May is officially Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Many may know that February is Black History Month or that March is Women’s History Month, but way fewer people celebrate the other heritage months that happen throughout the year, including AAPI Heritage month.
AAPI Heritage Month, which was created by the approval of Public Law 102–450 by Congress in 1992, becomes even more complicated by the diversity of histories, cultures, languages, peoples and traditions that fall under the “AAPI” umbrella. According to Pew Research, over 20 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries, in East and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian subcontinent. So during this month, we don’t just honor Chinese heritage and Japanese heritage, but also the wide diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience- from Polynesian to Indian, from Hmong to Bangladeshi, from Laotian to Mongolian, from Mien to Melanesian, from Okinawan to Sri Lankan, from Bhutanese to Malaysian.
For me, celebrating AAPI Heritage Month is both a stretching and healing exercise.
Despite identifying as Korean American and living most of my life in areas with significant AAPI populations, I didn’t know that AAPI Heritage Month existed until recent years. Moreover, if you had asked me what some of the gifts of my heritage were when I was growing up, I would have given only superficial answers. Being “Korean” to me meant that my refrigerator smelled like kimchi, that I had a propensity towards drama, that my parents spoke with an accent, and that I was required to bow to my elders. And these traits were not honorable. They were things I felt I had to constantly hide or compensate for.
In the last decade, as I’ve grown in maturity and explored my sense of personal voice and identity, I’ve come to realize that to live into my Korean American identity is an act of resistance in this country, which was founded on white supremacy. And part of this resistance is to assert our dignity by making intentional space to remember our history, celebrate our cultures, and honor our ancestors and homelands.
So here are 5 reasons why I’m celebrating AAPI history month this year:
1. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to fight against assimilation and cultural erasure.
Phil May, The Mongolian Octopus
Choosing to celebrate all the richness and diversity of the Asian and Pacific diaspora is to affirm the beauty and inherent goodness of our cultures, in a country that has often degraded our traditions, viewed us as perilous and threatening, and forced us into patterns of assimilation.
To value our heritage is to say that Asian and Pacific Islander traditions are not merely “foreign” — that our foods are not “exotic,” our languages are not “harsh,” and that our traditions are not “perilous” or “immoral.” In doing so, we choose to de-center whiteness in our social reality and reimagine the value systems of majority culture by saying that eating balut or durian or biryani are to be celebrated and made as “normal” as eating pork chops and casseroles.
These acts say that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders exist as part of the life and heartbeat of this country. The whole of who we are should be valued and appreciated.
We may not be white, but we are here. And we matter.
2) I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to preserve cultural memory and (re)learn the stories of our peoples.
One of the most painful losses for people who both intentionally and unintentionally migrate to the U.S. is the loss of history.
Growing up and speaking a language that is different from our elders, as well as being a part of families that are forced to resettle due to crisis, war, and trauma often means losing precious history. Due to generational gaps, language barriers, material deprivation, and repressed memories, many in the AAPI community, myself included, have to do more work to preserve and proclaim our stories. Many of us don’t have official family trees, heirlooms, photo albums, or written stories. Many of us can’t communicate with those two or three generations back.
Moreover, our schools and broader society rarely teach AAPI history in any helpful or meaningful ways. I barely remember learning anything at all in my primary education about people who looked like me, minus maybe a lesson about Japanese internment. And the AAPI experience is still glaringly underrepresented in the arts and media.
So to uphold AAPI Heritage month is to carve out opportunities to both excavate and celebrate our histories. We fight for our right to remember. We say the names of our ancestors and honor their courage and sacrifice. We remember the stories of forerunners, like Wong Kim Ark, Queen Liliuokalani Mitsuye Endo, Min Yasui, Larry Itilong, Bhagat Sing Thind, Philip Vera Cruz, Fred Korematsu, Grace Lee Boggs, and Yuri Kochiyama. We remember AAPI members of the National Dollar Strike, Interment Dissenters, and World War II veterans. We remember the first Filipinos who came in the 16th and 17th centuries, and refugees coming today from Burma and Bhutan.
Choosing to reclaim the histories that have either been consciously or unconsciously silenced, is an act of resistance. We make our voices heard and our history known.
3) I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to move beyond the white/black binary and claim our place in the struggle for racial justice.
A month of celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage could easily become gimmicky- a time of eating Asian foods, putting on traditional clothing, or experiencing cultural art and music. Yet amidst these acts, I also choose to recognize the ways that the AAPI community has suffered under the weight of white supremacy and the Model Minority Myth, which diverts attention from our struggles for racial justice and equity in this country.
It has often been hard for me, as a Korean American woman, to find my place in racial conversations that have historically felt very black and white. It is easy to feel invisible, or to believe that my struggle is insignificant, or that I have nothing to contribute. And while it is true that much of the racism that the AAPI community has faced in this country is distinct from what the Native community, Black community, or Latinx community has faced, and that some in the AAPI community experience greater levels of privilege and wealth than other POC, I believe that choosing solidarity and shared suffering across communities is the only way we can dismantle the forces of white supremacy, which impact us all.
Image of the Chinese Massacre of 1871- Chinese American Museum
So as I celebrate AAPI history and heritage this month, I also choose to remember the experiences of forced labor, violent displacement, and human trafficking that our peoples have faced. I remember the experiences of racial terror, violence, and even lynching that Asian immigrants experienced. I remember governmental policies that tried to exclude our peoples from even entering into our borders, or policies that incarcerated our peoples en masse. I remember the ramifications of U.S. colonialism, militarism, and economic exploitation that affected many of our ancestors and ravaged our homelands with violence and environmental destruction. I remember discriminatory practices which affected our ability to buy homes, to have communities of worship, to sustain businesses, or even rise to leadership.
And I choose to remember that we are not alone in these experiences. We are not alone in the struggle for liberation.
4) I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to acknowledge the immense gifts and talents of our communities.
Growing up as an ethnic minority, and particularly as a Korean American in this country often meant feeling like I wasn’t enough- like a spotlight was constantly on my deficiencies. I wasn’t loud or assertive enough. My parents weren’t loving or affectionate enough. I didn’t understand puns or know pop culture references enough. I wasn’t confident or independent enough. I was constantly trying to blend in and fight for acceptance- to prove that I wasn’t a weirdo and that I belonged.
It hasn’t been until recent years that I’ve begun to notice and appreciate the powerful gifts of the AAPI community — that being Korean American isn’t just an identity that I “need healing from.” There is so much beauty and value in the gifts of the broader AAPI community- gifts that don’t always get honored by majority culture, but help sustain life, build community, and serve others.
So celebrating AAPI Heritage Month is not just about honoring the external gifts of food, language, and tradition. It is a way of commending our values and our beliefs, our ways of moving and being in this world, our patterns of relating. It is to celebrate the unspoken impulses and intuitions of our communities and affirm the less noticeable gifts- gifts of hospitality and loyalty, honor and generosity, collaboration and embodied leadership, listening and bridge-building, resilience and endurance, collectivism and sacrifice. It is to honor all of our creative expressions- of rhythm and melody, of prayers and poetry, of movement and strength, of wailing and travailing, the work of our bodies and our minds.
It is to celebrate the ways that we always make room at the table, and we always make sure that everyone has enough.
5) I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to acknowledge the unique contributions of the AAPI Church.
As a Christian in particular, I believe that celebrating this month is also a chance for me to remember the unique faith expressions and theological contributions that the AAPI community have brought to the broader Church.
Many of us, despite histories of colonization, harmful missionary practices, exclusion from white churches, or forced assimilation into white Christian institutions, have persisted and resisted, creating ways of understanding Jesus and practicing the Jesus Way that try to speak our heart language and lift us out of a Eurocentric Christianity.
So this month, I celebrate theologies of han and jeong, and the ways that they give words to experiences of my (Korean) soul that no Western theologian could. I celebrate readings of Scripture that give words to my own experience of marginality, liminality, placelessnes, and exile. I celebrate the spiritual rhythms and practices of dear friends, like my native Hawaiian faith family or my Malayali frends who are unveiling the work of the Holy Spirit in their history and their cultures. I celebrate communion performed with roti, prayers uttered in mother tongues, after-church fellowship over jook and sinigang, and worship songs played on the guzheng. I celebrate churches that were also language schools, immigrant welcome centers, social safety nets, and places of cultural refuge for those in new lands.
As I celebrate AAPI Heritage, I affirm that the American church, and even the Church universal, would not be the same if we were not a part of the Body. We are a blessing, not a burden.
Are you celebrating AAPI Heritage month? If so, what are you planning to do? What motivates your celebrations?