For me, the month of May means many things.
From a high schooler’s perspective, May is a crucial time. Whether we are studying for Advanced Placement Exams, finals or a test for that last unit in Math, most high-schoolers are begging for May to be over so that they can feel the stress-relieved sentiment of summer.
From a more personal perspective, May is my birthday month. Because my birthday is early on in May, I usually get to celebrate it on Mother’s Day with my mom, so ironically, I sometimes want May to last a bit longer.
But from an Asian American perspective, May is about more than celebration and stress. It is about culture. May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Asians and Pacific Islanders have been deeply woven into the history of the United States. From the moment the first Japanese immigrants arrived in America to the finale of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad built by Chinese immigrants, these events all happened in the month of May.
For most of United States History, Asians and Pacific Islanders have contributed greatly to the building blocks of this nation, only to be struck down by discrimination and a label of inferiority. Thus, in 1992, May was recognized as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month to honor our contributions.
As a first-generation Malaysian-Chinese American, I have grown up in two different cultures: my Asian heritage and my American nationality. With one foot in the land I was born and another in the lands of my ancestors, I often felt like I was growing up with two identities.
At times, my younger self felt insecure about how my ancestral language sounded to my Caucasian friends; I felt insecure about how they would regard the strange-looking oriental cuisine I had for lunch that my mom woke up early every morning to prepare; I felt insecure that my parents were not friends with my friends’ parents because of a language barrier.
As an Asian American, I also felt insecurities in my looks. Many of us grew up with the classic beauty standard of blonde hair and blue eyes. I mean, almost every little girl’s idol — Barbie — was a “blondie” herself. As an Asian with dark-brown hair, brown eyes and typical Asian features, it was hard growing up and knowing you were not exactly the epitome of beauty as a girl, especially when acquaintances would say, “You are pretty… for an Asian.”
However, a growing sense of maturity has taught me that one, beauty is not defined by race, two, the foreign tone of my ancestral language is not something to be ashamed about and three, my mom’s Nasi Lemak for lunch and Kuih Tempatan for dessert tastes good, and that is all that matters.
Though recent incidents of developing xenophobia toward Asians have been gracing my viewings of the five o’clock news, it is important to remember to maintain a sense of Asian pride when we remember what contributions our ancestors have made to our country.
Today, I feel grateful that my parents migrated from Malaysia to the United States for college. I appreciate that I was given the chance to grow up in two different cultures: that I can sing to Chinese popular music with my brother and cousins at karaoke, but also to classic America throwbacks with my friends.
Above all, I love the fact that I am born Asian.
Happy Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.