“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
― Lao Tzu
By Arielle Tiangco
Weeks ago, seated cross-legged on my couch, I watched the small bobbing faces of my colleagues speaking within the confines of their equally-sized zoom rectangles. We were in our scheduled editorial meeting, deciding on overarching themes we’d like to dive into over the next month or so, and delegating topics that would best suit each staff member’s strengths and interests.
While researching significant upcoming dates, I sheepishly realized that May was Asian American Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander heritage month.
How did I not already know that?
Anyway, since I am a proud Filipina immigrant, I volunteered to write a piece about it. I’m part of this community and am armed with the personal experience of living a life steeped in multiple cultures at once, so how hard could it be?
Fast-forward to the week before my deadline and I find myself in a slight panic. I was naive to think that I could simply draw from my individual experiences if I wanted to reflect the incredible diversity that is crowded together under this umbrella identity that proves much too small for, well, all of us.
While staring blankly at my computer screen, I felt like my 12-year-old self again. The awkward girl who would think to herself in the quiet moments before falling asleep (without an ounce of drama or irony) who am I?
As a Filipina growing up in Mississauga, a city in the Greater Toronto Area, (that’s right, I’m not even from the US, which adds a different layer to how I experienced Asian-ness as an immigrant) I had a lot of Asian peers and friends of many flavors: East Asian, South Asian, West Asian, Black, Brown, Latinos… didn’t have that many white friends truth be told—this is likely because on top of the fact that there weren’t that many of them, most of the white students were considered “cool.” That’s not to say there weren’t a lot of “cool kids of color.” I just wasn’t one of them.
From my vantage point on stage behind my tuba (I know, I wasn’t doing myself any favors) during school assemblies at David Leeder Middle School and later Mississauga Secondary School, I would look past the red-faced conductor and into a sea of varying shades of colored skin.
You’d think that amongst this ethnic mosaic, I would be secure in my identity as part of the “Asians.” On the contrary, I often felt conflicted. Most Filipino families sent their kids to Catholic school, but I attended public school because my dad didn’t like the Catholic school uniform, especially the skirt that most girls would roll up to way above their knees. So that meant I saw my Filipino friends only once a week at church while my Monday to Friday school friends were mostly Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
Despite the obvious overlap in certain values (like good grades), I observed cultural differences between how my Filipino friends and I interacted with our families and how my other East-Asian friends interacted with theirs. I often found myself relating more to Pacific Islanders in terms of culture, and also Latinos (thanks Spain).
Once, one of my friends kindly pointed out that I had the darkest skin tone of our group and offered me skin-lightening bath soap. I declined since I was actually already using papaya soap sent over from the Philippines for the same purpose, though clearly, it wasn’t working very well.
On the subject of appearance, besides fairer skin, I found myself wishing for silky straight hair, and for my eyes to be shaped in a more conventionally “Asian” way to fit in with my friends. I didn’t feel “Asian” enough (I was very confused about the Pacific Islander thing) nor did I feel “mainstream Canadian” enough. But eventually, I learned to embrace my wavy hair, rounder eyes, and yes, I even ditched the papaya soap.
However, it began to dawn on me as I was doing research for this Optimist View that accepting my appearance doesn’t equate to understanding my identity within the bigger picture. It also had me questioning why, as I got older, I began to like the way I looked (more on fetishization at the very end, or click here for a deeper dive on the topic).
I still had/have a very blurry concept of my own lived experiences and feel ignorant of the true sources of my fears, especially since the pandemic awakened a fresh wave of violence against my community. I hadn’t worried about my grandmother going to Costco before, but these days it’s legitimately concerning.
All this to say that most of what you are about to read is new information for me, too. I am still learning and unlearning along with everyone else. I hope you’ll join me on this exploration of the Asian American identity in all its complexities and surprises, and discover why it’s an important thread to follow within the larger tapestry of the fight for equal representation and opportunity for all marginalized communities.
First things first, when was this month introduced?
In June 1977, Rep. Frank Horton and Rep. Norman Y. Mineta introduced a resolution to proclaim the first 10 days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by former US Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga just one month later.
On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution for Asian Pacific Heritage Week, which was then extended to an entire month in 1990 when George H.W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress. To make a long story short, more public laws were passed and signed by Bush, and by 1992, May was officially proclaimed Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which is where the acronym APA comes from.
“The power of visibility can never be underestimated.”
― Margaret Cho
What is this month actually called?
Since its beginning, there continues to be a debate around what we should call this month.
The original “APA” has expanded a few times in an attempt to better reflect the multiplicities within this community. These expansions include:
- Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI, sometimes shortened to Asian Pacific Islander, API)—the umbrella term that most people are probably familiar with due to its prevalence in media.
- Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA)—a term that intentionally includes South Asian identities, as their cultures and identities are not as represented as East Asians under this umbrella.
- And finally, Asian American Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI)—the official designation of the month of May, proclaimed by President Joe Biden in 2021.
Despite the extra letters, we’re not happy with any of these acronyms. Why? Well, anyone who’s worked in a group will know that it’s difficult to get five people to agree on even the most trivial things, so why expect it to be simple for the descendants of communities from across the entire continent of Asia and several South Pacific Islands to agree on which string of words will represent them?
This dissonance has led to more disagreements about abandoning the label. For instance, some people think that Pacific Islanders benefit by being clumped together with Asian Americans, while others believe the very different needs and issues of Pacific Islanders are eclipsed and will remain underrepresented if they don’t split. Yet another opinion comes from those who have ties to both Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans and are unsure whether it’s necessary to separate these identities.
Many South Asians wonder why East Asians just get to call themselves “Asians,” and don’t need the East distinction while South Asians have to specify that they are, in fact, South Asian.
Native Hawaiians, though they are geographically part of the Pacific Islands, have a particular colonial and military history with the US, aligning their histories with Filipinos and Puerto Ricans in ways that it does not align with some other Pacific Islanders and Asians. And we’re just skimming the surface of this bubbling hot pot.
Stereotypes propagated by the single umbrella term add insult to injury by contributing to the erasure of history and the further silencing of sub-ethnic Asian identities, all while undermining the fight for racial justice altogether.
For instance, the stereotype that Asians assimilate and fare better than other marginalized groups (read: model minority) effectively ignores the Page Act of 1875 (banning specifically Chinese women from entering the US) which turned into the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It also sweeps the Japanese internment that took place in the 1940s under the rug. This allows America to pretend that it has always welcomed people of Asian descent by erasing past events like LA’s mass lynchings and the murder of Vincent Chin (who’s he? Scroll down to find out).
With all these disagreements and shortcomings, some of you (like me) may be wondering, what’s the point?!
Okay, let’s bring this down to a simmer by going all the way back to the birth of “Asian American” as a category.
It’s the late 60s. Civil rights were having a moment: the Black Power Movement, the American Indian Movement, and the anti-war movements were in full swing, plus Star Trek was already on the air (to boldly represent people of color, as no show has done before).
In 1968, Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, two California Berkeley graduate students with the joint goal of making political activists of Asian descent more visible (or visible at all) needed a name for their student organization.
They knew they wanted to steer clear of the term oriental, which has racist and colonialist undercurrents, and so decided to call themselves the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). This is believed to be the first instance that the term “Asian American” was used in public.
Understanding the history of the term “Asian American” makes it clear that, at its core, it is a political identity. The point of creating this umbrella term for people of Asian descent was to join the forces of disparate Asian activists so that their efforts in the fight for greater equality would have more impact.
“There were so many Asians out there in the political demonstrations but we had no effectiveness. Everyone was lost in the larger rally,” Ichioka explained in an interview with Yến Lê Espiritu, author of Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. “We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public. We could extend the influence beyond ourselves, to other Asian Americans.”
The pair sought to recruit members from as many Asian ethnic backgrounds as they could, recognizing the political strength in having a bigger, louder, multiethnic voice.
Another major factor that brought Asian ethnic sub-groups together is the fact that discrimination does not distinguish. One example of this is the murder of Vincent Chin.
What happened to Vincent Chin?
In 1980, the Japanese auto industry expanded into the US, which contributed to the fall of the auto industry in the States and severely affected employment in manufacturing cities such as Detroit. This brought about a violent anti-Japanese reaction from some of the Americans whose livelihood had been threatened.
In 1982, just a few days before his wedding, 27-year-old Chin was targeted and beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men who were angry about the state of the American auto industry. One was a laid-off auto worker and the other a Chrysler plant employee. Neither man spent even one day in jail.
According to witnesses, these men blamed Chin for the invasion of the Japanese auto industry that had put them out of work. Chin was Chinese-American.
The murder of Vincent Chin forced Asian Americans to set aside their differences and organize across ethnicities to form multiracial alliances that advocate for the civil rights of all.
As Roland Hwang, co-founder and former president of American Citizens for Justice, told NBC News, “The Vincent Chin case transformed a biracial discussion on race relations to be a multiracial one. So the Vincent Chin case, along with other cases, each serve as a wakeup call to address anti-Asian bias and racial intolerances.”
What happened to Vincent Chin and the historical relationship between the US and Asian countries that led to his death are still significant today. They’re part of the environment that set the stage for the rise in hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent, and in the wider sense, they’re part of the racist narrative that we must address if we ever want to see meaningful change.
I am ashamed to say that I had no idea who Vincent Chin was until I started doing research for this View… did you? Though this event is taught in Asian American studies courses across the US, his death is largely forgotten.
“To live an ethical life is to be held accountable for history.”
― Cathy Park Hong
Allyship and the “Asian Fetish”
When Malcolm X was assassinated, his friend and fellow civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama was by his side, cradling his head in her hands.
The pair met in 1963. Kochiyama, along with many others, was detained by police for attending a rally in support of workers protesting unjust hiring practices, and while waiting in the courthouse she saw Malcolm X.
The two of them bonded over their interest in civil rights, and Kochiyama credited Malcolm with greatly impacting how she perceived the struggle for racial equality. She would later tell an interviewer, “He certainly changed my life. I was heading in one direction, integration, and he was going in another, total liberation, and he opened my eyes.”
After Malcolm X’s assassination, Kochiyama continued her involvement in Black revolutionary politics and Asian American activism.
Though this friendship may seem unlikely at first, allyship across different marginalized groups is essential in the fight for gender and racial equality. Though our experiences are different and deserve to be treated as such, they make up the sides of the same multi-colored coin (okay, so the analogy doesn’t work that well, but just go with it).
To illustrate, let’s take a quick look at the hyper-sexualization of the East-Asian woman otherwise known as the “Asian Fetish” and how it’s inextricably bound to harmful racist and sexist stereotypes.
The Atlanta shooting and The Page Act
Just over a year ago in the state of Georgia, a 21-year-old white man drove to three Asian massage spas and took the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
Even though this mass murder took place at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans were spiking across the nation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that a surviving witness told South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo that the shooter reportedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Asians,” the suspect claimed that the attack had nothing to do with race.
In a press conference, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office said that the suspect “does claim it’s not racially motivated,” and instead, he has a “sexual addiction,” and that the spas posed a “temptation” that he wanted to “eliminate.” Baker added that it had been “a really bad day” for the shooter.
This argument seems strange as Asian communities make up a meager four percent of the population in Georgia and the shooter had to drive around 40 minutes to get from a Chinese-owned Acworth spa to two Korean-owned spas in Atlanta.
This sad event shows how the line between the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and violence against Asians is extremely thin—and follows a pattern that goes all the way back to The Page Act of 1975.
The Page Act forbid the recruitment of laborers from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country,” and explicitly prohibited “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution,” but in practice, it effectively barred Chinese women from migrating to the US as the decision to turn an individual away was up to the consul-general or consul at port cities.
Before the Page Act, Chinese women made up only four percent of Chinese immigrants, which raises questions about how necessary this legislation was. Still, Chinese women were hyper-sexualized and exoticized. They were branded as sex workers, carriers of disease, and a threat to white manhood and morality.
Furthermore, “[the law] was using this kind of moral panic about prostitutes to stave off any kind of population accretion through reproduction,” explains Mae Ngai, professor of History and Asian American Studies at Columbia University.
So, the Atlanta shooting and all the hate crimes against Asian populations are an echo of the idea that Asian women are seductresses and immoral abstractions. Suddenly I understand that the discomfort I feel whenever men call me “exotic,” or say they couldn’t help asking for my number because they “have yellow fever” is born out of their ties to the historical violence, dehumanization, and discrimination of women who look like me.
However, in a complex and disturbing way, I have to admit that the seemingly positive attention had an effect on me and how I saw myself. But this is a whole other can of worms that I think I have to process privately before writing about.
“Mistakes are acceptable if they’re the result of moving forward.”
― Andrew Yang
Why does this matter to other marginalized groups?
We don’t have the space to do a deep dive into how the stereotypes of each marginalized group work with each other to pit us against each other, constrict, or erase us, so let’s just explore one.
The fetishization of Asians is, in some ways, the polar opposite of what Black women go through—but this is exactly what connects our plight in the end.
While Asian women are stereotyped as hyper-feminine and petite, Black women are seen as more masculine and/or emasculating. Asian women have the reputation of being shy and quiet while Black women are seen as loud, sassy, and angry. Asian women are submissive to a fault (immoral) while Black women are dominant. This leads to the perception that Asian women are more “attractive” than Black women. What these stereotypes do is erase the humanity and individuality of those who belong to these communities, and also make white women the perfect middle ground by which all femininity is measured.
Even though any woman, regardless of race, ethnicity, or heritage, can embody any combination of all of these traits, we are often not given the space to do so. We aren’t seen as individuals, but as nameless copies of an archetype, paving the way for dehumanization.
To learn more about the solidarity emerging between Asian and Black communities, check out this page here.
So, how should we approach heritage months?
In my opinion, or should I say view, designating these heritage months isn’t the solution. However, I cannot deny that they are a valuable step in the right direction. Heritage months provide those of us who are supposed to be represented by these groups a chance to dissect our identities, learn about the history that makes us, and begin to sort out why we feel certain ways about our life experiences. Even in all their shortcomings, heritage months give us a reason to raise our voices (or in my case, pen) and engage in meaningful discourse around what the best move forward would be, even if that step forward means separating from each other to get closer to equality.
For those who don’t stand under the particular umbrella of the month, it gives an opportunity to ask questions with open minds and hearts, to lower their defenses so that they can listen and learn, and for some, it might mean coming to terms with how, even if they didn’t have a hand in constructing oppressive systems, they still benefit from them at the expense of others.
Racist ideas and the systems that uphold them are really deeply entrenched. We need to educate each other, we need allyship, and we need time. It’s important to face facts: It will take generations of reflection and action to undo generations of oppression and discrimination. We will stumble along the path, but that shouldn’t stop us from pushing through. We will make mistakes. We will have to continuously apologize and revise. It will be uncomfortable— often painful. But what matters is that we don’t stop striving to learn, unlearn, see, acknowledge, recognize, and celebrate each other.
So, here’s to AANHPI heritage month and all its future iterations.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
― Lao Tzu
About the author:
Arielle Tiangco is a Philippine-born Canadian who, over the past decade lived in various Latin American countries before assuming the role of Contributing Editor and Content Producer at The Optimist Daily. She holds a BA in English Literature and a MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, both from the University of Guelph. When she’s not writing about civil and environmental rights, sustainable development, or other solutions, you can probably find her looking for snacks or walking through a forest with her dog.