I grew up a proud Coloradan in two distinct communities that each had their own personalities: school was predominately White, suburban, and Christian whereas temple was mostly Japanese American and Buddhist. At temple, as Japanese Americans, I was surrounded by others who shared an understanding of my family’s history and culture. Being of Japanese American descent, I grew up intimately aware of the history of the Japanese in the United States. I grew up on stories about my industrious great grandparents making a living in a time when anti-Asian racism was rampant; I was immersed in tales of internment and the injustices inflicted upon an entire population; and I was taught to revere the “No-No Boys” and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as people who stood up to discrimination. Being immersed in the history and pride of the Japanese American community was what I knew and what I am infinitely proud to be a part of that legacy.
However, by growing up in two different communities, I learned quickly how to code switch and I had different ways of functioning depending on which community I was in. At school, I learned how to operate as and seek individual attention and development; at temple, it was easy to connect with others who shared a sense of place. Operating this way was neither good nor bad; it was simply my reality at that time.
When I got to college, I was now in a place where I could be exposed to new things outside of my two prior communities. I knew a few things that I wanted out of my college experience: political science major, study abroad, Japanese language minor. While my list of ‘must-dos’ were limited at the time, there was one thing that I was certain I did not want to do—join an Asian culture club. As I would later read about, my aversion to joining a group focused on Asian culture was not unique to me. Having grown up in an Asian community, it was common to want new experiences at the start of college. I would quickly come to learn that my college experience would not be so free of Asian culture as I originally thought.
During the first week of school, I attended the activities fair where I could be advertised to as I meandered throughout the throngs of my fellow lost first-years. I remembered a family friend tell me that I should check out the Asian Student Alliance, so out of courtesy, I found their table at the fair and learned a little more about what the organization was about. I learned that the Asian Student Alliance was not about Asian culture, but rather, sought to increase awareness of the social, political, and academic rights of Asian American students. Sure, this is not anything like Asian culture, but I still had no idea what this meant or if I even cared about that mission. Regardless, I did end up joining the Asian Student Alliance. To this day, I am unsure about what ultimately led to my decision to attend the first meeting—maybe it was the welcoming, yet slightly crazy, presence the officers gave me at their table or I was secretly looking for somebody that looked like me—but that decision to attend the first meeting of the year significantly impacted my trajectory.
By joining the Asian Student Alliance, I became aware of all sorts of the things I had previously not known. With the Asian Student Alliance, I tasted pho for the first time, learned about the murder of Vincent Chin, and gained a budding and continuously growing consciousness of a Pan-Asian identity, history, and movement. I gained a vocabulary to talk about my experiences and learned that others shared those experiences, even if they were not Japanese American. I became aware of why questions such as, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” had deeper ramifications than just blissful ignorance and misunderstanding.
I adopted a project to learn about the myth of the Model Minority and how it continues to plague the Asian American community and then sought to educate others who were unaware of how this myth impacted their lives. I gained an understanding of how my history and my family’s history fit into the context of the collective Asian American experience. I even wrote my honors thesis on the future of and potential of Asian American college student activism in Colorado. And perhaps most significantly, I met a strong cohort of friends and allies who were willing to fight right alongside me.
I like to think that one of my legacies from my time in the Asian Student Alliance is helping move the organization to a place where we could celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month every year. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It is a month to contemplate the triumphs and experiences of Asian Americans in the United States.
As a part of my journey, I formed an appreciation for the shared history of all Asian Americans, because I believe, as disparate and unique as we are, that when we all understand one another’s history, we gain context and place and may unite under the banner of Asian American. Our families may have different experiences, but my history is also your history—and I hope you feel that I may also benefit from the lessons of your family’s pasts. I am able to be whom I am today thanks to the perseverance of those that forged the railroads, raised the sugar plant, and survived unjust wars. I stand on the collective shoulders of Fred Korematsu and Grace Lee Boggs; on the shoulders of the visionary students of San Francisco State University, and of our laboring ancestors; on the shoulders of Vincent Chin and Danny Chen.
This May, let us continue to leverage our shared pasts and yield them as a tool to build a brighter future. As cliché as it may sound, I strongly believe that we are stronger united. We continue to strive for growth and recognition so that our posterity may live even better lives. We, as Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Korean Americans, Cambodian Americans, and so on, are collectively Asian Americans. Let us take this mantle and honor our pasts, be mindful of our present, and move forward together into a brighter future. Share your stories; listen and learn from others. Even when Asian Pacific American Heritage Month concludes, continue to celebrate and appreciate the journeys and the paths that have allowed you to be where you are. My path has been greatly enriched thanks to the stories of others, and keeping these stories alive will ensure growth of the Asian American community.
Craig Hirokawa, Guest Contributor