Sunday, June 29, 2008

Assemblywoman's mission is to break the culture of silence

SACRAMENTO — The silence helped Mary Hayashi find her voice.

It trapped her older sister in a cage of depression, eventually ending in her suicide at 17. And it enveloped Hayashi's family afterward. Hayashi's parents burned her sister Bo Yoon's clothes and cut her image out of photographs. A funeral was never held, and her parents have quietly avoided the subject in the nearly 30 years since.

It led Hayashi, a first-term Democratic Assemblywoman from Castro Valley, to a long exploration of her South Korean roots and the Asian American culture of silence surrounding the taboo subject of mental illness — and a determination to confront that taboo straight on.

For 15 years now, Hayashi, 40, has been a vocal advocate on mental illness and women's health, having founded the National Asian Women's Health Organization and the Iris Alliance Fund, a nonprofit group targeting suicidal teens — and has also written a book — Far From Home: Shattering the Myth of the Model Minority — that details the path she took after her sister's suicide.

Still in her first term in the Assembly, Hayashi — the first Korean-American woman in the state's legislative history — is now one of the leading voices on mental health issues in the Capitol.

"When somebody takes the step to disclose a personal tragedy and to work to prevent others from having to go through it, I think that's special," Assembly Speaker Karen AdvertisementBass, D-Los Angeles said of Hayashi, whom she counts among a select group of confidants. "It's a very special attribute to be vocal about what you've gone through."

Bass went through her own tragedy last year, losing her only daughter and son-in-law in a car crash. The core of their friendship is based as much on a shared outlook on public policy as the common experience of losing a family member. It was Hayashi who spent this Mother's Day with Bass playing a round of golf and lunching together.

"I thought she shouldn't be alone on Mother's Day, so we spent a day together," said Hayashi, adding that the two agree that they both try to control their emotions in public when the topic of their losses come up, "but the fact that we seem OK doesn't mean we're not hurting."

Health issues — particularly mental illnesses — are a serious issue in most Asian-American communities, Hayashi says, because of the importance they place on concealing personal pain.

"Thinking back, there were clear signs," Hayashi said of her sister's suicide. "Now, I know that. But because in our culture, we were not encouraged to talk about personal problems, and since we didn't talk about health or mental health problems, it was hard to even recognize what was going on.

"Girls were encouraged to be quiet, and silence was viewed as strength in our culture," she added. "If our culture didn't place such an importance on keeping our problems to ourselves and not discussing our health problems, maybe she could have sought help."

Six months after her sister's suicide in 1980, her family moved to America, settling in Orange County — a jarring transition made all the more complex by her inability to speak a single word of English. Hayashi, who gave up her given name of Chung Mi Kyung to be called Mary Chung, didn't know anything more than the English alphabet, and sat quietly in the back of her classes when she first attended middle school, hoping she wouldn't be called on and relying on the ability to be invisible she'd learned back home.

Her confidence, though — never in short supply — burst through quickly enough as she gained a better grasp of the language, and she began to assert her sharp intellectual skills. This was the same girl, who at 5 on her father's live TV show, ordered a group of musicians to start over because she'd begun to sing too early.

She found she was so attracted to the free-wheeling American culture and all the freedom that it promised that she began to reject the stifling traditions of her own culture. That meant picking up a smoking habit at 16 (that she's since kicked), wearing makeup and false eyelashes that gave her "round eyes" and even dying her hair blond — which actually turned to a garish, reddish tinge.

Her parents were convinced America was ruining their children and decided to take the family back to South Korea. It was too late, though, to persuade Hayashi to return to what she viewed as the past. She stayed in California to continue studying at California State University, Long Beach — at her own expense, while her father paid for her brothers' schooling in Korea. She was gaining a sense of empowerment at school, thanks in part to a long reading list of feminist books that she devoured — Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and others.

Still, on a lengthy visit home in the mid 1980s, her parents tried one last time to bring her back into the cultural fold: she would have an arranged marriage with a wealthy young man whose main occupation was to play the Korean stock market in the mornings.

After befriending him, she reluctantly agreed to meet his mother at a traditional dinner. It was at the dinner that Hayashi finally broke with her parents' cultural demands.

The man's mother asked her if it was true that women drive cars. But, before Hayashi could respond, the son answered for her. She was expected to remain silent, even when directly asked a question. Hayashi let him have his say, but then spoke up on her own behalf, and that was the end of the idea of that marriage.

In fact, Hayashi wouldn't get married until 2003, when she was 35 — to Dennis Hayashi, an attorney whom she met while working as a bookkeeper at an Oakland-based Asian-American civil rights organization. He is now running for the Alameda County Superior Court.

She knew how her parents had agonized over her single life, still holding fast to the notion that women needed to be married young to men of means who could support them.

But Hayashi had long since proved her independence after plowing 10 years into her bachelor's degree at the University of San Francisco, and then obtaining her MBA at Golden Gate University. Her parents now acknowledge her successful career, Hayashi says, except "there's always this 'I guess you're going to be too busy to have children, right?' There's always a 'but she doesn't have any children.'"

"I was never encouraged to go into politics or government," Hayashi said. "I was encouraged to be a mother and to have children. That's what my parents very much encouraged me to do. Their definition of success is very different than mine."

As one of the key supporters to round up Assembly votes for Bass's campaign to become speaker, Hayashi is in the speaker's inner circle.

"She's central to my leadership team," said Bass, who rewarded her by making her chairwoman of the Assembly Business and Professions committee, which oversees consumer protection, occupational licensing, the creation or elimination of regulatory agencies and state procurement, among other issues.

She also serves on the Health, Budget and Revenue & Taxation committees, as well as the select committee on community colleges.

Early in her first term last year, legislation Hayashi had authored to create an office of suicide prevention was picked up by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who issued an executive order creating the office the day her bill, AB 509, was to be voted on for final concurrence in the Assembly. Now the office has six staff members running a statewide hotline for troubled youth.

"Hey, I'm a team player," she said with a smile. "My name doesn't have to be on it. As long as I was the catalyst and it got done, I'm thrilled."

Hayashi has her detractors, who say that she's used her position to bully those who don't support her or even her husband's Superior Court campaign, which now goes to a fall runoff with Phil Daly, San Leandro's deputy district attorney.

When asked to comment on Hayashi, Bill McCammon, the former Alameda County fire chief whom she defeated by 1,003 votes in the 2006 Democratic primary, said, "I have no respect for her. She's come after me several times after the elections."

He was referring to Hayashi's phone calls to members of the San Leandro and Hayward city councils, taken by some as an effort to pressure them to back off their support of the East Bay Regional Communications System that McCammon headed. The system, to streamline emergency communications, needed support of all cities within Alameda and Contra Costa counties to be eligible for federal funding. It has since been approved.

"It was awkward," said Michael Gregory, a member of the San Leandro City Council, of a call he received from Hayashi. "Of course she was putting pressure on me because she wanted a different outcome than it being passed."

Hayashi, who recently won another primary and is headed for a second term, said she was only following up on concerns local officials brought to her that taxes would have to be raised to support the program, which could cost between $60 million to $100 million.

"The idea I was doing something behind someone's back is ridiculous," she said. "I don't need to do that if I have a legitimate reason to inquire about a program. McCammon and his friends aren't going to be able to silence me just because he was my primary opponent."

Since breaking through a culture of silence that plagued her childhood, Mary Hayashi has made it a point to be heard.

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