Photo by Henry & Co of red and black paper lanterns hanging in Taiwan

Not Celebrating Alone

By Rachel Margiewicz

May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. It’s a time to celebrate the rich and vibrant cultures, histories, contributions, and achievements of the AAPI community. 

AAPI Heritage Month was established in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush expanded the previous week-long holiday, established in 1977, to span the full month. In Public Law 102-450, Congress details the significance of the chosen month of May. During this month in 1843 is when Japanese immigrants first arrived in the United States. Additionally, in 1869, it’s when the first transcontinental railroad “was completed with significant contributions from Chinese pioneers[.]” Two historical events from which many Asian American and Pacific Islanders can trace their lineage in the United States. 

During this month-long celebration, I reflect on my own experience as a member of the AAPI community. I rejoice that AAPI Heritage Month celebrations aren’t exclusively recognized in major cities with the largest AAPI populations, and instead extend to my home in the Midwest where the AAPI community is small, with only 2.8% of the population identifying as Asian alone. I am elated to see book collections by AAPI authors prominently displayed at my local public library this month and a festival held in the city center. Even our small zoo hosts a lantern festival at this time to highlight Asian wildlife and culture.

These small but significant events are thrilling to me in part because it’s only in the last few years that I’ve noticed AAPI Heritage Month being celebrated around me. Growing up in the Michigan suburbs, I never witnessed these types of festivities in everyday life without putting in effort to find them for myself. In my entire K-12 education, and beyond, the extent of AAPI teachings was summed up in a few days in 8th grade when we read about the Japanese internment camps during World War II. 

Being only one of a handful of AAPI students in my grade school made it feel as though the community was scattered and virtually nonexistent.  In the years between 2000 and 2010, there was an AAPI population less than 10,000 in the nearby city of Detroit. I rarely had occasion, outside of family gatherings, to feel connected to my heritage in a public way. 

It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized that AAPI history and community was all around me. Chinese immigrants first began settling in Detroit in 1872. Detroit even had a small but thriving Chinatown, until it was unfortunately dismantled by the state in favor of running a highway through it in the 1950s. Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old engineer celebrating his upcoming wedding, was brutally murdered by two white autoworkers 25 miles from my childhood home. His death kickstarted a civil rights movement across the state and country that continues today. Furthermore, prominent author and activist Grace Lee Boggs organized revolutionary groups in Detroit and nationwide for decades. Malcolm X stayed at her home with her husband, activist James Boggs, during his visits to Detroit. And yet, it wasn’t until I was in college that I even learned about either of these figures and the subsequent civil rights movements they ignited. 

While I am disheartened that this wasn’t part of my education growing up, I also rejoice that schools and states are now pushing to ensure AAPI Heritage Month teachings are included in the public school agenda. It’s not just a way for young kids to learn about and connect to their own culture and history, as I would have loved to have been able to do more as a child. It’s also a critical avenue for non-Asians to learn about the diversity within, and significance surrounding, the AAPI community to further foster respect, understanding, and inclusivity.

So, this month, I take time to not only celebrate the achievements and contributions of the AAPI community and individuals, but I also carve out moments to be thankful and grateful that I don’t celebrate alone.

*Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash