Art blog shares stories of immigrants

Wei-En Tan is on a mission to get Americans to empathize with their immigrant neighbors through an art blog that tells the stories of drivers she meets on Uber, Lyft or taxi rides.

The 37-year-old San Diegan started the blog, called Riding Up Front, as a personal exercise to better connect to people. Now she’s repurposed it to help alleviate the fear that she believes many feel toward immigrants in today’s political climate.

“I know the stories I’ve heard on a ride somewhere have changed me,” Tan said. “If I could change the mind of one person, I think that would be a win for me.”

One story on the blog tells of a Jamaican woman who is in the Marine Corps in San Diego and drives for Lyft as a side job.

The woman, given the pseudonym Aurora in the story, tells Tan that she only sleeps about four hours a night and cooks for her husband and 3-year-old daughter in addition to working the two jobs.

Aurora says she’s going to teach her daughter how to work hard and save money.

“Most of all, I’m gonna teach my girl how to love. And love hard,” Aurora says to Tan.

“She was one of the most determined people I knew,” Tan said. “The biggest lesson I took from her was to try and be as positive as possible. She was doing a lot more than me, and there I was complaining about how exhausted I was from sitting around in an office talking.”

Tan, who lives in University Heights, travels a lot for her work as vice president of MACH Energy, a San Francisco-based company that helps large buildings manage their energy usage. That means she often uses the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, she said.

When she tasked herself with learning to better relate to other people emotionally, she said, those driving her around were the first people she connected to. She started sitting in the passenger seat next to her drivers and trying to engage with them in conversations.

Their stories stuck with her so much that she began to share them on a private blog with her friends.

Tan said she has never considered herself an activist, but after Donald Trump became president she said she felt she needed to take action against what she saw as a growing hostility toward immigrants.

She realized many of the stories on her private blog were about immigrants, and she decided to use the platform to try to change negative perceptions of immigrants.

Tan came to the U.S. as a student about 20 years ago from Singapore and became a U.S. citizen about two years ago.

She is a certified commercial pilot and flight instructor for planes and helicopters. She’s taught a lot of Americans how to fly, she said with pride.

Her flying experience helped her connect with the driver in one of her favorite stories. Her blog calls him Siraj.

Siraj, who drives Tan around Denver, tells her that he has always wanted to fly. His family has told him when he was a kid that it would be impossible, that “white guys wouldn’t let him fly,” the story says.

He tells Tan knowing that she has learned to fly inspires him.

“If you can do it, why not me?” he says.

Tan encourages him and helps him find an airport near his house where he can learn.

She said she doesn’t know what happened to him, but the memory of their connection stays with her.

Tan has now turned the Riding Up Front Art Blog into a nonprofit. Its website offers a way for people to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, International Rescue Committee and American Immigration Council.

Those helping Tan with producing and maintaining the blog are all volunteers. Artists illustrated the stories for free.

“It’s been really heartening to have people’s support in this and know that I’m not crazy in thinking that I’m bringing some worth to society,” Tan said.

Tan said she’s been yelled at on the street twice, once about three years ago and once since the election, for not looking “American.” They told her to “go back home to China,” she said.

“I’m not even a citizen of China. I was never a citizen of China,” Tan said. “There’s so much hatred and so much ignorance that unless you belong to a certain stereotype of what American is supposed to be then you can’t be, and I don’t like this.

“Many of the immigrants I know and many of the refugees I know are very productive, very admirable people and are just as American as somebody who owns a white-picket fence house in Tennessee,” Tan added.

She said she hopes the stories in her blog help those who haven’t encountered immigrants in their daily lives understand that immigrants are people with the same goals and values as anyone else.

“We’re not here to bomb you. We’re not terrorists,” Tan said. “We’re not here to take your jobs away.”

Tan believes in small acts to make bigger changes, she said. She calls Riding Up Front her small act., @bgirledukate