A piece originally published on Down Like JTown, republished on Project Ava with permission of the author.
What Even Is An “Asian American” And Why Do We Have Our Own Month And I Just Have So Many Questions
It’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and I’m going to be real for a minute. I’ve had a hard time figuring out what this month is, even.
Originally founded in May 1979 (the first Japanese immigrants showed up in May 1843 and the largely Chinese labor-built Transcontinental Railway was completed in May 1869), Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month has become an annual opportunity for folks to reflect on our history in this country. There are festivals nationally. PBS airs Asian American documentaries sometimes. McDonalds started an Asian-themed website called “MyInspirAsian.” My last employer sent out company-wide fun facts about Bruce Lee. Those kinds of things.
It seems almost corny when taken in whole. It could be meaningful, yes, but in 2016 I don’t know if we’re all on the same page when we talk about being Asian American/Pacific Islander, let alone Asian American by itself. So how can we occupy a whole month?
The phrase “Asian American” was originally coined by UCLA professor Yuji Ichioka in the late 60’s as a way to promote coalition building amongst folks across Asian and Pacific Islander communities in America. It already was complicated then, but today that label represents communities originating in around 50 countries with even deeper divides across ethnic, religious, class, and geographic distinction. My story as a fourth generation Japanese American from Millburn, New Jersey is incredibly different from the story of even a second generation Japanese American from Palo Alto, California, let alone folks whose families represent completely different political histories.
Many of us welcome the label “Asian American” with open arms, wear it on our chests like a badge of pride. Many of us have learned to distance ourselves from it, whether as a survival tactic or because we found greater reward the further we stepped away. Many of us were never given a choice in the matter — our parents looked around themselves in this country that has been and will continue to be brutal to people of color and made a decision as to whether their kids would fight, assimilate, or forge their own path.
So with such disarray, we could take that to mean the term “Asian American” is irrelevant or, at worst, dangerous.
But I’m personally not ready to give up so soon.
Over the years I’ve thought about this month and the term “Asian American.” Can we really think of “Asian American” as an overarching label? Who gets to be the face of this community? Who’s history gets to be THE history?
How can we find common ground when we, all of us within this checkbox, have different relationships with the word “Asian?”
In the end, during APIAHM 2016 and beyond, I wonder if we can think of “Asian American” as something other than a label. Instead, I wonder if we can think of “Asian American” as a conversation. There are inherently questions within when we identify as part of a greater Asian American community — those questions make the ever-evolving conversations that have defined our fluid community since we first set foot here over a century and a half ago. I am an Asian American with an Asian American story, but it does not necessarily follow the same beats as another Asian American’s story, even on a macro-level. In that way, our shared identifier is a facilitation tool for a sustained conversation that exists to prompt greater understanding of the world at large.
Rather than subscribing to notions of a mythical, homogeneous “Asian identity,” I hope we can come to a place where we build individual identities that are understood to be part of the larger, ever-changing conversation that is Asian America. In the end this community is not about power in single ideology. It is about strength in numbers, diversity, and a collective willingness for change.
Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month can take whatever form it needs to. It can be festivals and TV specials and Bruce Lee marathons. For me it’s a month-long reminder that no one has the ultimate understanding of who we are or why we’re in the same boat. We are a conversation of 20 million people.
A conversation of that complexity comes with work, education, and patience…but in the end I think that’s the beauty of it. If we can keep ourselves in it we can keep ourselves moving forward.
Happy AAPI Heritage Month.