Features Editor and Lead Photographer
May 16, 2023
From a small fishing boat to the advancement of nuclear science and the power of the Vice Presidency, Asian-Americans have shaped the history of America and the world.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month commemorates the anniversary of the first Japanese immigrant, a 14-year old fisherman named Manjiro, to the United States on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month originated from the 1977 Joint House Resolution proposed by New York representative Frank Horton. However, when both the 1977 Joint House Resolution and a later proposal by war hero and Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye failed, Horton introduced House Resolution 1007 which was signed into law under President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. In 1990, Congress expanded the observance from a week to a month under George H.W. Bush’s administration.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have contributed to the development of atomic science, civil rights, technology, government, politics and medicine. Noted Chinese-American scientist Chien-Shiung Wu was an essential member of the Manhattan Project, the codename for the development of atomic weapons during World War II. Her work built upon the existing technology for the detection of radiation and enrichment of uranium.
Similarly, Philippine American Larry Itilong who began working at the age of 15 as a laborer across the Western United States and Alaska and became a key figure in twentieth century labor politics. In the 1930s, he joined protests by lettuce pickers in Washington and eventually became a union leader for the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956. He organized the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, and later joined forces with noted activists Cesear Chavez and Delores Huerta to form United Farm Workers– improving the conditions of agricultural workers across the country.
After the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Yuri Kochiyama helped unite Asian-American, Black, Latinx and Indigenous peoples in the face of systemic racism. Kochiyama is perhaps best known for her friendship with Malcolm X in the 1960s and her campaign for reparations and a formal government apology for the Japanese American internment camps.
Junior Ayaan Risvi noted the importance of addressing this history, “It’s extremely detrimental to our ability to visualize and address many of the issues that are still occurring today as a result of the abuses of our recent past. Without the proper in class resources dedicated to the addressing and teaching of our country’s past failures we will never truly move past them and we will all continue to be victims of many of the inherently racist sentiments that have been built up and reinforced through discriminatory institutions that have hindered our societal progress for millenia.”
Despite Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ immense contributions to American society, AAPI are often labeled as “perpetual foreigners”, a racist stereotype meant to undermine the contributions of Asian-Americans and instead confine them solely to their country of origin. The origins and effects of this racism are long lasting; the idea was first popularized in the 1800s when Chinese laborers immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. They made less than their white counterparts, and were frequently referred to as “the yellow peril.” Similar racist sentiments were common after the 9/11 attacks, where Americans of South Asians and Middle Eastern descent were often harassed, and after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic where attacks against Chinese Americans increased, inflamed by the tensions of former President Donald Trump who labeled the virus as “kung flu.” According to the Marshall Project (a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice across the country) hate crimes against AAPI, “more than doubled” in the past year, and the racism that originated from the bigotry and hate of the 19th century still plagues America to date.
Throughout American history, white Americans have erased the Asian American and Pacific Islander perspective. This is exemplified in the history of the transcontinental railroad, the majority of which was constructed by Chinese immigrants. But when the photographs were taken celebrating the completion of construction, the Chinese-Americans responsible for its construction were noticeably absent. Rizvi noted that teachers need to “Teach their history in public schools in more depth, and start spending the time that HOCO schools use to reteach the same whitewashed and textbook version of US History for multiple years across middle and high school, to instead go into more detail on the impacts/long lasting effects of different types of discrimination on various minority groups within United States history.”
At Atholton, the Asian Student Union, the South Asian Student Union and the Korean club all aim to highlight the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and create a community for AAPI students. As President of the South Asian Student Union, Irfan Hossain, explained the need for a space for students of South Asian descent, noting that he “wanted to make a place for all the brown kids to socialize, chill and bring everyone together.” The South Asian Student plans to hold a mock Shaadi (Indian wedding) and is planning a Bollywood night for May 18 from 4pm-8pm. The South Asian Student Sponsor Mr. Scott Brenfleck noted that he, “was proud of them for the initiative they’ve taken.”
Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage month marks much more than a simple month on a calendar. It tells the narrative of the Asian immigrants who came to this country with nothing more than a few cents and a dream. It tells the story of the scientists, the leaders, the actors and the artists. It tells the story of resistance and strength in the face of insurmountable odds; it captures their hopes and dreams and the hopes of dreams of the next generation.