Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Children all over the country will have the opportunity to learn about notable Asians, Asian Americans, or Pacific Islanders
The question is: Will they?
May 1st marks Asian Pacific Heritage month, and that means that children all over the country will have the opportunity to learn about notable Asians, Asian Americans, or Pacific Islanders. The question is: Will they?
For most of my life, I have been trying to figure out whatever it means to be Asian American. I was born in Korea, but even this must usually be qualified further (South Korea). I was adopted and raised in western New York. I know that Friday is pizza night, Rocky climbed some famous steps in Philly, and can go toe-to-toe with anyone on campus regarding obscure knowledge of the Buffalo Bills. And yet for most of my adult life I have experienced dislocation prompted through episodic microaggressions and racist encounters. I’m not alone. (By the way, I, in no way feel qualified to write for all Asians, a group so diverse that the Pew Research Center says that currently 22 million Asian Americans can trace their roots back to more than 20 different countries. And yet, I feel protective of a new generation of Asian-Americans–which includes my children–who are growing up in a world where on any given day they can be invisible, viewed as a “model” minority, or become blindsided recipients of racist comments.)
The events around the outbreak of COVID-19 did not make matters any easier for many Asian-Americans. Imagine going to pick up your groceries and seeing people taking every measure to avoid talking to you. Imagine having to explain to your child why she’s being called “Coronavirus” by classmates who by all measures come from good families. No American should be told to go “home” when they already are. Racism, today, is more insidious than calling some by a slur.
In 1984, Harrison Ford starred in The Temple of Doom, the second installment of the Indiana Jones series of action-adventure films. In Ford’s shadow, a twelve-year-old kid named Ke Huy Quan (also known as Jonathan Ke Quan) played a sidekick character named Short Round. He was eleven years older than I, but in him I saw something mirroring something deep in me. The following year, Ke Quan played a lovable tech-gadget guru kid in the cult classic The Goonies. Then, for most of the next four decades, he disappeared. Representation matters, especially for young people.
In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the needle move slowly to recognize Asian or Pacific Islander people as fully American. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter authorized Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week. Thirteen years later, in 1990, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month became a regular event every May. Despite these authorizations for educators to share and celebrate the accomplishments of Asian Americans, how many of us have ever celebrated any Asian American during the month of May? Outside of my own direct involvement, I’ve never seen it. The Pew Research Center notes that 32 percent of Asians, according to a comprehensive study, have experienced something that leads them to question their own safety. That I have seen. This incongruence is alarming.
And so, growing up (as a soccer player), mostly I clung to Asian athletes as inspiration, and rooted for them to accomplish undeniable achievements. This, I figured, might help others envision how their American identities and Asian stories might finally fuse and fit together. Before Linsanity occurred in 2012, I had to live on humbler means. When I watched Michael Chang play tennis in the 1990s, my heart would sit in my throat. When Michele Kwan kept chasing gold in each Olympic games, my heart would harden, preparing for the worst. Privately, even as a kid, I had my doubts of ever finding a place where I could belong.
Every time I pick up a pen to write, I know I am a bridge between where I was born and where I was raised.
All my life I’ve been waiting for someone to raise their voice for me. When the Atlanta shooting occurred in March 2021, I found it particularly traumatic as six of the eight victims were targeted for simply being Asian and female. I looked to my friends and family. Few reached out. Edward Said’s book Orientalism notes that many western writers have always sought to project eastern people as the other, a group that is different and somehow a little less than their western counterparts. Every time I pick up a pen to write, I know I am a bridge between where I was born and where I was raised. My children don’t know that I wear baseball caps in public to look less other, but there’s nothing I can do to protect them from the reality they already know: roughly fifty percent of Americans can’t name one single notable American of Asian descent, even though the Vice President, at the very least, could suffice.
In 1866, Roberts Wesleyan University began as Chili Seminary. Before our future institution even became a college, there was already a vision for Roberts Wesleyan University’s “global” kingdom sketched into the campus’ cultural DNA. In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chesbrough Seminary actually relocated six Japanese students to become part of its community during a time when internment camps were common and allegiance to one’s country caused suspicion among foreigners, perhaps especially Asians. Today, Roberts Wesleyan University maintains its roots in historic Christianity, and offers its community members a rich history steeped in movements supporting women in ministry and abolitionist positions. As our community becomes more and more diverse and our world becomes more and more fractured, Roberts can do more to continue our legacy of inclusion.
When I walk around campus today, I hold close to my chest the hope that B.T. Roberts and others since have held close to theirs: to live in a more dynamic, more diverse world whereby together we can in all our glittering differences we are unified under our love for Christ. Whatever the future holds for our institution, we must lean harder into the vision that all people are created in God’s Image, Imago Dei, and that we are all meant to be unified as a single body who work together for the flourishing of God’s creation. That means more than not supporting racism. It begins with celebrating our community, even those members who, for good reason, often feel on the fringe. Students today, again, need to find open arms from our community to show them how to be a Redhawk and a believer. This, I believe, is part of our transformation into a university that really embodies character in action, not just in principle.
If you are looking for more resources on this topic:
Key Facts about Asian Americans - Pew Research Center
Resources for Teachers for AAPI Month
Films and Documentaries for AAPI
Why AAPI Month is in May
List of Asian American Poets
List of 25 Must Read Books by Asian and Asian American Authors
Asian Pacific American Association (Greater Rochester, NY)
About the author
Jae Newman is the Director of International Engagement at Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary. He also teaches creative writing at RWU, where he merges his training as a professional writer with his seminary training in the missional bent of teaching spiritual discernment through poetry and storytelling. He is the author of COLLAGE OF SEOUL (Cascade Books, 2015). His poetry has been published in many national journals, anthologized, and used by his children to delay bedtime ("read us one of your poems"). He lives in Rochester with his wife and children.