Seven years ago this month, To-Wen Tseng’s breastfeeding discrimination lawsuit was settled. Tseng, a former journalist for the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, was discriminated against after requesting a private space to pump her milk.
The newspaper ran a piece called “Breastfeeding photos embarrass Chinese-American to death,” which cited anonymous resources, labeled breastfeeding photos as R-rated and described breastfeeding images as “disturbing” and “disgusting,” as Tseng describes in one of her pieces for the San Diego Breastfeeding Coalition.
Since enduring this discrimination, Tseng has become a champion for breastfeeding people, working to normalize breastfeeding especially in the Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities.
Tseng has moved on to dedicate her career to speaking up about breastfeeding barriers in her community. Tseng was selected for HealthConnect One’s Birth Equity Leadership Academy, is the co-founder of the Asian Pacific Islander Breastfeeding Task Force of Southern California and 2019 recipient of United States Breastfeeding Committee’s (USBC) Emerging Leader Award. Tseng collaborates with the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of SoCal, BreastfeedLA, and PHFE WIC.
Tseng’s advocacy work started while working with a small, hyper-local group, but has expanded to a national scale. This week, as part of National Breastfeeding Month 2021, we celebrate Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Week: “Reclaiming Our Tradition”.
“It’s very exciting for all of us,” Tseng begins. “It’s amazing to see what we have gone through starting with this little task force of ten of us. We had this big idea that we wanted to promote equity in our community… but we were able to make it a national event. We are really thrilled.”
Tseng’s town of Los Angeles is home to the largest Asian American population in the U.S. with over half a million Asian Americans and 7,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders residing in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
She points out that almost half of Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley have limited English proficiency, yet less than six percent of lactation professionals in Los Angeles County speak an Asian language.
When language is a barrier, Tseng explains, pregnant and lactating people resort to searching for information online most often from ethic media. Imagine as a new parent happening upon the World Journal article shaming breastfeeding.
“We are hoping to … create a voice for mothers and [show] there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is no stigma,” Tseng says.
What’s more, as an Asian immigrants, assimilation often equates to survival here in America, and with that often comes formula feeding, she continues.
While AANHPI breastfeeding rates are among the highest in the nation, Tseng clarifies that there is great diversity within this lumped-together ethnic group and that looking at the data alone can be terribly misleading.
First, she says, many Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities are missing in the data.
In Los Angeles specifically, where most API families are first generation immigrants, they suffer from the lowest in-hospital breastfeeding rates– 52.9 percent of Asian families breastfeed in the hospital while 79.5 percent of white parents are breastfeeding in the hospital, she shares.
In a USBC blog, Tseng also points out that Asian American women have been shown to introduce foods other than mother’s milk to their infants earlier than any other ethnic group.
The post goes on to explain that “Lack of appropriate language and culturally humble lactation support, as well as aggressive infant formula marketing, are the two biggest barriers to breastfeeding in AANHPI communities. According to a 2020 WHO report, the incessant promotion of breastmilk substitutes is especially harmful to Pacific Islander families….
AANHPI breastfeeding families are also one of the most underserved groups in the United States. Nationwide, there are only four cultural breastfeeding coalitions currently serving API communities: (1) API Breastfeeding Task Force of Southern California, (2) ASAP! of North California, (3) Hawaii Indigenous Breastfeeding Collaborative, and (4) Hmong Breastfeeding Coalition of Minnesota.” Tseng says it is her and her colleagues’ goal to connect with these organizations in hopes to amplify their voices.
In the meantime, Tseng and her colleagues are excited about BreastfeedLA’s new Baby Cafe at the Dede Diner. The support group not only offers assistance to families, but provides experience for the next generation of lactation care providers (LCPs). BreastfeedLA provides an API scholarship for a comprehensive lactation consultant education program in order to increase the number of culturally competent LCPs in their area.
The API Breastfeeding Task Force has also recently collaborated with PHEF WIC launching the “I Breastfeed” video campaign coordinated by Wendy Fung. The API Breastfeeding Photo Project is another new initiative. Tseng says that the release of these photos gives her the “joy of revenge”, showing that breastfeeding is indeed not “disturbing” and “disgusting” as once described, rather beautiful as she and so many others see it.