How Do You Celebrate the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?
By: Lily Qi
‘Tis the season for lion dances, dragon dances and fan dances or whatever dances that represent traditional Asian cultures. ‘Tis the season to dress up in colorful “costumes” and to feast on Asian food. ‘Tis the season for symbolism. ‘Tis the season for celebrating the Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month.
I admit, as much as I find them fun to watch, I don’t feel particularly attached to my Chinese cultural heritage of lion or dragon dance because I had never seen one growing up in China, nor did I know that fortune cookie is a Chinese thing until I came to the United States! This is hardly surprising because I grew up in Shanghai, China, a very metropolitan city with heavy Western cultural influence, during an era when many cultural traditions were denounced rather than honored or preserved. Another reason is that migrants often make great efforts to hold onto their traditions while people in their home countries tend to evolve and move on to adopt new cultures and customs.
I recently spoke with a colleague who said he doesn’t really know how to celebrate the APA Heritage Month, even though he feels like he should do something. I can relate to his sentiment. Since these cultural heritage months are congressionally designated, federal and state government agencies have the obligation to do something to observe these months, so year after year, those who are tasked to put together heritage month programs usually invite a keynote speaker, order a carry-out from an Asian restaurant, and arrange a dance or some other form of entertainment. I spoke at some of these events and have noticed a general pattern, and am very empathetic to those who try to come up with good programs that draw attendees.
Unlike the cultural traditions celebrated by individuals and families of certain heritage such as the Lunar New Year or Diwali, heritage months are American institutions celebrated by organizations or groups to educate others about certain minority groups to advance equality and integration. Given that approximately three quarters of the Asian population in the capital region is foreign-born, most of us identify ourselves as Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, etc, rather than Asian. As such, race-based heritage months have little appeal to majority of the local Asian communities, who organize a mind-boggling array of rich cultural activities year-round, which makes a specially dedicated “Asian Pacific American” heritage month almost obsolete.
Understanding such demographics and dynamics is important to our design of heritage month programs so that they are relevant and purposeful in bringing different ethnic communities together and in understanding our super-diverse (both culturally and socio-economically) and highly active Asian ethnicities, which are making history here and now in the capital region, an emerging gateway to immigrants. A heritage month celebration doesn’t have to be about the heritage of our countries of origin that we may or may not identify with any more, nor does it have to be about contributions or discriminations of certain people in American history. Let’s step out of the masks of the lions and dragons and the shadows of the Japanese Internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act to understand and celebrate the new communities integral to the identities of the 21st century Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC. Having said that, I do look forward to a lion or dragon dance at the next year’s Lunar New Year celebration, whether the dancers are Chinese or not!
If you are looking for a local educational program that connects you with the communities, you are welcome to join Montgomery County, Maryland’s celebration “Asian Americans in the Capital Region: Heritage in the Making” on Thursday, May 26, 3:00 – 6:30 pm, in the Executive Office Building Auditorium (101 Monroe St., Rockville, Maryland—near Rockville metro station). The two panel discussions, “Churches, Mosques and Temples: A Faith-based Approach to Social Services” and “A Conversation with Asian American Policymakers: Perspectives on Community Engagement in a Global Economy,” will help us understand today’s Asian American identities, interests, and needs, as well as the global and local connections of our communities today.
After such shameless plug about Montgomery County’s heritage month program, I must that the day when we no longer need the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is the day when we have truly arrived as Americans. As more cultural minority communities celebrate their own designated heritage months, for example, May is also the Jewish American Heritage Month and Montgomery County also celebrates April as the Arab American Heritage Month, these heritage months will simply become part of everyday life rather than special occasions we observe only a few times a year. If we have a whole year to pay respect to certain heritage and learn about what makes us as a people and a nation, why settle for a month?
Lily Qi is Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs and Montgomery County Executive’s Liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Communities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.