By Connie So
For Northwest Asian Weekly
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010), Asian Americans are persons “originating in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.” Meanwhile, Pacific Islander Americans are natives of “Hawaii and other Pacific Islands,” comprised of the Oceanic regions of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia.
While these definitions are an improvement over the pre-1970s Eurocentric concept of the “Oriental,” they still neglect to recognize the many differences between, and within, the Asian and Pacific Islander groups in terms of history, culture, generation, language, values, and other demographic factors.
These differences cannot be ignored because they have significant implications for programs impacting education, employment, and politics, including bilingual ballots, affirmative action, and immigration, to name a few.
Yet despite our diversity, for the month of May, officially celebrated as Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month, we can take time to reflect and acknowledge some of our shared issues in the United States.
1. Common historical forces. Most APAs can date our larger pattern of immigration to the United States after the 1840s. Many of our ancestors were pushed out of their native countries because of poverty, political strife, and/or colonization. Many were also attracted by the American Dream.
Unfortunately, our early immigrants were greeted by exclusion laws or, at the very least, long immigration wait lines. Some later found a quicker passage by serving in the U.S. armed forces. Others gained admission through an American college entrance exam. But most were finally able to come through the 1965 immigration laws, especially the Family Reunification Act.
2. Common patterns of historical discrimination by members of the host society. According to University of California (UC) Santa Barbara Asian American Studies Professor Sucheng Chan, historically, nearly all APAs confronted several types of hostilities in the United States, ranging from racial prejudice and economic discrimination to physical violence and incarceration.
Even now, many fellow Americans regard us as perpetual foreigners, all too often asking us or other people of color, but not those of European descent, “What are you?” “Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?”
3. Common responses to inequality and discrimination. Traditionally, as APAs were either de jure or de facto segregated from white America, we had to rely on our co-ethnics for support. At an institutional level, for American Samoans, for example, this survival and support are probably best represented by the Samoan Chief Council and the Samoan Congregational Church that provide an extended family within a spiritual setting.
In the public arena, providing support for one another has inspired APAs to fight against injustice. This fight is exemplified by the evolution of the Japanese American Citizens League, which successfully gained an apology and reparations from the U.S. government for the World War II internment order.
This support is also seen in the creation of “rotating credit systems” by APAs. When banks would not provide loans, APA immigrants helped create the grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses through the hui, tanomoshi, kye/gei. We came together and provided community loans when others would not.
4. Common ignorance. Unfortunately, another commonality is the relative ignorance most Americans have about the APA experience. The late UC Berkeley Professor, Ronald Takaki, once wrote that APAs have a rich “Buried Past” and “Present.” Despite all of our contributions, many in the United States fail to recognize our presence – even when we win acclaim.
While we are rightfully proud of those that achieved some fame, we should not forget the accomplishments of our “everyday” APAs.
Think of Gordon Hirabayashi, the University of Washington (UW) Quaker student who stood up against the curfew orders imposed on Japanese Americans during WWII. Think of 6-year-old Kinney Kinmon Lau and the 13 other Chinatown kids who fought against the San Francisco School Board to create a mandate for bilingual education. Think of the major unions on the West Coast – Larry Itliong’s Agricultural Committee of California (precursor to the UFW), canneries, and other locals created by Filipino Americans who were paid lower wages than everyone else at the time. In reality, almost all the hard-fought gains for APAs came from the “common APA person,” not the sudden benevolence of white America. At times, APAs were scorned, even by other APAs. But despite difficult obstacles, APAs remained resilient to provide a better future for others.
So this month, let us praise the “famous” APAs, and even more, praise the not-so-famous. As APAs, we built the railroad, paved roads, revitalized ghost towns like Vacaville, Calif., turning them into agricultural oases. We introduced dry-shrimp, bing cherries, several varieties of oysters in the Puget Sound. We harvested salmon, asparagus, grapes. We created farmers markets, and formed the most decorated military unit in American history, the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit.
Many of us, like my mother and other relatives, worked for years as the seamstresses of America. My late father and grandfather, like many APAs, worked as cooks, custodians, domestics, dishwashers, gardeners who, with dignity, constituted the backbone of the American economy.
APAs, by our mere physical presence, our hard work and our tax payments, contributed to our national identity and the practical realities of a national economy. More important, through the individual stories of APAs, especially the immigrants and nationals, we invigorate the country’s idealism. We reaffirm the hope, vision, and promises of the American Dream.