May 19, 2003
Here we are, half past May, and I bet no one has come up to you and said, "Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!"
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? I mean, what is an Asian Pacific American?
I know about this dilemma. I'm one of them.
Many Americans can at least understand what Black History Month is, and even Hispanic Heritage Month. But an APA Month? Does that have anything to do with the American Podiatry Association? Or is that the American Psychiatric Association, perhaps?
The first Asian Americans are said to be Filipinos from Spanish galleons who jumped ship in 1763 and settled along the Louisiana Bayou. But, of course, they were often referred to as "Chinamen," when, in fact, they were "Manilamen."
If you ask the Census for a definition of an Asian Pacific American, it might say, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Tahitian, Tibetan, Fijian. (Go ahead, take a deep breath here.) Nepalese, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian.
That could be the problem right there.
May has been some kind of homage to Asian Pacific Americans for 25 years and yet it seems to have all the traction of a set of tires the same age.
The term Asian Pacific American was really a term designed to make it easy for bureaucrats. It's a bean counter's dream.
The historical roots establishing the month actually date back to June 1977. N.Y. Rep. Frank Horton joined with the premier Asian Pacific American political leader, Norman Y. Mineta, who was then a congressman from San Jose, and got the ball rolling. (Mineta is now transportation secretary in President Bush's cabinet.)
It started small. In 1978, President Carter officially gave us our very own week. It wasn't until more than a decade later when the first President Bush gave us the other 24 days to fill out the rest of the calendar month.
I recently was on a Filipino-American e-mail list where someone suggested a boycott of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
But what for? Few know the month exists, except for the handful of politicians who, every year at this time, make kissy-face sounds to lure the potential voters among the nearly 11 million Asian Pacific Americans in the United States for the month. These politicians are honorary Asians but act more like "pander bears."
Without genuine community support, the celebration has forced us to feel like "This is your month and you will honor it." That sort of thing can breed more resentment than fun, and gives the celebration all the appeal of spinach.
So how can we make the month work better? I don't mind the random potluck food and the hula dancers that show up each year at some government offices. But May should be our entree to network among all the different Asian-American groups. When else do we have a great excuse to come together and talk cross-culturally in a festive, nonthreatening, noncompetitive way?
The need certainly is there.
While there are 4.2 million Asian Americans in California, the latest Census shows Asians in far-flung regions, with a growing presence in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina.
But even though the month may be designed for non-Asians to find out more about the growing Asian-American population, but they aren't the only ones who don't know the difference between the Hmong and the Mien. There are some Asians who don't even know who's in the broad category.
We can still recover. The month is not over. There's still time to celebrate a growing part of America. It's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. And it's for every one.
Emil Guillermo is a columnist for Sfgate.com and Asian Week. His book "Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective" (Monkey Tales Press/Asian Week Books, 1999) won an American Book Award.