May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. What started as a weeklong observance during the Carter administration became an entire month under President George H.W. Bush, who in 1990 signed a bill passed by Congress. In the wake of recent and ongoing violence against Asian Americans and collective efforts by AAPI communities and allies to fight against hate, this year’s observance takes on extra significance.
But even as a Filipino American, I didn’t used to bother celebrating this month at all.
When I was younger, I was aware of the designation. I knew of special exhibitions and readings to commemorate the rich history of the Asian diaspora and its role in building America. But I admit my attitude was a mix of ho-hum and meh. I had little connection to Asian American communities that caused me to stand up and outwardly express Asian pride. After all, that’s not necessarily the Asian way. Our default mode is not calling attention to ourselves, to assimilate rather than to agitate. As immigrants, many of us focus on the Americanizing part of the equation, so as not to be seen as having just come “fresh off the boat.”
Recent conversations with Asian American friends and colleagues revealed I wasn’t alone. Few of us have actively celebrated, let alone partaken, in such festivities. When I came to the U.S. to attend college in the 1980s, and for decades since, my involvement had been on the periphery and typically by happenstance. In 2004, I stumbled across a showcase of traditional song and dance from different Asian countries blaring on stage at Union Square Park in New York City. A modest crowd was in attendance. I hung out for a few minutes to try some of the food-tent pad thai and samosas. That was it.
My attitude didn’t shift until a few years ago when my employer, ETS, asked whether I would like to share my journey as a first-generation Asian American for heritage month. I demurred at first, thinking my story unremarkable as one of thousands of international students attending U.S. higher education each year, with many seeking work sponsorship if not permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
But then I realized that my own journey began with my paternal grandparents, who were leaders in a guerrilla movement in the Philippines against Japanese invasion during World War II. They were executed, their remains left to be discovered by my father. It happened days after the war was declared over with the American victory in the Pacific. Although I never knew my lolo and lola, they exemplified bravery and determination, a love of country, and an emphasis on education, which enabled their orphan siblings and their children to pursue profound success not only in the Philippines but also in the United States.
The response to sharing my family’s story as a video on Facebook was overwhelming, much of it the “I had no idea” variety regarding U.S.-Philippine relations that go as far back as the Spanish-American War — which concluded in 1898 with the U.S. purchasing the Philippines from Spain for $20 million. I had done my small part in sharing one of millions of story threads that, when woven together, become the tapestry of the Asian-American experience. We need to hear more such stories now more than ever and I encourage others to share and listen however they can.
This month is an opportune time for those of us of Asian descent to make ourselves urgently and unapologetically visible, to amplify our voices like never before — and to change attitudes and behaviors that have caused suffering, much of it silent for far too long.
Like Pride Month in June for LGBTQ+ communities — another group to which I belong — this month provides a chance to combat prejudices and discrimination as well as fortify self-preservation. It’s a chance to take a stand for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to have an equal seat at the table that is the American experiment. To remind everyone else that we are just as worthy of attaining the American Dream.
Even small steps like learning about our narratives within American society can make a big difference. The PBS series Asian Americans serves as an excellent primer and is available for streaming on WHYY. A simple Google search will bring up several events, from virtual panels to parades to cultural showcases, also worth checking out. As a former skeptic of this month myself, I now extend an open invitation to one and all to a full month, if not a lifetime, of allyship and solidarity. And I do so beaming with pride.
Jobert E. Abueva is a writer and resident of New Hope. He is executive director for marketing at ETS.