May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) in the United States. It commemorates the immigration of the first Japanese on May 7, 1843, and marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. It’s a month full of festive activities that celebrate the cultures of Asian and Pacific Islander people in the United States, while also remembering the challenges in American history, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese Internment Camps during World War II.
In many ways, North America’s history is shaped by the presence of native people in the Pacific Islands and immigrants from Asia. Similarly, the story of the United States is not about how immigrants became Americans, but rather how people from different cultures and heritage shaped American culture. Inspired by Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here are some ways the US was shaped by Asian immigrants and native Pacific Islanders.
Optimism for the Future and the Right to a Better Life:
America is often considered the Land of Opportunity. The American disposition for optimism and change for a better future is never more symbolic and literal than the transcontinental railroad. During the mid-1800’s, migrant workers—the majority of whom were Chinese—labored tirelessly to build the railroad that bridged the entire nation “from sea to shining sea.” The transcontinental helped transition the American landscape from a wild west frontier to a modern industrial nation. It was during this transition that Chinese people, facing hostility from Americans of European descendant, created refuges for their communities in neighborhoods now known across the country as Chinatowns.
Due to its immigrant roots, the United States believes fundamentally in the right to a better life. This year is the 45th anniversary of the first political refugees in the United States. Southeast Asian American refugees escaped the damage from the Vietnam War and solidified the American reputation for offering refuge to those fleeing persecution.
Another push for a better life and greater opportunity came with 2001’s introduction of the first version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act grants temporary residency to the children of people who immigrated to the United States illegally. The first young undocumented immigrant, Tereza Lee, inspired the DREAM Act. A Korean-American born in Brazil, Lee was accepted into a prestigious US music school but her undocumented status would have made her ineligible to pursue her future. After appealing to her local senator, several US senators banded together to pass the DREAM Act. Her story exhibits not only the possibility to change one’s destiny in the US, but also serves to uphold the ideal of America as the Land of Opportunity.
High Tolerance for Change:
Since the United States is a relatively young country compared to most of the world, the American value system revolves around optimism for the future, and a high tolerance for change. For example, Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who came to help build the railroad in. Denied re-entry into the U.S. after visiting China, Wong Kim Ark fought for his right as an American citizen, through the civil court system all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1897. His very American tenacity and sense of righteousness proved fruitful, because it was ruled that those born in the U.S. shall be deemed citizens.
Waves of immigrants have experienced the social and economic mobility—and the importance of equal rights—that have, over time, helped pave the way for the American Dream of success. In 1964, Patsy Mink, a third-generation Japanese American from Hawaii, was the first Asian-American to be elected into U.S. Congress. She helped bring gender equality to the forefront of American politics by co-authoring and sponsoring Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The American sense of equality can also be seen in Hollywood, where actors like Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee pushed back against playing harmful stereotypes on screen in favour of their own personal talents, and paved the way for TV and film successes like Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
I for one am proud of the contributions Asian and Pacific Americans have made to the United States, but I want to emphasize that heralding these accomplishments should not perpetuate the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “Model Minority.” The strive for equality and opportunity in spite of incredible adversity is an American experience that does not belong to any one group in the United States. Rather, it is an American characteristic that shapes the country to this day.