A Diaspora in Focus
East Asia

An exploration of the Asian American experience in Connecticut


Connecticut is home to more than 170,000 Asian residents. 

Asian Americans are the country’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group and are projected to be its largest immigrant group by 2055. Connecticut is among the first states in the nation to pass a law requiring public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, history, set to take effect in the 2025-2026 school year. 

In recognition of this landmark legislation, CT Mirror photojournalist Yehyun Kim launched a project to interview and photograph one Connecticut resident from each of the 21 Asian ethnicities as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

It would be impossible for any single project to capture the totality of the Asian American experience in the state. But, when woven together, the lives of the people represented here provide a glimpse into the richness and diversity of Connecticut’s Asian residents.

East Asia

In these stories, we highlight Connecticut residents with roots in East Asia, which includes China, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan.

In this series

South Asia

Southeast Asia

A Diaspora in Focus

As the state develops an Asian American history curriculum for public schools, the CT Mirror profiled and photographed residents as a way to learn more about Asia’s 21 ethnicities. In this story, we highlight residents from East Asia.
Click the red bubbles to view profile previews.


William Tong

Lives in: Stamford

Born in: Hartford, CT

Age: 50

Languages spoken: English, Mandarin, Cantonese

Works as: Connecticut Attorney General 

One thing Tong loves about living in Connecticut: “We’re called the land of steady habits, which I think is pretty accurate. And I like our steady habits,” said Tong, who explained that, for him, growing up in an immigrant household made him value the consistency that Connecticut offers. “We don't like surprises. We've had plenty of that in our lives.”

William Tong still gets asked about the chicken wings at his parents’ Chinese restaurant, even though it closed more than three decades ago.

“The Sampan had wonderful, delicious, old school Chinese restaurant chicken wings that are very different than the chicken wings you can buy today,” recalled Tong, who said he still cooks them every so often for fundraisers and community gatherings. “People from that time and era remember them fondly.”

Attorney General William Tong's mother, Nancy Tong, waves after William gave a celebration speech at Dunkin' Park in Hartford after his election in November 2022. "Because of this great state, our wonderful neighbors, our friends, our family, we've made a long trip from Park Street, a long trip from a hot Chinese restaurant kitchen to the attorney general's office," he said. "It is my honor as your attorney general to help make us stronger." Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Located in Wethersfield, the Sampan served as the foundation of Tong’s childhood. When they were young, he and his sisters spent their days playing in the parking lot outside, pushing each other around in shopping carts from the nearby A&P. As he grew older, Tong worked at the Sampan, doing everything from serving to cooking. 

“If you put me back in a Chinese restaurant, and you gave me just an hour or so to get reacclimated, I can probably cook most everything on a standard Chinese restaurant menu,” said Tong.

Children perform a Chinese dragon dance to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The Chinese dragon symbolizes wisdom, power, and wealth, and is believed to bring good luck. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Dr. Henry Lee, Taiwanese American forensic scientist, center in red clothes, and Attorney General William Tong take photos with a family celebrating the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, 2023. "You're gonna be an attorney general some day," Tong said to one of the children at the celebration. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Tong has fond memories of the restaurant now, but as a teenager, he resented it. Often, he’d peer through the diamond-shaped window in the door separating the kitchen from the dining room, keenly aware that he did not live in the same world as the people on the other side of it. He said those feelings of alienation and otherness stick with him to this day.

“I think that's what motivates me and compelled me to get into public service. So that people would recognize and see people like my family, acknowledge us, hear our voices — literally fight for a seat at the table,” he said.

Today, as Connecticut’s attorney general, Tong has found a seat at that table. But he’s also learned that racism can follow you anywhere, even into the halls of power. 

Attorney General William Tong, left, goes to hug state Rep. Bobby Sanchez of New Britain in front of a polling place at Casablanca Hall. Both were reelected in 2022. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

During his 2018 campaign, Tong was making calls to Democratic leaders and delegates asking for their support ahead of the party’s convention. As he moved through his list, he reached a woman who worked as an attorney and assumed that, based on her profile, her support would be all but guaranteed. 

But when he asked if he could count on her vote, the woman said that even though she was impressed by his track record, she wouldn’t vote for him. He just didn’t look like what she pictured an attorney general should look like. 

“I think I'm the highest ranking, most senior Chinese American elected state official in this country right now. And that's a pretty startling fact,” said Tong. “I think it has a lot to do with race. And what that woman said to me on the phone.”

-Katy Golvala

Attorney General William Tong, left, walks with his wife, Elizabeth Hotchkiss Tong, towards the stage to celebrate his reelection in 2022. Tong is the first Chinese American to be elected attorney general nationwide. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

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Sachiyo Langlois

Lives in: Marlborough

Born in: Kumamoto, Japan

Age: 49 

Languages spoken: English, Japanese

Works as: Founder and owner, Kooma Massage Therapy in Glastonbury

One thing Langlois loves about living in Connecticut: Riding a mountain bike with her husband. “When you ride a bicycle on the trail, you have to focus on things in front of you, right? To me, that's a very intuitive meditation.”

On the day Sachiyo Langlois turned 46, the realization that she had lived more than half of her life in the United States, not in her home country of Japan, hit her hard. She began to feel it was time to become an American citizen, instead of remaining a permanent resident, also known as a green card holder.   

Sachiyo Langlois puts a pin on Japan, where she is from, at a naturalization ceremony in Mystic on June 14, 2022. "Because I am Japanese or Asian, they like to give me Asian things," Langlois said of people in general. "No, no, no, I like American things," she said, laughing. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“​​I'm a business owner and pay tax, but I didn't get to vote,” Langlois said. “That was starting to bother me. I wanted to participate in democracy, which is falling.” 

The balance and discipline she learned practicing rhythmic gymnastics from childhood into her early 20s in Japan has allowed Langlois to run her own barefoot massage shop in Glastonbury for four years — a massage originating in Southeast Asia that she combined with Japanese and American massage elements.

Becoming an American citizen in June 2022 also meant giving up her Japanese citizenship, but she was certain about her choice. 

Langlois left her hometown, Kumamoto, when she was 15 for a boarding school elsewhere in Japan, and when she returned to the country as an adult after living in Connecticut, it felt different and crowded.

She felt more at home when she returned to Connecticut. “I not only love the country, but I love American people,” she said. “You can be who you are, and it's OK to be different. That's something that I think Japan did not have. We had to be in a certain frame or group.” 

-Yehyun Kim

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Dari Jigjidsuren

Lives in: Middletown

Born in: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Age: Declined to provide

Languages spoken: Mongolian, Russian, English

Works as: Assistant Director of International Student Engagement at Wesleyan University

One thing Jigjidsuren loves about living in Connecticut: Having lived in Mississippi before moving to Connecticut this year, she appreciates the diversity of Connecticut. “I feel like I'm in a better place, feeling like I belong to the state.” Walking on Main Street in Middletown, she finds a range of restaurants from Tibetan and Vietnamese to Ethiopian and Italian food. “Wow, there must be somebody from Tibet really, to open the Tibetan restaurant,” Jigjidsuren thought.

Dari Jigjidsuren’s Ph.D. program in social work started just two weeks after her third child was born. She would study while pushing the baby chair with her foot and go to school after dropping him off at a day care center. When her kids got sick, she would skip class to stay home with them and catch up later on her own. 

A teenage Jigjidsuren always imagined that she would follow in her father’s footsteps and go to college in a Soviet satellite state, such as Hungary or East Germany. Mongolia was a socialist country with close ties to the Soviet Union from the early 1920s to 1992, and the government exchange programs with other socialist countries allowed students to attend universities abroad for free. 

Dari Jigjidsuren, center, talks to Sheri Eklund, resident director at the ABC House in Simsbury, a nonprofit organization that provides a home for high school students of color. Jigjidsuren's son, Bryson Tsogt-Erdene, 17, right, joined the program with the goal of attending a reputable university. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“This is really, really important for Mongolia, that had not very well-developed educational system at that time,” Jigjidsuren said. Top-performing high school graduates would go to other countries for post-secondary education — like Cuba to study medicine or Hungary to study special education — but also for professional training, like sausage-making in Germany or shoe-making in the Czech Republic. Jigjidsuren’s father went to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic for a degree in electrical engineering.

However, by the time she graduated from high school in 1991, the socialist governments, and the exchange systems Mongolia had established with them, were falling apart. Now, if Jigjidsuren wanted to go to college abroad, she’d have to pay her own way. “We had this union, you see, and then it collapsed,” Jigjidsuren said. “Nobody owes anybody anything anymore. All the contracts are gone.”

Dari Jigjidsuren and her son, Bryson Tsogt-Erdene, 17, head to a library in Wethersfield. "I'm feeling like I belong here," Jigjidsuren said of Connecticut, which she recently moved to. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

In her childhood in the 1980s, Russian was the second language that Mongolian students learned in secondary education. “If you knew Russian, you had a window to the world,” she said. After going to a Soviet school in Darkhan along with children of specialists from socialist countries residing in Mongolia, Jigjidsuren dreamed of studying abroad. “I guess I wanted to see how far I can go,” she said. 

Jigjidsuren stayed in Mongolia, choosing to study English at the Institute of Foreign Languages, which is now the University of the Humanities, and then taught there for three years after graduating. Life was stable, but her yearning to study abroad remained. 

“This has really been my dream,” she said. “I really wanted to see the world.” 

After earning dual master’s degrees and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and working as a visiting professor at Mississippi State University, Jigjidsuren started a new position in May at Wesleyan University as an assistant director at the Office of International Student Affairs.

“I was myself an international student for so many years in the United States. It would be nice for me to help other students as I know more about the problems they must face and everything,” Jigjidsuren said.

-Yehyun Kim

Dari Jigjidsuren looks for books about knitting, one of her hobbies these days. She learned knitting when she was about 6 years old while she went to school with Russian children in Mongolia. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

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Jennifer Heikkila Díaz

Lives in: New Haven

Born in: Los Angeles, CA

Age: 45

Languages spoken: English, Korean, Spanish

Works as: Professional learning coordinator at Connecticut Council for the Social Studies

One thing Heikkila Díaz loves about living in Connecticut: Having grown up in the megacity of Los Angeles, Jennifer loves the connectivity and community feeling in New Haven. “Everyone is connected to each other in a way that you won't find in a big city. There are a lot of opportunities in New Haven for people to come together and do things together, whether it's for fun or for work.”

On the day of Jennifer Heikkila Díaz’s youngest child’s sixth birthday in May 2022, the family received a visit from Heikkila Díaz’s aunt and uncle, Choyeon Ock and Young Won Lee, who live in Orange.​

​This was the aunt who made seaweed soup, which many Koreans eat to celebrate their birthday, when Heikkila Díaz’s children — Gabriela, 7, and Magdalena, 10 — were born. This time, the aunt brought handmade crochet dolls for both children. As soon as they had some bibimbap, bulgogi, tonkatsu and sushi rolls in their New Haven backyard, Gabriela and Magdalena sat on the stairs with their books so they could read to their new dolls. One of the books Magdalena brought was "Eyes That Kiss in the Corners,” which she had recently read. The New York Times bestseller picture book features a Taiwanese girl who notices that her eyes look different from her friends’ big, round eyes with long lashes and, after some struggle, learns to love herself.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like. You should be proud of who you are,” Magdalena, 9, said of the lesson she took away from the book.

A portrait of Jennifer Heikkila Díaz, their aunt Choyeon Ock Lee, of Orange, and Diaz's children Magdalena Yoon-Jae Díaz, left, and Gabriela Mi-Ja Díaz in their back yard in New Haven. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Their mother stood nearby, smiling. “That's a book that I wish I had had when I was a kid,”  said Heikkila Díaz, who uses they/them pronouns. Their children reading these books was not a coincidence; Heikkila Díaz carefully selects bedtime books to ensure the children grow up seeing people who look similar to and different from them to teach them the world is multifaceted.

This message is also reflected in the children’s culturally significant names; their first names, Magdalena and Gabriela, reflect Heikkila Díaz's husband's Colombian background, while their middle names, Yoon-jae and Mi-ja, represent their Korean background. “So yes, racial identity is an important part of what we talk about and how we live as a family, starting from when they were born and what names we gave them,” Heikkila Díaz said.

Jennifer Heikkila Díaz, far left, and their family have a dinner to celebrate the sixth birthday of their child, Gabriela Mi-Ja Díaz, center. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Magdalena Yoon-Jae Diaz, then 9, picks up tonkatsu with a Pororo Kids Training Chopsticks. The chopsticks with a South Korean animation series are designed for children to practice using the utensils. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

This is in stark contrast to how both Heikkila Díaz and their husband, Michael Díaz, were named. Jennifer’s mom, who immigrated in the early 1970s from Korea with $20 in her pocket, selected one of the most popular names at the time, hoping that the American-sounding name would help them more easily assimilate into the mainstream culture. Michael’s Puerto Rican father and Colombian mother also gave him a “white” name, having experienced a lot of racism. They also decided not to teach him Spanish, fearing their son would not speak fluent English if they did — a decision many other immigrant parents have made.

“She wanted us to be culturally connected at home, but she did still struggle with this idea of the need to assimilate to be successful,” Heikkila Díaz said of their mom. “Be Korean at home, but when you leave home, don't necessarily emphasize that … I think a lot of people in her generation that I've gotten to know who are parents struggled with that.”

Heikkila Díaz welcomed the news that K-12 public schools in Connecticut will teach AAPI studies. But having been a teacher themselves for 12 years and in the education field their whole adult life, Heikkila Díaz knew that passing the bill was only the beginning of the journey. 

“Working on the curriculum in advance with involvement of teachers years ahead is the key to fulfill the ultimate goal of passing the law,” Heikkila Díaz said. “If there isn't a really clear plan for how it's going to roll out, then it's really, really hard on the teachers because you have to make this happen somehow magically.”

Jennifer, third from left sitting in the chairs, listens to a guest speaker sharing their culture and history at Breakthrough Magnet School South in Hartford on May 12, 2023. In AAPI heritage month, the school had a weekly class to teach students about the AAPI community and its history. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Jennifer Heikkila Díaz sits with students at Breakthrough Magnet School South as a volunteer to read aloud a picture book to a class about a Vietnamese family. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

As an activist-in-residence at the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at University of Connecticut, Heikkila Díaz has worked with about 40 public school teachers across Connecticut in the past two years to develop resources for AAPI studies in their classes.

Heikkila Díaz hopes this group of teachers in the program will provide an example of how the AAPI curriculum could be developed and how teachers can be supported by providing them with both curriculum resources and ongoing training.

“If you don't do that piece, and you just give people resources, then they're not getting the support that they need to really make those resources match and affirm the children in their classroom,” they said.

-Yehyun Kim

Young Won Lee, of Orange, says goodbye to Gabriela Mi-Ja D’az, then 6, as he leaves after a dinner to celebrate their birthday. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

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Catherine Shen

Lives in: Greater Hartford area

Born in: Los Angeles, CA

Age: 37

Languages spoken: English, Mandarin, Taiwanese

Works as: Host of Where We Live, Connecticut Public

One thing Shen loves about living in Connecticut: “I love the history. Someone wrote, ‘Being in Connecticut is as close as you can get to England, if that's your thing.’ And I read that when I was moving here. I took that as a sign!”

When Catherine Shen moved back to the U.S. after going to elementary and middle school in Taiwan for six years, her goal was to look and sound like everybody else. She stayed silent and hoped no one would notice she was from another country. Although she was surrounded by Taiwanese culture in her childhood and was emotionally drawn to it, she put those feelings aside as a teenager and focused on fitting in. 

“I think teenage Cat was worried that people would think, ‘Oh, she's Asian. So obviously, she's gonna love whatever the thing is,’” Shen said.

Catherine Shen hangs out at home, texting a friend, reading a book and practicing Mandarin handwriting. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

More than a decade later, you can find Shen carrying a water bottle around with stickers of her favorite Chinese actor and singers. She no longer feels like she has to hide her heritage. The change came as she began to reflect on her identity as an Asian American with the rise of attacks against Asian American and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic. 

“Jokingly, Asians don't think we're real Asians, and Americans don't think we're real Americans. So, who are we?” 

Catherine Shen writes song lyrics in Mandarin. She recently started writing her favorite songs to improve her handwriting in Mandarin, one of her first languages along with English.

She doesn’t have an answer to the question yet, but in the meantime, she has realized that it is OK to be herself and not feel the need to explain things. She started relearning Mandarin and relishing Chinese dramas and literature that she had previously avoided. 

“Ten years ago, you would never catch me with the things that you're catching me having today,” Shen said.  

-Yehyun Kim

Catherine Shen uses a mousepad with the face of Wang Yibo, a Chinese actor, dancer and singer that Shen loves. "This show last year called 'The Untamed' on Netflix completely took over my life, broke me, and my friend gave me like 100 stickers of this actor," Shen said. "Whatever you need for your soul." Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

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In these stories, we highlight Connecticut residents with roots in East Asia, which includes China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.

Part 2: South Asia, coming Monday.

Part 3: Southeast Asia, coming Tuesday.


Photography: Yehyun Kim.
Reporting: Yehyun Kim, with additional reporting by Katy Golvala.
Project management: Katy Golvala.
Web development: Stacey Peters.
Editing: Keila Torres Ocasio, Elizabeth Hamilton and Stephen Busemeyer.
Social media: Gabby DeBenedictis.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Connecticut was the first state to pass a law requiring public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history. Connecticut is among several states to pass this measure.

Yehyun joined CT Mirror in June 2020 as a photojournalist and a Report For America Corps Member. Her role at CT Mirror is to tell visual stories about the impact of public policy on individuals and communities in Connecticut. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Yehyun photographed community news in Victoria, Texas and was a photo and video intern at USA TODAY and at Acadia National Park in Maine. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Yehyun was born and raised in South Korea.

Katy Golvala is a member of our three-person investigative team. Originally from New Jersey, Katy earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Mathematics from Williams College and received a master’s degree in Business and Economic Journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in August 2021. Her work experience includes roles as a Business Analyst at A.T. Kearney, a Reporter and Researcher at Investment Wires, and a Reporter at Inframation, covering infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean.