May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Before we go wild and cheer, to keep it in perspective, it’s also National Moving Month, celebrating the busiest month people are picking up and going somewhere else. Which may sound silly, but consider April as National Poetry Month shares the same bill with National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month. Go figure.
There’s good and bad to be said about making any month a national celebration of anything. I see both ends of the spectrum, from great programs and speakers coming to town to the unfortunate barrage of people with did-you-know factoids and groan-inducing questions revealing how little we all really know about each other. But it’s better than the days no one was interested, period.
In my book, the worst way to celebrate is to grab a box of cheapo take-out and pop in Kung Pow! There’s more to developing cultural appreciation than that.
There’s over 60 different ethnic communities from Asia and the Pacific Islands making their home in Minnesota. This includes Fijians, the Karen and Tai Dam, Japanese, Koreans, Lao, Hmong, Chinese, Burmese, Tibetans and Taiwanese and many others.
This year is particularly historical for Southeast Asians from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. 35 years ago in April, 1975, the United States left the region, effectively ending the wars in our nations, changing our lives forever.
Most of our stories are untold, unheard, or reduced to the imagery of films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. We see our experiences turned into abstractions.
What concerns me deeply are oversimplifications of our story, especially those from Laos. A war guided in no small part by the US State Department and CIA involving Tai Dam, Khmu, Hmong, Nung, Mien, Lao, Thai and many others. This wasn’t just one or two cultures involved, but many. It was a nation struggling to define itself and its future. This was complicated. It ultimately displaced or killed over half a million people.
I believe true history deserves a better accounting for what really happened out there than what we’ve heard to date. We’re still building the record. It’s painful to describe how incomplete it really is, even after three decades.
As I travel, I see far too many veterans and elders whose voices and memories haven’t been heard. Every week, we lose another member of our community who helped create our heritage. That’s irrecoverable, all too often unsung.
Once known as “The Realm of a Million Elephants,” modern Laos is a country roughly the size of Great Britain, and for 600 years they sought ways to unify over 60 different cultures in their borders. Lao society has valued truth, compassion, hospitality, peace and the search for knowledge. It treasures self-determination and diversity over rigid conformity.
Have all of these ideas remained a part of the Laotian community in America? Like all refugees and immigrants, we’re each finding our way. Some maintain more traditional views, others are adapting and modernizing them, others set them aside completely.
But we have all been a part of the American experience. We did not just come up from nowhere. And there is much we can celebrate about what our cultures tried to pass on from one generation to the next, and build with this.
There are many ways to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but the best can’t be bought and sold. They must be experienced and heard, shared and remembered.