He told me, ‘Susan, you have nothing to worry about. You’re too young to have breast cancer, have no family history, and, besides, Asian women don’t get breast cancer.’

“I was elated but a little questioning because the lump was there. I could feel it, and I knew that it wasn’t quite right. I went to see another surgeon who told me the same thing (with 99.99% certainty), but I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I wanted to be 100% sure and scheduled a biopsy.

“I came home to a message on my answering machine. It was the surgeon and he left me four different numbers to reach him on a Friday night, so I knew that it was not good. Although I already knew what he was going to say, I was still shocked. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god. I’ve got cancer. I’m going to die. It’s going to be a horrible death. I’m going to commit suicide… Oh my god. I’ve got cancer. I better do something.’ Even today, it shocks me that I went to that place. I was an educated woman who worked at a cancer center, but I had the same gut-wrenching reaction that a lot of people did.

“Throughout the 10-year process of dealing with three cancer diagnoses, I went from not knowing a lot about myself, my body, or how to deal with the medical system to being a strong advocate for myself. What I tell people is to learn as much as you can about your disease. Information is your power. If you know what you’re talking about and have the research to back you up, don’t back down, because it’s your life. That’s how I felt. I was fighting for my life.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Nina Ho


Evan Chan, 57
Chinese diaspora

evan_still“After I gave up my business in Shanghai, I felt depressed. I spent 10 years of my life setting up a really big company, but the industry wasn’t doing well and keeping my business going was draining me. All of a sudden, I gave up and shut it down and killed it.

“I figured that if I wanted to move myself to the next step, I needed to win over myself. After I retired, I didn’t have any more enemies. The only enemy was myself. That’s why I went back to school. I got my MBA at 57. I traveled around the world. I also decided to run marathons, because running them makes you train your tolerance to win over yourself.

“I was 56 when I finished my first-ever full marathon in Hong Kong. I’ve been to Thailand to run, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Macau. I’ve been running everywhere around the world. In Korea, I managed to finish in four hours and 48 minutes. I felt proud of myself.

“But then, I injured myself very badly after I ran a half marathon in Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake last year. There were a lot of uphills and downhills. I hurt myself going downhill because I didn’t know the technique and kept running. It got worse and worse, now all of a sudden I can’t even walk. My knee is in pain right now. But I will overcome that like I overcame the closing of my company. I will finish another marathon and I will go against all the odds.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Maria Regina Malibiran


Tess Gerritsen, 63
Author, Maine
Chinese Diaspora

tess_still“If you’re about to retire from your first career, the wonderful part about writing is that it doesn’t matter what age you are. I mean, you could hit the bestseller list at the age of 70 with your first book. Writing is something that, it doesn’t matter what your age is, it just matters what your imagination is and whether you’re any good at it.

“I feel like I have been shifting my focus my whole life. First of all, going from medicine to writing, and then shifting genres. I find that there are several periods in my career where it looked like I was really floundering. When I was doing romantic suspense, you just can’t make that much money writing romance novels. So I had to make that shift into medical thrillers. And then I wrote four medical thrillers, but then my sales were kind of stalling out, so then I did a crime novel. So that was another shift I made. I am always aware that there’s ups and downs in every career. And here I am now, I just finished the twelfth Rizzoli and Isles book, the TV show is ending. And I see I have maybe, I think 20 to 25 good creative years left to do things. And so this is the time to take a risk.

“I just made a horror film with my son. It’s called ‘Island Zero,’ and it should be ready for film festivals later this fall. So that was completely different. I’ve never been actually from the ground up in filmmaking. We had a great time. We cast everything, we hired our crew from Los Angeles, we shot here in Maine. And I think we’ll probably be making some other films.

“And I have a couple of books that I’m thinking about. There were some times I wanted to write books that were not sort of ‘Tess Gerritsen’-type books but completely weird ones. So I would need to write it under a pseudonym. It just sort of opens up a creative side of you without having your audience think what the hell are you doing now? Ha! That would be fun. And then I have an idea for another historical novel, having to do with the history of medicine.

“This is the time you do the projects that you never got to do. Because when else are you going to do them, right?

“The important thing is to always be looking for something fresh and new and different in your life.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sarahlynn Pablo


Sam Adhikari, 76
Marathon runner and Seven Continent Club member
Indian Diaspora

sam_still“If you are determined, passionate, and focused on your goals, nothing – I mean absolutely nothing in this world — will stand in your way. It took me almost 10 years to finally join the elite Seven Continents Club at the age of 73. You become an honorary member once you’ve run a marathon on all seven continents around the world.

“My last run was in Antarctica, where the temperature was minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, the winds howled at 60 miles per hour, and there was continuous freezing rain. At one point, the sky darkened so much that it seemed to be nighttime. There were no houses, no trees, nothing. Only a 1.2-mile thick slab of ice.

“After a mile or so into my last loop, I hit ‘the wall,’ as marathoners say. My calves started to cramp from the cold and from carrying the extra weight of my rain-soaked clothing. I felt lightheaded and my legs felt like they were clad with lead. My whole body was aching. My fingers had no feeling at all.

“My mind started to race ahead to frostbite, amputations, cramps and failure. The thought crossed my mind to stop right there and bow out, but I had never dropped out of a race before, and I was not going to do it there. I changed my tactics. Biting my lips and gritting my teeth, I forced myself to keep running. It was mind over body.

“After more trudging through sticky mud, climbing up and down icy, treacherously steep hills, and literally swimming through freezing cold streams, I could see the banner at the makeshift start/finish line. I crossed it with as much flourish as I could muster, spreading my arms out in triumph and holding up seven fingers signifying the completion of my seven continents run. I looked up to the sky to thank almighty God for keeping me in one piece and I smiled for the camera. The electrifying thrill of victory overwhelmed me as one of the marathon officials placed the Finisher’s Medal around my neck.

“My dream became a reality, but that didn’t terminate my passion for running. My new dream is to run the Everest Base Camp Marathon – at 20,000 feet above sea level, it has the highest starting point of any marathon in the world. I have set foot at the bottom of the world. Now, I want to set foot at the top.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sherina Ong


Dori Shimoda
Founder of Give Children A Choice
New Jersey and Vientiane, Laos
Japanese Diaspora

“When I was 32 years old, I was kidnapped and held at gunpoint for 18 hours. Initially I thought, ‘This can’t be real. It can’t be real.’ My kidnappers kept poking with this gun and razor sharp knife. And as they prodded me more and more, I went from incredulous disbelief to realizing ‘Oh my gosh, this is real.’ And that’s when I started reliving all the unclosed business I had. After I escaped, I told myself, ‘I’m alive now. I need to commit myself to giving back.’

“When I hit 50, I decided to backpack through Southeast Asia. I made my way to Laos and saw the incredible poverty there and children who, instead of being in school, were dragging sticks through the mud, mostly without clothes. My wife and I moved to Laos, where we’ve been pioneering preschool education in rural villages. No one else wanted to do it. But we took the leap and decided to build in places that people didn’t even know about because they were so remote.

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“It turned out that one of the provinces we started to build in was the venue for the 1960s U.S. Secret War [against Vietnam]. That war left behind millions of live, un-exploded ordnance — or UXO — that are still going off and harming villagers 50 years later. It was a traumatizing, heart-wrenching experience to go there for the very first time. We saw bombshells decorating the town and met many UXO survivors. At first, the only way we thought we could help was by making sure the sick children stayed in school.

“Until we met one man who had lost both of his legs and some fingers. He had that look in his eyes that you only see in UXO survivors. The guy languished for years and finally we said we’re going to step in and help him achieve self-sustainability. So we helped him start a mini-mart business.

“His prosthetic works very poorly and because he can only stand for about an hour or two a day, I built a supply chain where he can make all his orders off a mobile phone. Now, he’s making three times the average income of a Lao person. He no longer needs to beg. He’s regained his self-confidence. He’s doing far better than expected. So what I’m trying to figure out now is how to replicate this model not only for UXO victims, but also the disabled.

“My wife and I dedicate our lives, day and night, to do this work. But for me, I feel like I haven’t had enough of a systemic impact being here yet.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sherina Ong


Corky Lee, 73
Unofficial Asian American photographer laureate
New York City

Corky Lee

Corky Lee

Chinese American

“Back in junior high school, I found a small photograph showing the commemorative image that was taken at the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

“My social studies textbook never said how many Chinese there were, so I was wondering was it a half dozen? Or was it many more? So what I did was I bought a magnifying glass and looked at the photograph to count how many Chinese there were in the photograph. Because if they built it, then they should be there. Right? I didn’t see any. So it planted a seed in my mind: Where’s the photographic proof? Why were they excluded? I later learned that there were actually 12,000 to 15,000 Chinese who worked on the railroad.

“That seed eventually led me to organizing a ‘flash mob’ on the 145th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in Utah. I was hoping for about 145 people – one person for every year that the Chinese were not included. I ended up getting over 200 people at Promontory Point (where the railroad’s completion is marked with two facing locomotives), and together we reclaimed an aspect of Chinese American history.

“I call that an ‘act of photographic justice’ – using the power and influence of a photographic image to right the wrongs that have been committed.

“My project next year is to organize another flash mob for the 35th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s murder. It’ll be in front of Ronald Ebens’ house in Nevada. I want to let his neighbors know that, even though the guy’s not a convicted criminal, he still has a $8 million monetary debt for a life that he was responsible for.

“I attempt to educate and illuminate individuals, one image at a time, and to keep that history alive for the next generation, and generations thereafter.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sherina Ong

Photo credit: James Yee


Barbara Lee Shimoda
Country Director, Give Children A Choice
Vientiane, Laos

Chinese American

Barbara Lee Shimoda

Barbara Lee Shimoda

“If anything, the best thing I ever did for these children in Laos is that I made them look worthy in the eyes of their family. Here they have superstitions. They believe that once someone is disabled or hurt, they’re bad luck. No one should touch them, or come near them. Just leave them to die. But they’re innocent children. I’m thinking of one child and her name is Yer Vue.

“We were walking through a village, and I saw this little animal crawling around in the dark inside a hut. I looked in and had no idea what it was. It was so muddy. Then I brushed away what I thought was its fur, and there were these cute little twinkle eyes looking at me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what the heck?’ I asked the villagers, ‘Whose child is this?’ They said that the parents just leave her alone. I picked her up, and I think I was probably the first person to ever do that.

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“Everyone kept telling me, ‘Don’t touch her! She’s bad luck!’ I was really shocked and angry. She had cerebral palsy. Her legs were all twisted and she couldn’t walk. As a child, I didn’t have cerebral palsy, but I was horribly pigeon-toed and a bit spastic, so I felt like I really needed to champion her.

“My husband and I took her to the rehab center in town, fitted her with orthotics, and brought her to physical therapy sessions, put her on a regimen of eating well. I spoiled her a bit by buying her Barbie dolls, beautiful clothes and toys. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I wanted to send the message that this child is worthy of everything and anything. Her own mother would not even touch her. So I just hugged her even more and bathed her. There, underneath all the dirt, was this beautiful little girl. When I cleaned her up, I think her mom started to get jealous.

“Her father must have loved her very much secretly. When he saw that we were so into her, he jumped to the fray. We gave him money and he took her to rehab every day. Eventually, she started to walk.

“Two years ago we came back to get her fitted for new orthotics. Her mom came and she was totally different. She was a mom. She carried her daughter everywhere. She cleaned her, she hugged her, she kissed her, and she did everything for her daughter. As for me? I was so happy, I was over the moon.”

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Sherina Ong


Jon Melegrito, 72
Washington, D.C.

Filipino American

Jon Melegrito

Jon Melegrito

“My father was a U.S. Filipino World War II veteran. He fought in Bataan. He was in the death march. When he came to this country, he tried to apply for veterans benefits. He was always turned down, always rejected. That was because in 1946, the U.S. passed the Rescission Act, which denied Filipino veterans of their benefits. It was humiliating and painful treatment in exchange for their service. He would drive to the Veterans Affairs Administration and he would come back and say ‘I was rejected again.’

“After my father died 12 years ago, I vowed to become even more involved in fighting for our Filipino World War II veterans. It pains me to this day that I never got to hear his story. He didn’t want to talk about it. It was too painful.

“Today, Filipino veterans are the only minority group out of all the groups that fought in WWII that have not been recognized. Why is it that we are always left behind? Why is it that despite the loyal service of Filipino Americans, America still ignores our struggle and demand for recognition? This is what fires us up. Our Filipino veterans accomplished their mission with courage and great sacrifice. Now, the government must do the right thing and get them recognized once and for all.”

UPDATE: Due to the hard work of Jon Melegrito, (Ret.) Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, Filipino Veterans Education and Recognition Project (FilVetREP) and countless others, Congress approved the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II Veterans on Nov. 30, 2016.

NextDayBetter Storyteller: Ryan Letada

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