Why Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month is for You, Even if You Aren’t Asian

Heritage months are an opportunity to highlight underrepresented history. This 1869 photograph celebrates one of the greatest achievements of Chinese Americans. No Chinese Americans were included. Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Heritage months are an opportunity to highlight underrepresented history. This 1869 photograph celebrates one of the greatest achievements of Chinese Americans. No Chinese Americans were included. Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

May is Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month. The observance had its start in the late 1970’s, but if it wasn’t on your radar that’s forgivable since it’s one of more than a dozen commemorative heritage months on the calendar. May is also Jewish American Heritage Month and the host of Memorial Day, Military Spouse Day, Mother’s Day, Malcolm X Day, and Peace Officers’ Memorial Day among others.

Despite a long list of proclamations throughout the year, these dates each serve a greater purpose. They may pass you by like any other, but if you feel that these observances are not about or for you, then perhaps they deserve a second look. These months, weeks, or days are not just designed for self-awareness within a people or group. They are meant to highlight a shared history about the important contributions that these people have and continue to make to our country. On the surface they are a celebration of culture, traditions, and accomplishment, but they also present a unique opportunity to highlight the histories and people that have long been ignored or are at risk of being forgotten.

Among the underrepresented parts of American history are the heroic and largely unsung efforts of nearly 11,000 Chinese laborers who built the 1,912-mile Transcontinental Railroad. Despite nearly impossible conditions, the completion of the railroad unified the country and fueled the United States’ unprecedented growth and geopolitical stability. May 10, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of that accomplishment. This month, celebrations across the country will mark the event including an unprecedented gathering at Promontory Summit, Utah, the 1869 site of the “Golden Spike” meeting of the western and eastern railways.

Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month is a time to recall other stories that have been squelched from the history books. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester Arthur, was the first federal law to prohibit the entry of a specific ethnic group and block citizenship of Chinese in America. This legalized discrimination officially lasted for 61 years until its repeal in 1943, but its indelible effects lasted until well after the Civil Rights Act in 1965. At its end, the Chinese U.S. population remained a paltry 80,000 out of a national population of 132 million. This chapter of the American story marred the future of immigration and acceptance in America well into the 20th century, perhaps even today.

Ultimately, the Asian American story is about perseverance and triumph. It is distinctly American. But when we downplay significant portions of our history, we don’t fully understand our roots. There is a long track record of Asian American’s experiences and contributions being overlooked. Major components of Asian American history are barely taught in schools or find their way into mainstream conversations. This history is often not well known even within Asian communities. Those missing pages in the history books contribute to the false notion that Asians in America are adjunct citizens, perpetual foreigners and, as a people, are a recent phenomenon to the American story.

Asians have been part of this country since its earliest days. The first documented Chinese in America arrived in 1785. The first Japanese in 1843. Today, there are more than 22 million Asian Americans amounting to nearly 7 percent of the population. Fifth generation Asian Americans and new immigrants alike contribute in every aspect of society. They have served in every conflict since the Civil War.

Even after 200 years, greater awareness helps further recognize Asian Americans as American. In December 2018, Congress passed the Chinese American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the more than 20,000 Chinese Americans that served.

Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month is not the celebration of a single definition of Asian Americans. APIAs are not one thing. They consist of millions of Americans with unique stories and experiences. No matter what your background, where you are from, or when you came here … this month is about you. If we allow Asian American history to be told, then it has a better chance of being woven into the greater American story that we all share.

 

Build it Together! The Chinese American Museum in DC is an effort, currently underway, to establish a museum dedicated to the Chinese American experience in the nation’s capital. Learn more and find ways to be part of our project.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Caravalho Speaks to Chinese American Museum Coalition

Major General Joseph Carvalho was one of many distinguished speakers. As a third-generation Chinese American from Hawaii, he told a powerful story of overcoming financial barriers and of his thirty-eight-year career in the U.S. Army. General Carvalho grew up in a blue-collar family of five children with aspirations of becoming a physician. Initially signing up for an ROTC program to pay for his college tuition, he found a passion for serving our nation, a true testament to American patriotism that transcends one’s ethnicity. He served in a variety of positions during his long tenure as well as fulfilling his childhood dream: serving as an Army physician, retiring in 2017 as a Major General. However, throughout his life journey thus far, he emphasizes that he “never thought of [himself] as disadvantaged…all [he] ever wanted was to have a chance.” Although claiming at the beginning of his speech that his upbringing was “atypical,” his unique story perfectly embodies the complexity of Chinese Americans experiences. At the end of his speech, he puts forward a strong call to action: “tell the myriad stories of Chinese Americans who, together, paint the picture of integral contributions that forged this country into the greatest nation on Earth.”

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CAMDC Builds Momentum Since Announcement Event

Since its major announcement event in November 8, 2018 at the Willard Hotel, the Chinese American Museum in DC has been working diligently to create partnerships that will shape the reach, depth, and content for the future museum. The more than 160 people in attendance included leaders from the Chinese American and Asian American community, museum experts, historians and artists.

That evening’s speakers were a prologue to the museum being built. A museum built by Americans of all backgrounds and designed for visitors from every nationality and background. The Chinese American Museum is dedicated to telling an American story … one that is relevant to all.

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CAMF Announces Plans to Build Museum in DC

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Plans Announced to Build Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC
November 9, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – The Chinese American Museum Foundation, a non-profit management team of museum, historical, and operational professionals, has revealed that for the past year they have been working on the preliminary stages of a museum focusing on Chinese American history and culture. The museum will be located in downtown Washington, DC. The foundation made the announcement at a dinner event held at the Willard InterContinental Hotel on November 8th attended by nearly 160 leaders from the museum, art, historical and academic, government, and business communities.

The museum began as a concept in early 2017 and the newly-formed Foundation acquired a building that November through the support of two founding board members. The museum will begin hosting and curating content online and special events as early as Winter 2018 and expects to open to the public as a physical museum in phases from late 2019 through 2020.

The building is located at 16th Street and M Street NW, adjacent to The Jefferson Hotel. The five-story, 1907 Beaux-Arts style mansion has been undergoing renovations to update and modernize the building for museum use to accommodate exhibitions of historical and contemporary artifacts and interpretations, Chinese American art, cultural and educational events, and interactive multimedia experiences.

The Chinese American Museum plans to develop the museum in a collaborative approach drawing on and amplifying efforts from a wide variety of historical and cultural experts from around the country and abroad including academic historians, authors, and other Chinese American and Asian American museums and organizations. As part of this alliance-building approach, the museum will expand participation in its Governing Board, Museum Board, and Academic Advisory Board drawing from a broad range of experts and backgrounds.

Executive Director, David Uy, presented the case for the new museum, “There are a number of excellent, compelling organizations across the country that are telling the Chinese American story on a local or regional level. This museum has a unique opportunity to bring that dialogue to the nearly 22 million annual visitors to the DC area. Currently, a relevant and important component of American history and culture is not reaching a significant part of the population. The Chinese American story is an American story. It must be told.”    

The museum will start from a story-driven approach. Uy continued, “It will take time to build an object-driven collection, however, a core part of our strategy is curating stories online through the museum’s web site and online magazine. There are important stories to tell that are relevant to all Americans. The past history of Chinese in America is a timely and meaningful reflection on how diverse groups made this country what it is today. And looking forward, we want to showcase the amazing contributions of contemporary Chinese Americans.”

The Chinese American Museum Foundation is a non-profit, non-political, non-geopolitical 501(c)(3) organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to advance the understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of the Chinese American experience by highlighting shared cultural exchanges and stories of the spirit, resilience, and contributions of Chinese Americans throughout our past, present, and future. More information can be found at www.chineseamericanmuseum.org

Chinese American Museum Foundation Executive Director, David Uy, announces plans to build the Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC at a November 8, 2018 event at the Willard Hotel. The event was attended by leaders from the Chinese and Asian American communities, the museum industry, tourism, local government and academia.

Chinese American Museum Foundation Executive Director, David Uy, announces plans to build the Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC at a November 8, 2018 event at the Willard Hotel. The event was attended by leaders from the Chinese and Asian American communities, the museum industry, tourism, local government and academia.

Dr. Phylis Lan Lin, Academic Advisory Board Chair, entertains the audience with her personal anecdotes.

Dr. Phylis Lan Lin, Academic Advisory Board Chair, entertains the audience with her personal anecdotes.

Major General, US Army (Ret.) Joseph Caravalho of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation speaks about his experiences as a Chinese American growing up in Hawaii.

Major General, US Army (Ret.) Joseph Caravalho of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation speaks about his experiences as a Chinese American growing up in Hawaii.