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Asian Pacific Heritage Month - What Does It Mean to You?


You may already know that May is national Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), but do you know why it’s in May and how it came to be established?  Are you curious about getting involved in some APAHM activities beyond the usual cultural festivals and street fairs?  Then read on to explore this important thread in the rich tapestry of American culture.

On the heels of the official designation of February as Black History Month in 1976, a group of political leaders got together the following year and introduced resolutions in Congress to declare an Asian Pacific Heritage Week.  The bills passed and were signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter.  The politicians who wrote the bills were Senators Daniel Inouye (D – Hawaii, still in office) and Spark Matsunaga (D – Hawaii), along with Representatives Norman Mineta (D – California) and Frank Horton (R – New York).  Representative Horton, a white male born and raised in the southern United States, showed with his participation that this issue had bipartisan appeal reaching beyond the Asian west coast community. 

The first ten days of May were chosen as APHW because that was when the transcontinental railroad, built largely by Chinese laborers, was completed in 1869.  In addition, Japanese immigrants were first documented to have arrived in the United States during this week in 1843. Although not an official reason, it’s also significant that on May 3 1942, Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 was signed, ordering all people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizens or not, who were still living on the Pacific coast to report to assembly centers, where they were held until being moved to "relocation centers." APHW was expanded by Congress and President George H.W. Bush to include the entire month of May in 1990.  Thus Asians proudly joined the other major ethnic groups of America, including Native Americans and Hispanics, in celebrating the history, culture and achievements of their people.

APAHM is an opportunity to remember how Asians and Pacific Islanders were involved in some of the major events, both positive and negative, which have shaped American history.  Government entities from the Library of Congress to the National Park Service and the Smithsonian museums provide educational programs and exhibits on these topics.  They include information about the World War II Japanese-American internment camps and relocations, Hawaii’s annexation, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and large-scale influxes of Asians, such as adoption of Korean children and major immigration waves like that of the Gold Mountain Travelers from China.  In addition, there are many exhibits and programs featuring the rich cultural contributions that Asians have brought to the U.S., from food and music to art, film, religion, and more.  There’s a wealth educational material available to teachers as well as anyone wishing to learn or share more about these topics, downloadable free of charge at Asian Pacific Heritage.Gov.

Everyone enjoys attending the many festivals put on by Asian and Pacific Islander groups across the country and in Canada, where crowds can sample ethnic foods, watch dragon boat races, listen to taiko drumming and other musical forms, and celebrate the fun aspects of Asian culture.  These events are a great introductory way to get friends interested in the various aspects of Asian life, but they can be superficial and even somewhat stereotypical in their focus. If you’re looking for something a bit different, or to get involved on a deeper level, consider the following activities. 

Beyond the famous Chinatown of San Francisco lies Walnut Grove, the town of Locke, and Angel Island.  Walnut Grove and Locke were both major settlement areas for Chinese and Japanese immigrant agricultural workers, once they cleared the hurdle of the Angel Island immigration station, and many of the historic buildings and signs in their original languages have been preserved.  Angel Island is now a picturesque state park and museum, but it has a dark history of detaining immigrants, sometimes for years, before releasing them into the U.S.  One unique way for Asians to commemorate APAHM is to submit your family’s own immigration story for consideration of publication on the official Angel Island website.  In the process, opportunities may arise to engage extended family members in discussion about life in the old country and the struggles that they overcame to make it to America.  There are many other such destinations to visit, which are off the beaten path but steeped in Asian or Pacific Islander history.

A unique way to connect with and benefit the community during APAHM is to investigate and raise awareness about some of the unique health issues facing Asians, especially in Western countries.  For example, did you know that APAs account for over half of the cases of Hepatitis B in the U.S.?  Nearly one in ten APAs has Hepatitis B.  Without intervention, this disease can progress to liver cancer and fatal liver failure.  However, Hepatitis B is easily diagnosed by a blood test and vaccination is available.  Throughout May 2011, Nordstrom department stores offered donations to the
HepB Free campaign for everyone who participated in a quick questionnaire about Hepatitis B on their website. There are many other organizations nationwide working to increase awareness of Hepatitis B in the APA community.

Another major health concern for Asians in the west is the severe lack of genetically compatible bone marrow donors, for patients needing transplants due to leukemia or other blood disorders.  In fact, recipients usually must be matched with donors from their own specific ethnicity, such as Korean or Thai.  This makes it crucial for Asians of all backgrounds to join the national bone marrow registry, a painless process involving a cheek swab and some paperwork.  If selected as a match, most participants can then donate just by having blood drawn.  For more information, see the Asian American Donor Program. Spreading the word about these important health issues and participating in action campaigns is a unique and effective way to honor Asian heritage while making a real difference in the community.

Struggles ranging from simply being a minority population and facing subtle discrimination to anti-Asian legislation and outright imprisonment have plagued Asians trying to pursue better opportunities in America.  Yet in spite of all of this, Asians have become some of the most successful minorities in their adopted homeland, with higher than average education levels, household incomes, and business ownership rates.  The traditions and cultural influences they brought with them have greatly enriched the lives of westerners by opening their eyes to different viewpoints and experiences.  While we should acknowledge these things all year long, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is the perfect reminder to honor past history and achievements, step up to help with the remaining challenges for the community, and generally celebrate all things Asian.

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