The Meaning of Asian Pacific Island Heritage Month

By Tania Tam Park, Equity + Community Engagement Manager, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency
May 12, 2020

What does Asian Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month mean to me? To be honest, I didn’t know that there was such a thing until I moved to Seattle. Upon learning about it, I remember feeling a mix of surprise, intrigue, pride, and confusion. In trying to understand how I missed this growing up, I found out that where I grew up in Wisconsin, API populations are less than 4%; in the greater Puget Sound region, that figure is almost triple at 10% in King County and 16% in Pierce County. As I continue in my journey of understanding racial equity and my role in it I recognize I am in a different mindset, surrounded by different community networks, and in a different region of the country—factors that help answer why API Heritage Month is more notable here.

I now understand the month of May is set aside to acknowledge and celebrate the vast range of communities and cultures from Asia and the Pacific Islands. What I have also learned is that in 1978, Congress passed a joint Congressional Resolution to celebrate Asian American Heritage Week during the first 10 days of May. These dates were chosen because of two important anniversaries: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad by mostly Chinese laborers on May 10, 1869. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush and Congress voted to expand the celebration and since 1992, May has been officially designated as API Heritage Month in the U.S.

Since this was not an occasion we celebrated growing up, it has given me a chance to reflect, now with a few more years under my belt. What stands out to me about this dedicated month is the breadth of cultures and communities who are considered “Asian and Pacific Islander” – 30 countries and over 100 languages and dialects! It is easy to focus on my specific Korean and Chinese heritage, but to know that these are just two among so many others brings a healthy perspective to my worldview. On the flip side of that coin, it also brings perspective on how diverse the categorization “Asian Pacific Islanders” actually is. I’ve learned from a number of advocates about the importance of disaggregating data to help capture the variation among API communities, e.g. health outcomes, student achievement, rates of income and poverty, etc. This is something that I can try to bring into my work at the Agency in our work to address disproportionality.

Finally, what API Heritage Month also provides is the reminder of how important identity and empowerment are for myself, but more importantly, my children. Just because the API population where I grew up was minimal, that doesn’t make me, my family, or my heritage any less significant. I want to make sure our kids have a solid foundation and understand our cultural background, are familiar with inspiring API role models, and can see themselves (and other POCs) in the content of their curriculum as well as the people in our community. Whether they know it or not, my kids ultimately hold me accountable to live up to the values I teach and espouse, both at home and at work – this is truly where “the rubber meets the road.”