May celebrates Asian and Pacific Islander heritage

Lily Yost, News Editor

May marks Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month, a time to celebrate and honor the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders to American culture and society. The history of AAPI Month dates back to the late 1970s, when a group of AAPI activists proposed a commemorative week to recognize the achievements and contributions of AAPI communities in the United States. 

Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religion Xiaobo Yuan was born in China and moved to the United States when she was five years old. She is a part of the 2.69 percent of Asian people in Walla Walla. According to Yuan, the history of the term Asian-American dates back to the 1960s, when student activists in California sought to stand in solidarity with the civil rights movement. Activists argued that the term could highlight the common experiences and struggles of Asian-Americans, as well as their diverse cultures and histories.

“It’s a term of ethnic identification which — like other such terms — can flatten the huge range of internal differences and diversity of experiences among those who so identify. It’s also a dynamic term that is constantly being re-engaged and reinvented by Asian-Americans themselves,” Yuan said.  

Senior Grace Kim is the president of Whitman’s Pan-Asian Club (PAC). Kim hopes PAC can provide a community for Asian students on campus who might be struggling to feel connected at a predominantly white institution. 

There is some disagreement around the labels Asian-American and Pacific Islander because they generalize a wealth of intersectional identities within the U.S. Despite this generalization, Kim feels that these terms can be unifying.

“I find that it gives me a source of community. Generations of Asian-Americans have fought for our place in America, and I am happy to also keep fighting against discrimination and prejudice,” Kim said. 

Professor Yuan feels that these identities themselves are constantly changing, which affects her sense of belonging in the United States.  

“I think there’s also the always-shifting sense of belonging or not belonging that one feels as an Asian woman in America. Sometimes I feel like I belong, other times [I feel] estranged or alienated,” Yuan said. “Because of my own personal history, and because of the way my cultural upbringing straddles China and America, I think of myself as a hyphenated identity, Chinese-American.”

Susan Monahan is a historian based in Walla Walla who researched the local history of Chinese people in the area. She plans on writing a book about the rich history of Chinese people in Walla Walla. 

“There are myths and misconceptions that need to be dispelled and cleared up,” Monahan said. “There are downright fascinating stories of the Chinese individuals who lived here and contributed so much to the community that needs to be told.”

According to her research, many families in the 19th and 20th centuries in Walla Walla relied on Chinese “domestics” to perform household tasks.

“It was Chinese newcomers to Walla Walla who stepped into the roles of cooks and household domestics. The first Chinese [people] to come to the Walla Walla region were ‘sojourners’ on their way to the Idaho gold towns,” Monahan said. “Some Chinese men settled in town early on and ran laundries or small businesses.”

In this time period, the term Asian-American was unknown. Asian immigrants were often referred to by their country of origin, such as “Chinese-American,” “Japanese-American” or “Filipino-American.” These labels reflected the diversity among Asian immigrants, but they also perpetuated stereotypes and discrimination against Asian-Americans. This led activists to search for a unifying label, like Asian-American, to emphasize a degree of shared experience among Asian people in the United States. 

Like Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders have shared experiences of colonization, migration and discrimination, in addition to their shared contributions to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. These similarities led activists to designate a week in May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. 

“Identities are plural, heterogeneous and complex. In today’s world, many identities and personal trajectories are not so clear cut,” Yuan said.

This year’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month is an opportunity to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of these communities, and it is also a time to reflect on the ongoing struggles and challenges they face in the United States.