AAPI Historical Month

Over 23 million Americans consider themselves to be AAPI (Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders) ethnic group. Asian-Americans have ancestry from 50 different ethnicities and 40 countries, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Pacific Islanders have origins in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, and includes Native Hawaiians. The term AAPI is controversial as it encompasses numerous cultures, traditions, and histories, and over 100 languages.

In 1990 the US government named May as the AAPI Historical Month, in recognition of the first Japanese immigrants of 1843 and the Chinese migrants who built the US Transcontinental Railroad (1863-69). Chinese laborers were treated very differently from the white American laborers – usually Irish or Mormon, who were also out of the American mainstream. They lived in tents as opposed to train cars, were paid half of what white workers were paid, and had to find their own meals.  

Sadly, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 limiting immigration to only Chinese diplomats or businessmen. The need for cheap labor continued, however, opening the door for other immigrants to move to the US to improve their lives. Hawaii was the initial landing point for many Japanese, working in sugar cane fields.  The first Japanese to land on the US mainland was Manjiro, an incredible story of being lost at sea at 14 and rescued by an American whaler boat.

The Filipino arrival to the US pre-dates that of the Japanese and Chinese: in 1763 a group of Filipinos on a Spanish galleon jumped ship near New Orleans to escape forced labor, founding the first Filipino American settlement in St. Malo, Louisiana. In the centuries that followed, Filipino sailors, domestics and other adventurers came to the US, many moving to Hawaii and Alaska to pursue whaling and fishing careers.

Each of the immigrant groups in the all-encompassing term AAPI have unique stories and contributions. At the intersection of AAPI and gender is the story of Chien-Shiung Wu, “the first lady of Physics,” who came to the US in 1936 to continue her studies at UC Berkley. Her two Chinese American colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1957. Yet, “her crucial contribution to particle physics” was ignored by the Nobel Prize Committee. Chien-Shiung was the first woman hired by Princeton University’s Physics Department. She worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII.

Other notable AAPI contributions include: 

Larry Itliong, a Filipino immigrant, was an activist, labor organizer and union leader for migrant farmers, joining forces with Latinx leaders to form the United Farm Workers Association to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.  

Yuri Kochiyama’s 2 years in a Japanese Internment Camp during WWII led her to become a civil rights activist, advocating for Asian- and African Americans, as well as Latinos. She was responsible for the American Civil Liberties Act (1988), signed into law by President Reagan, granting reparations to those wrongfully interred by the Government.

And the list goes on:

Ajay Bhatt – Indian American – invented the USB and other computer technologies, CIO of Intel.

Steve Chen – Taiwanese American invented YouTube with Jawed Karim – Bangladeshi German American and Chad Hurley a Pennsylvanian.

Amanda Nguyen – Vietnamese American – wrote the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act of 2016 guaranteeing victims certain rights, including access to their records.

Diversity has strengthened our nation. Equity protects us and allows us to contribute to our country and communities.  Inclusion continues to be something we can all work towards. Today many Asian-Americans face hostility and violence, much of it due to the misinformation on the Pandemic. Our work is not done.