‘Riding Up Front’ Drives Home The Immigrant Experience Through Art

By Poornima Apte

A person she respected once told Wei-En Tan that she did not have enough emotional intelligence. Although it stung, she might not have given the comment much thought if her grandmother hadn’t passed away shortly after. Tan, a native of Singapore, admitted that she had not known her grandmother well. “I never really found out what her story was,” she said.

As a busy finance professional, her travel schedule forced her to hail rides wherever she went. Tan soon made it a mission to ride up front to talk to her drivers and strike a connection. The results floored her. “I have learned a lot and met the most interesting people in the process,” she said.

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A portrait of Wei-En Tan, used by permission from “Riding Up Front.”

Over time, Tan started documenting the stories on a personal blog. One of her friends suggested she get them illustrated, which she did. “Riding Up Front” was officially up and running. Then the 2016 presidential election happened, and things accelerated. Taken aback by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate that preceded the election and stunned by the Muslim ban that was declared shortly after President Trump took office, Tan realized she had to do something more. “Riding Up Front” was the perfect vehicle to channel her voice — and that of thousands of others who felt powerless in the wake of crippling hatred. Today, the nonprofit “Riding Up Front,” run by a team of twelve, receives a steady stream of submissions and shines a light on the immigrant perspective.

Each story on “Riding Up Front” narrates a rider’s interactions with his or her driver. Since one of the missions of “Riding Up Front” is to promote awareness of immigrant and refugee rights, submissions must have an immigrant tilt to them. Story writers are not compensated for their work, and a roster of volunteer artists illustrates each submission. Artists get to pick from a set of stories they would like to work on and are reimbursed for the purchase of art materials from Tan and her team.

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by Paula Vrinceanu for “Riding Up Front.”

The public can donate to the blog which is used to maintain the site; and money left over is channeled to the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and the International Rescue Committee.

Does Tan worry that the people who access the blog might already be open to its message, a case of preaching to the choir as it were? She does see that to be a problem but judging from the thousands of times they have been trolled, Tan is quite sure their message is reaching far and wide. The team doesn’t engage with virulent commenters but if somebody is looking to strike a meaningful dialogue, they’re certainly game.

One of the other mission statements of “Riding Up Front” is to create a community through stories and artwork. Here too they have succeeded, Tan said. She still remembers returning home to San Diego after a daylong work trip to San Francisco and complaining about a long, taxing trip. Tired and miserable, she got picked up from the airport by a Jamaican woman who was full of spirit. The driver, who had awoken at 3:00 a.m. that morning, had worked in the military and held down a side job.

By Alexandra Burda for “Riding Up Front.”

“She has a daughter and goes back to cook every day because she doesn’t trust her husband’s cooking. And she would return and drive and then go back to sleep at 1:00 a.m. And she was so full of positive energy that I just felt kind of ashamed complaining about my job,” Tan said. “That attitude of hers — to look at life so much more positively and to be happy about the things you can’t control, it really hit me.”

“Immigrants are humans, we all have the same struggles and we share the same joys,” Tan said. And “Riding Up Front” is eager to drive that message home far and wide.


Poornima Apte is an award-winning freelance writer and editor. Learn more at wordcumulus.com.

Cover art by Iris Hopp for “Riding Up Front.”

Copyright © 500 Pens. December 2017.