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Mark AAPI Heritage Month With Activism, Arts, Education

Diverse cultures, voices represented in events celebrating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Manorah Thai Dancer

Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 12+ / Alamy Stock Photo

For Wilson Lee, efforts to commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander culture and history last 365 days per year, not just the 31 days dedicated to AAPI Heritage Month in May.

But he hopes the focused attention, education and awareness that this month brings will combat negative stereotypes and heighten understanding. For Lee, a cofounder of the Chinese American Heritage Foundation, this month comes at a pivotal time for the diverse nationalities and cultures being honored as they face increased racism, violence and hate crimes.

"It's incredible to see activism around the country because of the rise in violence against the AAPI community,” says Lee, 63, of Boston. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month kicks off with educational panels, celebrations, performances and festivals throughout May. Efforts to increase activism and fight prejudice are among the events slated for this month.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S, according to the Pew Research Center. The total population grew from roughly 10.5 million to 18.9 million between the years 2000 and 2019, an increase of 81 percent.

Two colorful umbrellas

Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 20+ / Alamy Stock Photo

But Asian culture in America encompasses diverse groups. AAPI Month honors cultures ranging from Chinese, Japanese and Korean to Samoan, Indian, Filipino and Polynesian. It's important to hear voices representing all those groups, says Lee, who will share his own history at a virtual panel called “My American Story," hosted by the group Chinese Americans of Lexington, Massachusetts, on May 20.

The event will feature personal histories from leaders in the AAPI community. “It's important we become much more visible and participatory in American life, so we can be heard,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, another panelist and a Japanese-American professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “With Asians, there is not a unified narrative because we all have very different backgrounds. We have important stories that need to be told."

While most big festivals, panels and performances celebrating AAPI Heritage Month remain virtual, a few are being held in person. Check out some of the offerings below.

Improve understanding to combat hate

This month, activists, community leaders and organizations are hosting events to encourage people to use their voices to ignite social change.

On May 6, AARP will host a free public webinar, #StopAsianHate: Advocating for Our Elders, to call attention to the ways individuals, organizations and communities of color can advocate for AAPI elders as they face fallout from the pandemic, racism and ageism. The discussion will tackle stereotypes and how to provide support, says Daphne Kwok, a vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at AARP, who will moderate the event.

"Let us all commit to stopping AAPI hate by taking three actions: Learn about how detrimental the ‘model minority myth’ is to AAPIs; shatter the ‘perpetual foreigner’ image of AAPIs; and reach out and support your AAPI friends, neighbors, and colleagues,” Kwok says.

Similarly, the Asia Society of Texas will host a livestreamed discussion on May 6 about activism and what people and organizations can do to combat ongoing attacks.

"Improving understanding of the AAPI community is important,” says Dahua Pan, a board member and secretary of the Chinese Americans of Lexington. “If you have a better understanding, then you will have a better appreciation of the community, and that will help build bridges between different groups."

At the virtual legislative leadership summit hosted by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), from May 11 to May 13, panelists will examine successes and challenges for the AAPI community in areas ranging from civil rights and business to the digital divide and even Hollywood.

And to better understand the complex history of Asian American violence and how it resonates today, the Chinese American Museum in Washington, D.C., and the 1882 Foundation are cohosting a six-part virtual series entitled “Quiet Before: Unearthing Anti-Asian Violence,” with sessions running throughout the month and featuring more than 50 speakers.

Celebrate through the arts

Enjoy this AARP livestream concert featuring ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro on May 27 at 8 p.m. ET. This musical event will celebrate the perspectives of AAPI storytellers and explore the connections between music and health.

While there are plenty of serious topics to explore, there's also a chance to dance, laugh and sing. Check out the livestream of the Huraiti Mana Polynesian dance troupe or watch expert hula dancers during a virtual festival on May 2 that's being organized by the Seattle Center and the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition. Or appreciate the graceful art of traditional Samoan dance in an exhibition on May 5 from the American Samoan Community College, which will be available on the Library of Congress’ website afterward.

If you're looking for lighter fare, tune in May 1 to comedian Sheng Wang's interactive performance. Wang was a writer for ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom that charted the experiences of a Taiwanese-American family.

The cast and crew of "Minari"

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The cast of the Oscar-winning movie Minari.

While many AAPI Heritage Month events are virtual, those in the Houston area can catch an outdoor showing of the Oscar-nominated movie Minari on May 7. The film, which features South Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn — who recently earned a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her performance — tells the story of a multigenerational Korean American family settling in the Arkansas Ozarks in the 1980s.

Houston residents can also take an in-person docent-led tour every Saturday in May, through a photography exhibit at the Asia Society of Texas titled "Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power," which highlights pieces from Bangladeshi artist and activist Shahidul Alam.

And PBS is featuring films and documentaries that let you delve deeply into traditions, history, culture and the arts — everything from Vietnamese fashion designers to traditional Polynesian dances. Check your local listings and the website for availability.

Take a deep dive into history

AAPI communities have helped shape the American experience and influenced American culture in areas that range from food to industry and politics. To learn more, start with a documentary about Filipino farm workers in the U.S., who played a pivotal role in fighting for farm workers’ rights in the 1960s. Or jump into the story of Tyrus Wong, a Chinese American artist who pioneered Disney animation, American art and popular culture.

"We want to make sure when people see Asian Americans, they see Americans. They see great accomplishments, participation and contributions to the American fabric,” says David Uy, the executive director of the Chinese American Museum Foundation. “We celebrate by telling that story."

Those personal stories will be on full display in a five-hour docuseries from PBS available free all month. The series will share the histories and stories of important AAPI figures and personalizes their stories through the lens of history.

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Bring history to life and inspire future travels with a virtual tour through historical sites that have special meaning for the AAPI community, put together by the U.S. National Park Service, which highlights landmarks all across the country. These include the 21-building Pennsylvania complex where renowned Japanese American woodworker, architect and furniture maker George Nakashima practiced his craft, as well as the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which houses the sailing vessel Star of India, the fourth oldest ship afloat in the U.S.

Even after AAPI Heritage Month ends, Lee says he hopes the older generation will inspire more people to continue educating themselves and others about the culture and history.

"Each AAPI person is an ambassador of goodwill for our community,” Lee says. “Invite your coworker, invite your classmates, someone who has no conception of an AAPI [culture]. If each of us will share our story, share our struggle, share the aspiration of our grandparents, wouldn't this country be great?”

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 30. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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