Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month a bad idea?
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Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month a bad idea?

A Japanese American festival in Seabrook, NJ where the community performs a traditional Japanese obon dance

It’s May. Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I wonder, though, if this celebration of our heritage is an idea whose time has passed. I’m glad that we have our month every year, but I’m worried that we’re emphasizing the wrong things year after year.

Erin and I are starting to feel that APA Heritage Month may be counter-productive. The Pacific Citizen published a well-written piece last week, “Time to Rethink Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?” and I agree, it’s time to re-think the tradition even though it’s only 31 years old.

Last year, I wrote about how a 10-year-old Denver event, an Asian community celebration held in downtown Denver every May, needed to evolve from just Asians performing for other Asians.

It was a useful educational display back when our many communities stayed cloistered and Japanese didn’t know much about Vietnamese, and Vietnamese didn’t know much about Filipinos, and Filipinos didn’t know much about Cambodians and Cambodians didn’t know much about Koreans… you get the idea. But today, with especially young people mixing a lot more outside their own communities, it seems like a closed celebration, like preaching to the choir about the richness of our heritage. If you attend the annual event, you’ve seen many of the same performers year after year.

Even if the audience was expanded outside the Asian community, though, to the wider non-Asian population, I wonder if that would be good or bad for Asian Americans.

I wonder if showing off our traditional dress, traditional songs and traditional dances, merely serves to exoticize us and maintain the stereotype of ourselves as foreigners. Sometimes, when I look at the faces of non-Japanese at Denver’s annual Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, as they watch a judo demonstration or a traditional dance performance, it feels like we’re being viewed through the same lens that a Westerner puts on as a tourist in Tokyo. The same goes when I see the audience entranced during hula dances or traditional Thai performances on the stage at the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

I’m overstating it to make a point, but it’s as if we’re curiosities on display in a zoo exhibit.

The national APA Heritage celebration was established by Congress in 1978, a decade during which the “Yellow Power” movement had led to the institution of Asian Studies programs in many universities, and the effort to gain redress and an apology from the US government for Japanese Americans who were unjustly interned during World War II (they won that redress and apology 10 years later, when Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 into law). It was originally started as a week, and in 1992 was expanded to the full month of May. May was chosen because it’s the month when the earliest Japanese immigrants arrived in 1843, and when Chinese laborers helped finish the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 (unfortunately, they were excluded form any of the official photographs of the completion at Promontory Point, Utah).

The way APA Heritage Month has evolved, I don’t doubt that sharing our traditional culture with non-Asians is good — any familiarity with the myriad of world cultures eventually helps bring down barriers between people, right?

But, I’m antsy to get past just the traditional stuff — as Erin often says, we’re not just about geeks and geishas.

The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival usually showcases some performers who aren’t all about the trad — a Filipino punk/metal band; award-winning singer-songwriter Wendy Woo, whose songs aren’t Asian in the least; and multi-instrumentalist Dwight Mark, who’s Chinese American but plays excellent American music from rock to bluegrass to blues.

I wish the annual APA Celebration would do the same, and show off some of the great talent that AAPIs have as Americans instead of looking backward at our roots, which for some AAPIs, especially Japanese Americans, can be four or even five generations ago.

In the end, I want APA Heritage Month to be as much about Asian Americans as it is about Asians. I believe that’s the spirit in which the month was dedicated in the first place, and I hope it achieves that spirit sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we risk being trapped in a cultural fossil forever.

(Full disclosure: Erin and I will be emceeing this year’s APA Heritage Month Celebration on Sat. May 16, 11 am-3pm. Our goal is to talk about Asian Americans more, and put our cultural traditions in the context of Asians living in America, not Asians living in Asia.)