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.)

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4 Responses to Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month a bad idea?

  1. Alvina says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. At least some groups host forums, film fests, discussions etc but those are definitely outweighed by the cultural events.

    I don’t think we should nix APA heritage month…our leaders before us fought long and hard for that!

    I think our organizations and leaders should look at their programming and think about the intended audience (should be within community) and rethink the annual lion dance. Because honestly, I’ve seen Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu’s performance enough times, I could probably be a backup lion butt. Ok maybe not, but I could choreograph it. 😀

    Anyway, I think the programming has turned to more cultural events because it’s digestible-ethnicity. And it’s an easy for for our older Asian immigrants to get involved w/o delving into the AAPI realm of things.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Alvina, your comment about being abackup lion butt for Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu made me laugh out loud. Thanks — it’s good to start the day with a belly laugh!

    Point well-taken, however, about this type of programming being easy for our parents/grandparents/immigrant generations to be involved.

  3. Lelanda Lee says:

    My fear for the long term is the loss of cultural education taught (and performed) by those of Asian/Pacific heritage and such education being overtaken by non-Asian sources. We live in an area that actually has some Asian/Pacific ethnic organizations that undertake this work. But what of the vast parts of the country where there are fewer Asian/Pacific people, where the education comes from non-A/P teachers in classrooms, etc.? There is a place for this work in the wider country.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Another good point… thanks, Lelanda. It’s true. We here in Denver think of the AAPI community as small comparted to the West Coast (or New York). But in Dubuque, Iowa, or Springfield, Missouri, the AAPI is tiny or non-existent, and even the cultural education is sorely needed.

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