May has once again arrived, and with it comes yet another Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI1AAPI is primarily used in this post to refer to AAPI Heritage Month (or more archaically, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM)), which is conventionally named for both groups. Otherwise, I use the AAPI acronym only when it is contextually appropriate to jointly refer to both Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Otherwise, I am specific about which community I am referring to, and use the appropriate term accordingly.) Heritage Month. Back when I first started my activism work, I used to mark this month in my calendar. I looked forward to May as a moment of celebration and triumph for communities otherwise too often overlooked.
When I was a student activist, I skipped weeks of classes (much to the chagrin of my parents and professors): I was on a quixotic mission to expand our school’s celebration of AAPI Heritage Month from a mere week of events to a full month’s worth of invited speakers, film screenings, and workshops. In the early days of Reappropriate, I planned a (barely-sustainable) schedule of posts to commemorate AAPI Heritage Month that included hours of research and writing each week. By May 31, I would collapse in an exhausted heap, worn out from a month of frenzied, non-stop work but convinced that I had poured my energy into a just and worthy cause.
Our community’s collective excitement over AAPI Heritage Month is understandable. For many in the AAPI communities, our politics are centrally defined by the search for visibility. We desperately yearn to be seen: whether it is to see ourselves represented in popular media; or, to see ourselves elected to public office; or, to see our most marginalized voices be better centered within the larger Asian American movement. And rightfully so: for centuries, the Asian American experience has been defined by our political invisibility. Our history – both of racial trauma and triumph – is largely unknown. Even in the modern age, we are ignored by mainstream political discourse. This invisibility is even more salient for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who are so often marginalized by both mainstream America and Asian American organizing efforts alike that they now (understandably) question the value of combining Asian American and Pacific Islander politics into a single acronym at all.
For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!
One of my earliest formative memories in my journey towards identifying as an AAPI activist was my AAPI history course at Cornell where I read Ron Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore. Later, in another class, I read Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart. I was particularly struck by how both books rooted the AAPI struggle in America within the growing national labour movement of the early twentieth century. Contrary to the stereotypes (of the hard-working and long-suffering labourer who would rather display a strong work ethic than walk off the job), we were not silent bystanders in this struggle; we were in many ways defined by our widespread belief in improved workers’ rights. Whether on the sugar plantations of Hawaii or the sweatshops of New York City Chinatowns, we organized and stood up for our rights as labourers. Photographs of Asian American women taking to the streets by the thousands to strike against the owners of garment factories is forever inscribed into my mind as a quintessential symbol of what it means to not just be an empowered Asian American activist, but an Asian American feminist.
Nearly a century later, I’m also surprised that these momentous marches are almost entirely lost to history, and rarely taught in our classrooms. Why do we not remember the 1867 Chinese American Railroad Workers’ Strike that involved 2000 labourers walking off the worksite? Why do we not remember the 1982 New York City Garment Worker Strike which involved 20,000 garment workers — most of them Chinese American women? Why don’t we remember the names Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz?
Trung is a Vietnamese American immigrant queer artist born in a UN refugee camp in the Philippines, who moved to the United States at the age of 2, and who came out to his family at the age of 17.
How do you see yourself — as immigrant, artist, queer or more?
I find myself constantly trying to figure out how to move between spaces instead of settling in them. I am uncomfortable thinking about myself as a sum of parts – everyone knows you are all of yourself at once. But I often get the sense that I’m always dealing with myself in pieces. The safe spaces availed to me tend to be made for parts of me.
My queer and Asian American identities are prominent parts of my life because they’re the facets of me that are the most often politicized and subject to respectability politics. They’re the ones that I’d always been encouraged to keep quiet about for the sake of politeness.
Asian & Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC) has roots as a grassroots California advocacy group that received federal non-profit status in 2008, and it remains the country’s only disability rights and education non-profit focused on the Asian American disabled community. According to Jean Lin, Outreach Coordinator for APIDC, APIDC originated in 1998 through the work of community activist and employment attorney Patty Kanaga. According to Lin, Kanaga, who was serving at the time on a committee appointed by the California Governor’s committee to address the employment of disabled persons, organized the state’s first conference to address the AAPI community with disabilities “after she realized that AAPI with disabilities are not addressed in any way”.
I recently remarked to a longtime Twitter friend that I feel we live in a magical time, and I always wonder if young movement folks in the past felt that way, too. My friend suggested that not every generation gets to feel that way but there are definitely moments that people live through when they know they are in a magical time. I feel confident saying we live in one such time, but there’s still a question of what we’re going to do with that magic.
The internet has played no small part in the moment we’re in. More than ever, young people are connected to each other, having conversations about the things that matter to us, from pop music to police violence. We’re realizing there are more of us than there are of them, and that’s an incredibly hopeful thing. We live in a time of rapid reinvention, and at a moment when the conversations we are having online—for better or worse—are catching the attention of the mainstream.
For me, the internet always filled the gap between the community where I live and the one I long for. Growing up, finding my peers in the suburban Michigan town where my mom bought a house after she and my dad divorced was a challenge. I didn’t lack for friends, but there were conversations I wanted that I just couldn’t have with them. I was itching to define my politics, which is something I ultimately found online.