Celebrating Asian/Pacific American Culture

By Timothy Losbog

Photo Credit: Carol Highsmith

America’s history is a marveling subject. Of course, the history of any country can be a fascinating and complex subject. But American history stands out for the country’s history of being a center for immigration — for the countless people and cultures that made their move to the United States and gave the country a sense of being a “melting-pot.” It’s thanks to generations of immigrants, living through harsh struggles of many kinds, that America has and continues to evolve.

Naturally, it follows to pay tribute to the diverse groups that have shaped American history, society, and culture. The U.S. acknowledges their contributions and struggles through many holidays and Heritage Month celebrations. February, for example is National African American History Month; March is National Women’s History Month, as well as Irish-American Heritage Month.

May, just around the corner, celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage. The entire month of May pays tribute to the struggles and contributions of generations of Asian/Pacific Americans.

Brief History

The first call to recognize Asian/Pacific Americans began in 1977. Representative Frank Horton of New York introduced to the House of Representatives House Joint Resolution 540, which moved to proclaim the first ten days of May “Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week.” In the same year, Hawaiian State Senator, Daniel Inouye, proposed Senate Joint Resolution 72, which authorized the president to annually proclaim a week during the first 10 days of May as “Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week.”

Unfortunately, neither resolutions passed. After amending the language of the bill to instead direct the president to issue a proclamation for a 7-day period beginning on May 4 as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week,” Horton proposed House Joint Resolution 1007. It was passed by both Houses and was signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. The following decade, presidents made annual proclamations acknowledging Asian/Pacific American Heritage week until 1990. In that year, Congress passed a law which expanded Asian/Pacific American Heritage observance to a full month for 1990. In 1992, this arrangement was made permanent.

Why May?

The decision that May specifically be chosen for Asian/Pacific American Heritage observance was not random. Just as February was chosen for African-American History Month because it was the month Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, May was chosen for its significance to the Asian/Pacific representation: May commemorates the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States (May 8, 1843) and marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869), for which the majority of workers were of Chinese descent. As such, the U.S. celebrates these historic events and more, broadening to include the different groups in Micronesia and Polynesia.

History needs Acknowledgement

Of course, Asian presence in the U.S. predates the first Japanese immigration to the country. And while we celebrate and admire the construction of the transcontinental railroad, an incredible American feat, we must also recognize that the workers faced harsh treatment at the hands of their employers.

Belittlement, disrespect, discrimination — history shows us time and time again that these groups, in spite of their contributions, their achievements were largely unsung, their culture was condemned, and they were dismissed throughout history. In this age, however, we’re making strides in recognizing the culture and achievements of Asian-Americans and Pacific-Americans.

Different groups celebrate the month in a variety of ways. The Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, D.C. hosts an annual gala. San Diego holds an Asian Cultural Festival. Universities across the nation host a variety of events along with different Asian/Pacific community and college groups. Now, more than ever, we are celebrating the diverse cultures that decorate the U.S, as well as acknowledging the struggles that mark the harsh times in U.S. history.

We’re not Alone

It’s important to note that Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month shares the month of May with Jewish American Heritage Month. That is not to say that we must prioritize our celebrations or show favoritism in our acknowledgements. The struggles of the many minorities throughout American history are in some ways similar and different in other ways. This gives us room to recognize distinct struggles and achievements, but we cannot allow ourselves to make it a competition of the bigger victim.

We are united in our struggles, and to ignore these struggles does no justice to anyone. It may perhaps be best, then, to change America’s status as a “melting pot.” A melting pot suggests all of our cultures came together and melted and became one. While not untrue, it does a great disservice. It’s more accurate to call America a kaleidoscope or mosaic, with the many distinct cultures and ethnic groups coming together to form a greater whole. As May and Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month approach, let us not forget the unity that can come from celebrating diversity.