Airmen share their personal stories, experience during Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

  • Published
  • By Robert W. Mitchell
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs

As Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling celebrates the contributions and heritage of the Asian community during Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, two Airmen share their firsthand experiences of growing up with a strong work ethic, strong family values and a resilient drive to succeed.

Positive Influence

Growing up in the small Southern town of Oxford, Ala., U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Peter E. Mask, commander of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, learned the value of hard work and how to rise above adversity. He learned these values early on in life from his father and mother, both who came from two different cultural backgrounds – Southern American and South Korean.

"The biggest cultural influence on me is from my parents," Mask said. "They helped shape my work ethic from both sides of the house, my Southern culture and my Korean culture."

His parents, Ernest Mask, from Porterdale, Ga., and Lisa Chunsil, from Seoul, South Korea, met when his father was stationed in Korea while serving in the U.S. Army.

Mask’s father had a positive influence early in his childhood by being his provider and sharing stories about growing up very poor.

Although his life started out in stark poverty, Ernest Mask retired after 20 years of service in the Army and 22 years of service in the federal government. He earned an associate degree in economics along the way.

Mask’s mother was sold to another family to serve as a nanny and later became a business owner. For Mask, her experience exemplifies the spirit of resilience and rising above extreme adversity.

"Early on, I saw my mother as an example of perseverance," Mask said. "When she was a teenager, she was sold to a wealthy family in a neighboring village in Korea, but her dad found her and brought her home."

That experience did not keep his mother from pursuing the American dream later in life, Mask said. She took advantage of the opportunities available to her by opening a nut and candy store and a shaved ice business.

"She came to this country, not speaking English, and lived the American dream," Mask said. "She owned a business, it didn’t work out, but she kept trying. She got married, then divorced, then remarried my dad, she just kept going and didn’t complain. She didn’t ask for assistance. She just kept going on. Both of my parents had high expectations of me and sacrificed so much so I could grow up to be a successful adult."

Mask said his mother not only showed tremendous perseverance, but she also demonstrated how to be kind and warm to people by having a great sense of humor, a boldness to speak to anyone and treat everyone like family – a sentiment that continues to resonate with him. "I have to tell her to stop talking to strangers," Mask said with a laugh. "She’ll talk to anyone."

While Mask appreciates his mother’s outgoing nature, it has led to occasional awkward moments. 

"I have pictures of her climbing President [Barack] Obama like a jungle gym," Mask said with a laugh. "She embarrassed me in front of the president of the United States. I was a White House social aide at the time, and she went over there and said, ‘Oh, you’re President Obama,’ and started to grab his arm. The Secret Service guys and everyone in the whole room were laughing, and I was mortified."

The then-president was delighted and enjoyed a good laugh, Mask said.

Such good-natured hospitality and sincere appreciation for others are values found in both Southern American and Korean culture, according to Mask. Though he was raised in the Southern culture of his father and knew little about the Korean culture of his mother, he wanted to learn more about his Asian roots.

"I don’t think I was even aware of the need to reconnect with my heritage until after college because of the environment I was in," Mask said. "I was raised in Southern culture, so in my mind, I was a normal, Southern-raised American. As I got older, I started to realize that I needed to reconnect with my own culture because one day I would need to reconnect with my loved ones over in Korea."

Mask has since joined an Asian American Pacific Islander Native Hawaiian group on social media and the Department of the Air Force’s Pacific Islander and Asian American Community Team to identify ways to reconnect with others with similar cultures and backgrounds offering to mentor and connect with others.

Throughout his military career, Mask acquired multiple Air Force Specialty Codes. He served in space and missile acquisitions, flight commander in the USAF Honor Guard, taught as an Air Force Officer Training School instructor, an aide-de-camp for the President and Commander of Air University, was a White House Social Aide, a logistics readiness officer, a staff officer and a force support officer prior to his current role as the commander of the USAF Honor Guard.

As the commander for the USAF Honor Guard, Mask is charged with ensuring his organization delivers premier ceremonial honors, inspires the nation and represents all Airmen and Guardians worldwide. His advice for the young Airmen and Guardians on his team — work hard and choose to be positive. He said people cannot control the circumstances of everything around them, but they can choose how they respond.

"The biggest thing I am really passionate about passing on to any of the young Airmen or anyone is the power of positivity," Mask said. "Anyone can focus on being negative, focusing on positive outcomes rather than the negative outcomes is the real challenge. Growth only comes through challenging ourselves and striving to be comfortable being uncomfortable."

Coming to America

Growing up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, JBAB Public Affairs Specialist Airman 1st Class Geneva Nguyen witnessed firsthand the value and benefit of having a strong work ethic at the hands of two hardworking parents who worked overtime to provide for their family.

"Every parent wants to put their kids in the best schools, so it’s very common to see parents working overtime or taking on extra jobs to pay for school tuition," Nguyen said. "My parents worked over 60 hours per week for my brother and me to attend private boarding school where we were in school from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m."

When Nguyen was not in school working on her academics, she took part in a cherished tradition in Vietnamese culture – carefully selecting meal ingredients.

"Whenever I’m not at school, I’d go with either my grandma or nanny to the market early in the morning to pick out groceries for the day," Nguyen said. "Then, they would prepare lunch and dinner from what we picked out that day. Lunchtime is usually an hour or longer and dinners are even longer as it is the time for us to catch up with each other."

Traditional Vietnamese food consists of rice, vegetables, seafood and very little use of meat products, according to Nguyen. Dishes are typically steamed, boiled or broiled, and rarely is anything ever deep-fried.

At age 13, Nguyen and her family emigrated to the U.S., where she started school in the seventh grade. She was placed in an English-as-a-Second-Language class with other immigrant children where she struggled with learning a new language and being taunted by other students.

"I was bullied a lot for my accent and heard the typical, ‘Go back to your country,’ by other kids my age," Nguyen said. "But eventually, I met the right people (friends, teachers and mentors) who helped me adapt to American culture. By the ninth grade, I was able to understand more English and eventually got put in all honors classes."

Nguyen was initially disheartened by the challenges she faced in coming to America. Later, she fully embraced the transition and saw the experiences as a blessing.

"I was learning new things about the culture every day, so it became natural to learn new things," Nguyen said. "It made me a lifelong learner, always open to learning."

Nguyen appreciates the opportunities available in the U.S. Joining the Air Force was one way to show her gratitude to her country for the chance to live a life that would have been unattainable in Vietnam.

"As an Asian-American person in the military, I have the responsibility to transcend the stereotype by enriching my surroundings by sharing my cultural traditions and cuisines while still embracing the American culture," Nguyen said. "I find that having grown up in two different countries with different traditions, I am able to contribute to the team by bringing in different perspectives and in turn creating a well-rounded environment for everyone involved."