Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“Did you know that…the Asian population grew faster than any other race group in the United States between 2000 and 2010…[and that] Chinese is the second most widely spoken non-English language in the country (behind Spanish)”?

I spoke last Sunday at Good Neighbors Church—the English-language ministry of Covenant United Methodist Church in Pomona, California. The occasion? May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and the pastor (a former student of mine) wanted his mostly second-generation Korean American congregation to hear from someone who both self-identifies and pursues scholarship in Asian American Christianity.

Through a Q & A format, I shared with them many things: my experiences growing up in a Taiwanese evangelical church (particularly, the role of women therein), some similarities and differences between Taiwanese and Korean churches in the U.S., my community’s response to my nontraditional career path, and how and why my parents finally came around to accepting (and wholeheartedly loving) their Caucasian son-in-law. I will blog about those topics in future posts.

For now, however, I’d like to share some facts and figures about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. in honor of this commemorative month.

Did you know…

  • that the term “Asian-Pacific” encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island)?
  • that Asian-Pacific Heritage Month originally began as a ten-day celebration in 1978, became extended into a month-long celebration in 1992, and was officially proclaimed as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2009?
  • that the month of May was selected to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the U.S. (May 7, 1843) as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869)—a feat that was accomplished by a largely Chinese immigrant workforce?

The most recent census also provides a number of important facts and figures about the Asian population.  (Per a 1997 Office of Management and Budget directive, the “Asian or Pacific Islander” racial category was split into two separate categories: (1) Asian, (2) Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.)

According to U.S. Census 2010, U.S. residents of Asian descent comprise only 5.6% of the total population, but

  • the Asian population grew faster than any other race group in the United States between 2000 and 2010  (whether persons self-identified as Asian alone or in combination with one or more other races)
  • 80% of Asians live in a household with internet usage—the highest rate among race and ethnic groups
  • Chinese is the second most widely spoken non-English language in the country (behind Spanish).

I can think of no better of way of providing even more information about this demographic than by closing with the May 1, 2012 Presidential Proclamation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month—thereby showcasing three of my loves/loyalties: (1) the Asian/Pacific Islander American community, (2) history, (3) the 44th President of the United States:

Generations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have helped make America what it is today. Their histories recall bitter hardships and proud accomplishments — from the laborers who connected our coasts one-and-a-half centuries ago, to the patriots who fought overseas while their families were interned at home, from those who endured the harsh conditions of Angel Island, to the innovators and entrepreneurs who are driving our Nation’s economic growth in Silicon Valley and beyond. Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month offers us an opportunity to celebrate the vast contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to our Nation, reflect on the challenges still faced by AAPI communities, and recommit to making the American dream a reality for all.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise many ethnicities and languages, and their myriad achievements embody the American experience. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have started businesses, including some of our Nation’s most successful and dynamic enterprises. AAPI men and women are leaders in every aspect of American life — in government and industry, science and medicine, the arts and our Armed Forces, education and sports.

Yet, while we celebrate these successes, we must remember that too often Asian American and Pacific Islanders face significant adversity. Many AAPI communities continue to fight prejudice and struggle to overcome disparities in education, employment, housing, and health care. My Administration remains committed to addressing these unique challenges. Through the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we are working to expand opportunities for AAPI communities by improving access to Federal programs where Asian American and Pacific Islanders are currently underserved. To learn more about the Initiative, visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/AAPI.

As we also take this occasion to reflect on our past, we mark 70 years since the Executive Order that authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Last month, I announced my intent to posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the country’s highest civilian honor — to Gordon Hirabayashi, who openly defied this forced relocation, and bravely took his challenge all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

This year, we also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese cherry blossom trees planted in Washington, D.C., an enduring symbol of the friendship shared between the United States and Japan and a reminder of America’s standing as a Pacific nation. Over the centuries, we have maintained a long, rich history of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, and our AAPI communities have been essential to strengthening the economic, political, and social bonds we share with our partners around the world.

This month, we reflect on the indelible ways AAPI communities have shaped our national life. As we celebrate centuries of trial and triumph, let us rededicate ourselves to making our Nation a place that welcomes the contributions of all people, all colors, and all creeds, and ensures the American dream is within reach for all who seek it.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2012 as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 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 WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth.


Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing an anthology with Rebecca Todd Peters that is tentatively entitled “Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives.” Read more about her work on her website.

Hosting students in my Asian American Christianity course for lunch on the last day of class

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

6 thoughts on “Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. As Nisei (second generation Japanese), my children strongly identify with their Japanese heritage due in large part to the steady stream of Japanese relatives who influenced their childhood and adult years. Their paternal great-grandmother, unable to speak English, always found ways to communicate with the children, mostly through cooking and the serving of their favorite dishes. But it was her daily practice and offerings of food before Buddha that seemed to endear and captivate my children’s interest. For a time, each of my girls would dance in the July Oban festival, clothed in kimono’s handmade by their great-grandmother. I continue to be grateful for the rich, cultural influence these strong, tenacious Japanese women brought to the lives of my children.


    1. Cynthie: I didn’t know that you were raising HAPA kids? We have much more to talk about, don’t we?


  2. Great article! I am so glad the AAPI community now has a month commemorating their contributions and achievement. Too often Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are overlooked, and seen as the “model minority.” It is important to respect and treat the AAPI community as diverse and dynamic.


  3. It is important to remember the contributions made in the Asian Pacific community. However, their contributions should be remembered all year long, instead of being segregated to a specific month for politically correct reasons.


    1. Sose – thanks for writing. I see your point not as an “either/or,” but a both/and, meaning that I don’t have a problem of highlighting the contributions of individuals on certain days (e.g., Mother’s Day) or for entire months (as in the case here) so long as everyone understands that gratitude and awareness should be shown to the persons involved all year long…


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