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Observing Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

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Observing Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Dancers perform in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr.com

Mother’s Day. Memorial Day. Cinco de Mayo. The fifth month of the year may be known for these holidays, but it’s also home to Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. It marks a time for the public not only to reflect on the Asian-American experience but also to celebrate the contributions Asian Americans have made as well as the struggles they’ve overcome. Take the opportunity now to learn about the origins of APA Heritage Month and the variety of ways to commemorate it.

The Origins of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Today, the entire month of May is reserved to celebrate Asian-Pacific American heritage. Back in 1977, though, just 10 days were reserved in observation of the month. In June of that year, New York Congressman Frank Horton and California Congressman Norman Mineta introduced a bill calling for the president to declare the first third of May “Asian-Pacific Heritage Week.” In July 1977, senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga launched similar legislation in the Senate. After both bills passed, President Jimmy Carter designated early May as “Asian-Pacific Heritage Week.” It would take a dozen years before President George H.W. Bush expanded the week-long celebration into a month-long celebration of Asian-Pacific heritage. In 1992, all 31 days of May were officially designated Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

Why May?

It’s no coincidence that May is the month in which the U.S. government pays tribute to those of Asian-Pacific American heritage. May has played a key role in Asian-American history. For one, the first Americans of Japanese heritage immigrated to the U.S. on May 7, 1843. And 26 years later on May 10, Chinese laborers finished work on the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. So, what better time of year to honor those Americans of Asian ancestry?

Which Groups Does APA Heritage Month Honor?

To say that the ethnic groups encompassed by the term “Asian-Pacific American” aren’t monolithic would be an understatement. After all, the label includes everyone with ancestry on the Indian subcontinent to ancestry on any of the numerous Pacific Islands—Fiji, Guam, Samoa, etc.—not to mention those of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent. While celebrating APA Heritage Month, it’s important to distinguish between the wide range of ethnic groups recognized during the commemoration. Each of these ethnic groups has achieved different accomplishments and faces different challenges.

APA Heritage Month Celebrations

How does one celebrate APA Heritage Month? Many participate in cultural heritage festivals or simply dine at a sushi restaurant or order out for Chinese. But there are far more meaningful ways to observe APA heritage. For example, the Asian Nation website suggests visiting an Asian-American place of worship, talking to family elders about their experiences, reading books by Asian Americans or talking to Asian business-owners about the obstacles they’ve overcome. But that's not all. APA Heritage Month also provides an opportunity for Asian Americans to contemplate their connectedness to the Asian-American community and to identify ways to get involved in serving the community more. Don't know how large the Asian-American community is in your region? Use data from the U.S. Census to find out how big the APA community is where you live and the areas of town Asian Americans call home in large numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Los Angeles County houses the greatest number of Asian Americans at 1.4 million, while Santa Clara County, Calif., saw the largest gain in Asian Americans in the nation from 2008 to 2009 with 17,000 new residents of Asian ancestry. Meanwhile, Honolulu County Hawaii has the highest percentage of Asian Americans overall at 57%

Marking APA Progress

APA Heritage Month also marks a time to reflect on the barriers Asian Americans have transcended. In the late 19th century, for example, the federal government passed laws to limit the number of Chinese immigrants who could enter the United States. And during World War II, the government forced Japanese Americans to evacuate from their homes and enter internment camps for fear that they were "enemy aliens." How did members of the Asian-American community surmount these challenges? APA History Month is the time to find out.

While the Chinese Exclusion Acts and Japanese-American internment were historical challenges, the Asian-American community continues to face difficulties today. What are they? Despite their noteworthy achievements, some Asian-Pacific ethnic groups in the U.S. still face linguistic barriers and need greater access to healthcare and educational opportunities, President Barack Obama noted in his proclamation of May 2011 as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. For instance, just 4 percent of Pacific Islanders have a graduate degree or higher, compared to 10 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But in his proclamation, the president also highlighted the diverse successes of Asian Americans--be it in politics, academia, entertainment and more. He pointed out that members of the APA community are “thriving as athletes and public servants, entrepreneurs and artists. Whether as small business owners or as proud members of the United States Armed Forces, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are helping to write the next chapter of the American story.”

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