May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. A month dedicated to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, celebrating their heritages and roles in shaping the history of the United States.
I’m going to be honest–I didn’t even know that APAHM existed until last year.
And that really bothers me.
It wasn’t that my predominantly White upbringing was totally devoid of any education regarding other races and their history. While still largely insufficient, I grew up knowing that February was Black History Month. I remember sitting on the circle rug in Pre-K learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and other Black figures of influence.
But why did I, an Asian-American Korean adoptee, not find out that there was a month designated to represent my people until I was 30 years old? And even moreso, why could I not remember learning about one single influential Asian-American in school?
Frankly, I found myself feeling a little bit uncomfortable posting something for APAHM because this was one of those times where my “inbetweenness” clawed away at my insides.
On the one hand, I AM a Korean-American. On the other, when it comes to knowing the long history of Koreans or other Asians in America–it felt as though my knowledge was either riddled with gaps, or significantly filtered through an Americanized lens.
So, I did what any other Millennial would do; I turned to Google.
I went down the rabbit hole and read for hours to learn more about the history of Asians in America than the little I was taught in school.
When reviewing the timeline of Asians in America, I learned that our history is wrought with words such as “chased out,” “denied entry,” “labor strike,” and “ineligible to citizenship.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1943 that the US repealed the Chinese Exclusion Laws and finally granted rights of naturalization to a small number of Chinese immigrants, only 105 per year, a limit that would not be increased until 1965 when Immigration Law abolished “national origins” as basis for allocating immigration quotas to various countries.
I learned more about the Japanese internment camps such as Manzanar, Topaz, and Poston. I realized the irony of the reinstatement of the draft for Japanese-Americans in 1944, when so many men were drafted to serve on behalf of the US after they were placed in detention centers over questions of their loyalty. Additionally, Executive Order 9066, the order passed by Roosevelt that interred about 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII, was not rescinded until 1976 by Gerald Ford– 34 years later.
I found out that there were acts such as the 1945 War Brides Act and the 1988 American Homecoming Act that allowed children born of American Service Members, and their mothers, to come to the United States under preferred or non-quota immigration status.
I read about the New York Chinatown Riots,the student strikes in California to protest the pervasive Eurocentric lens on education, and the murder of Vincent Chin.
While reading and learning, I found myself wondering whether recent acts of hate and racism towards Asians and Asian-Americans will ever be talked about in future generations when they undoubtedly learn about the Covid-19 pandemic.
Additionally, although pop culture and society are in many ways, just starting to finally recognize, validate and acknowledge Asians and Asian-Americans, I discovered some of the significant roles we played throughout American History.
During WWII, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Nisei (Japanese Americans), are among the most decorated military units in US History for their efforts and accomplishments in battle. They received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2011.
The iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. was designed by Maya Lin, an Asian-American woman, when she was just 21 years old and still an architecture student at Yale.
Patsy Mink, a third generation Japanese-American became the first woman of an ethnic minority to be elected to the United States Congress in 1964. She was one of the major champions of Title IX.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-born, American-trained physicist, helped to develop the Atomic Bomb through her work on the Manhattan Project during WWII. She later went on to do ground-breaking work and disproved the law of conservation of parity through her experiments.
The daughter of the first Korean married couple to emigrate to the US, Susan Ahn Cuddy, was the first Asian-American woman to join the U.S. Navy. She was a code breaker during World War II and became the first female aerial gunnery officer in the Naval Forces, teaching aerial combat tactics. Later, she went on to work for the NSA during the Cold War and was involved in numerous top secret projects for the DoD.
While a day or two’s worth of research and reading is merely scratching the surface regarding the time it takes to really truly understand and know a group of people’s history, what I took away from those 24 hours was this:
Like so many other minorities in this country, the history of Asian-Americans is a story of oppression, marginalization, and protest. It is a story of being knocked down, dragged out, and kept out.
But our story is also one of continuing to rise above.
In spite of all the adversity, we continue to serve this country and the rest of the world with our bravery, courage, innovation, athleticism, intelligence, and creativity.
We are an invaluable group of people whose talents and contributions are force to be reckoned with, and we will continue to fight on the behalf of ourselves and others.
While our history may be glossed over in textbooks, and while we are still working to get the faces of our best and brightest in magazines, on stage, and on screen, that does not detract from the many reasons we have to take pride in who we are or what we have achieved.
I am proud to be Korean-American, and I am proud to celebrate and share the tumultuous yet rich history of Asian-Americans in this country.