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Diversity

Celebrating Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders

May 4, 2011
Members of Ragamala, a Minneapolis-based dance troupe, perform onstage. These Indian-American dancers fuse India's artistic traditions with contemporary ideas.

Members of Ragamala, a Minneapolis-based dance troupe, perform onstage. These Indian-American dancers fuse India's artistic traditions with contemporary ideas.

By Louise Fenner and Lauren Monsen
Staff Writers

Washington — “I feel very fortunate to have two sets of cultures to enjoy — American and Vietnamese. Rather than divide my identity in half, these two sets of experience double my understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the world around me.”

Writing these words on his website, which he has titled “Asian Nation,” Vietnamese-born C.N. Le adds that he sees Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which is celebrated in the United States every May, as an opportunity “to share in the accomplishments of all Asian Americans before me.” Le is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Asian Americans include the well-known, such as actor Bruce Lee, the infantrymen of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who fought in World War II and author Maxine Hong Kingston, Le says, as well as those who are not famous “but whose accomplishments are no less impressive and inspiring.” He cites the Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad, the Japanese Americans interned during World War II and “everyday Asian immigrant families who work tirelessly to improve their lives and build a future for their children.”

President Obama praised the achievements of Asian Americans “in all facets of American life,” citing a wide-ranging group that includes “athletes and public servants, entrepreneurs and artists” and also “proud members of the United States Armed Forces.”

“From our earliest days, intrepid men and women from the Asia-Pacific region have forged enduring links between America and other nations as they moved across the Pacific,” Obama said in an April 29, 2011, proclamation. “In today’s globalized world, these bonds remain critical, reminding the United States of our rich shared history and integrated future with the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.”

In recognition of “the millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders whose talents and contributions strengthen our economy, protect our security, and enliven our country every day,” the president said, “I call upon all Americans to visit www.AsianPacificHeritage.gov to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities.”

In 2008, President George W. Bush singled out the veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Army unit that was composed mostly of volunteers recruited from U.S. internment camps during World War II. Despite the racial and cultural prejudice they faced, these soldiers “served America with distinction in eight battle campaigns in Europe,” Bush said, adding that the unit was “one of the most highly decorated in U.S. military history.” (See soldiers’ stories from the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.)

Asians are the third-largest minority group — and the second-fastest-growing group — in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, which predicts that Asians will increase from 5 percent to 9 percent of the population by 2050.

The largest population of Asians is in California, with 5.6 million, followed by New York, Texas and Hawaii.

More Asian Americans claim Chinese heritage than any other background, followed by Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese.

In addition to proclaiming special heritage months, the U.S. government celebrates America’s diversity through the “Outstanding Americans by Choice” awards, which have been presented since 2006 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to recognize the professional accomplishments and civic participation of naturalized U.S. citizens.

About a dozen Asian Americans have been named Outstanding Americans by Choice. The award has been presented to about 60 naturalized citizens from virtually every continent. Among honorees are Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive of PepsiCo, and Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system, both born in India; Vietnamese-born Anh Duong, head of the Borders and Maritime Security Division in the Department of Homeland Security; and retired Major General John L. Fugh (now deceased), who was born in Beijing and went on to become judge advocate general of the U.S. Army, responsible for legal affairs.

Two Asian Americans have been recognized by the Ellis Island Foundation with the Peopling of America Award, which honors immigrants who have made a major contribution to the American experience. In 2004, the first such award went to Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei, who came to America in 1935. He has designed more than 60 projects in the United States and abroad. In 2007, the award went to Josie Natori, who was born in the Philippines and came to America in 1964. She became the first female vice president of investment banking at Merrill Lynch and then entered the field of fashion, founding the Natori Company.

The contributions of Asian Americans were recognized officially in 1978, when a joint congressional resolution established Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. President George H.W. Bush expanded it to a month in 1990, and two years later Congress made it official with a law designating May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

The Library of Congress states that the month of May was chosen because the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843; May also marks the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants. Throughout the United States, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is celebrated with community festivals, traditional foods, parades and cultural performances. Many schools and government offices hold educational and cultural events.

More information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Facts for Features page on Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.