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Lee: Let’s celebrate our culture, reflect on APIDA representation this APIDA Heritage Month

Seri Lee, Op-Ed Contributor

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I didn’t know Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Month existed until last year, during my senior year of high school. When I coincidentally came across a scholarship for Asian American high school seniors, I found out there existed an entire month — 31 whole days — to commemorate the struggles and celebrate the achievements of people like me. I felt a mixture of shock, comfort and confusion and wondered why I hadn’t know it existed before.

APIDA Heritage Month celebrates the history, struggles and triumphs of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi population. In 1978, Congress passed a joint resolution that proclaimed the first week of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. In 1990, this week of observance expanded to a month. May was specifically chosen because it commemorates two significant events in Asian American history. On May 7, 1843, the first Japanese individuals immigrated to the United States, while May 10, 1869 marks the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, an expansionist project that ruthlessly exploited Chinese immigrants. Finally, Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975, though APIDA Heritage Month’s official U.S. government website fails to mention this fact. This marked the end of the Vietnam War but, more importantly, the end of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam.

As the history of APIDA Heritage Month reflects, the experiences of the APIDA community are often perceived as monolithic and reflect the experiences of a singular sub-group: East Asians. The two events that determined May as APIDA Heritage Month both concerned communities of East Asian descent. Too often, we exclude the experiences of other non-East Asian and Pacific Islander communities in our discourse of Asia/Pacific America. The communities that make up the APIDA population are heterogeneous, and our experiences — similar in some ways yet still interconnected — are as well.

Newspapers in the 1960s first perpetuated the model minority myth, reporting that Asian Americans had overcome discrimination and succeeded because of our work ethic. This reinforces racial hierarchies and pits communities of color against one another by contrasting Asian Americans with what people perceive to be the “problem” minorities, usually the black community. It also perpetuates the notion that the APIDA community is homogeneous, even though there are vast differences in median household income, access to quality schools and educational attainment among subgroups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the APIDA median household income was $75,000 in 2013-2015. But the median household income for individuals of Indian, Filipino and Taiwanese descent spanned a range of $75,000 to $100,000, while Burmese, Bhutanese and the unspecified Micronesian median household income spanned a range of $30,000-$40,000. As these statistics have shown, the APIDA community is by no means monolithic, and the exclusion — whether unconscious or conscious — of non-East Asian and Pacific Islander communities is detrimental.

Even in the Northwestern community, we have issues with inclusivity when it comes to defining what exactly “Asian-interest,” “Asian American” and “Asian Pacific Islander Desi American” means. Some student organizations use any combination of these words in their mission statements, but the individuals that make up these groups are primarily of East Asian descent. For instance, Pi Alpha Phi is an “Asian American-interest fraternity.” But upon hearing the experiences of one of its members, I learned that it currently has no non-East Asian active members, which has been the case since its founding. The member said that upon visiting the University of Michigan chapter, he realized the NU chapter relatively lacked diversity. He said it has been difficult to find a more diverse group of members when “our current members have so little engagement with non-East Asian students.”

In the words of one member of Sigma Psi Zeta, the sorority’s mission is “to promote awareness of all Asian cultures” and “to strive to reflect those values through inclusivity.” However, like many other “Asian-interest” groups, the sisterhood is also primarily of East Asian descent. I’m the Associated Student Government senator for the Asian Pacific American Coalition, and most of us are also ethnically East Asian. This discrepancy in mission statement and the ethnic membership of these organizations reveal a larger problem with Northwestern’s community, in that non-East Asian and Pacific Islander communities do not see themselves well represented.

This year, my experience as a member of the APIDA Heritage Month student planning committee helped me to not only acknowledge the challenges within the APIDA community but to also take immense pride in the many significant contributions we’ve made to society. Our struggles and triumphs often go unnoticed. How often in the media do we hear about anti-Asian violence, including hate crimes against Sikhs and other groups mistaken for Muslims after 9/11? How often, and to what extent, do our U.S. history classes cover U.S. settler colonialism in the Pacific Islands or American colonialism and imperialism in general? On the flipside, many people, myself included, can only name a handful of influential members in the APIDA community off the top of their head. We are invisible to the media, politicians and research institutes. But the fact of the matter is that we exist.

APIDA Heritage Month is important to me because it is a time for the APIDA community to come together, empower one another and compel others to acknowledge our existence. This month, the student planning committee and many on-campus student organizations have planned numerous events to celebrate our various accomplishments, cultures and traditions. Let’s show up for each other and take pride in our existence.

Seri Lee is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at serilee2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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