What Is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month? And How You Can Celebrate This Year

May 1 kicks off 31 days devoted to the invaluable contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. For 31 days, we celebrate the AAPI communities here in the U.S. and all of their great influences and accomplishments. AAPI refers to the huge and wonderfully diverse groups that descend from Asia as well as the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. This month is a nod to the AAPI people in our history as well as our current lives. It commemorates the successes and acknowledges the struggles and discrimination our communities have faced.

adult woman and her senior mother smiling on front porch
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

How It Started

Sometimes, all it takes is just one person to make a difference.

In 1976, Jeanie Jew, a former Congressional staffer, noticed there was a lack of recognition of AAPI people during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations, according to Time.

Jew wanted the United States to recognize the accomplishments of the AAPI communities but also the hardships and grief they have faced, like her own great-grandfather who was killed during a time of anti-Asian sentiment in the mid-1800s.

She told New York Congressman Frank Horton there should be a week to recognize Asians and Pacific Islanders, and he later introduced a bill for an AAPI week in 1978. That grew to a month in 1992, when Horton again approached Congress about the designation. President George H.W. Bush signed a law that expanded the celebration for the full month of May.

Why May?

May was picked for AAPI Heritage Month as a way to acknowledge the immigration of the first Japanese people to the U.S. on May 7, 1843.

It also marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, where the majority of the workers were from China. Honoring their monumental achievement also raises awareness that they were often forced into labor and horrific working conditions.

How You Can Celebrate This Year

The month is not just about ordering takeout from your favorite Asian restaurant. It's about checking in on your AAPI friends and making sure they know you support them after the rise in hate crimes this past year. It's also about educating ourselves in some history, celebrating our accomplishments, and not erasing the hardships.

Host a Podcast Party

There are so many talented AAPI podcast creators out there, that within an hour, you'll be laughing, crying, or critically analyzing along with them. Invite your friends over to have a listening party or text out some links and talk over Zoom. We've got a few picks for you below.

Self Evident: Asian America's Stories gives listeners an intimate look into the lives and struggles of AAPI people as they share their personal experiences, including abusive marriages and rewatching Mulan, and discussing how to combat racism within their own communities.

Asian Enough is a podcast hosted by the Los Angeles Times and explores the complicated nuances of Asian American identities through a celebrity-filled cast of guests. Some past guests include comedian and actress Margaret Cho, Vice President Kamala Harris, and author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Asian Americana dives specifically into aspects of Asian American culture, like our country's obsessive craze with bubble tea and the stereotypes behind facial hair and Asian men.

Go to Museums

There is so much beautiful and thought-provoking Asian art in museums across the country, and there are a few stand-alone spots that are specifically dedicated to the wide spectrum and history of that art. Drop by to soak up some history as well as the deep cultural influences AAPI art has made on our society. The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle offers both modern art galleries as well as collections that expose what life was like for early immigrants. Asia Society and Museum in New York is presenting some of the best pieces of Asian art in U.S. history, including historical and religious looks at Buddha and Shiva. They also regularly host talks spotlighting movies, politics, and AAPI artists.

Don't live in any of these cities? All of them offer virtual tours. Visit asianpacificheritage.gov for more information on exhibits.

Sit Down and Read a Book

If you're interested in some AAPI perspectives and history check out these books below.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

cover of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
Courtesy of Barnes and Noble

Cathy Park Hong gives her striking insights into the impossible-to-reach goal of American exceptionalism and how it results in internal strife, especially for AAPI people who are held to the damaging "model minority" standard. The book is both a memoir of Hong's life and a history lesson into the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination Asian Americans have faced throughout time.

Buy It: Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning ($16, Barnes and Noble)

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir

cover of All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir
Courtesy of Barnes and Noble

All You Can Ever Know is a memoir about Nicole Chung's life and unpacks living as an adopted child of a white family in Oregon. Chung, who was put up for adoption by her Korean parents, shares what it was like experiencing discrimination that her parents couldn't understand and her search and ultimate reckoning surrounding her birth parents.

Buy It: All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir ($15, Barnes and Noble)

Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear

cover of Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear
Courtesy of Barnes and Noble

In the 19th century, "yellow peril" was a racist phrase depicting East Asian people as a threat to Western society. The book examines the history of this ideology and how these damaging narratives of Asian people being "exotic" or "foreign" continue in everything from pop culture to political campaign ads.

Buy It: Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear ($35, Barnes and Noble)

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