The month of May saw celebrations across the country in recognition of Asia Pacific American Heritage Month, honoring the millions of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States and their contributions to society. Established by Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 as a week-long celebration, it was extended to a month by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. May was chosen in recognition of several milestones that occurred in the month historically, including the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, much of which was built by Chinese immigrants.
Cities and communities celebrated the month by hosting special events across the country. This year’s events included the 36th annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Festival in New York City, one of the largest events in the country commemorating Asian Americans. In Washington, DC the National Asian Heritage Festival, also called Fiesta Asia, showcased a variety of live performing acts from across Asia, including dance, music, and martial arts from the Philippines, Tibet, Thailand, and elsewhere. Other cities also held major events, including San Francisco, which hosted the Asian Heritage Street Celebration, and Dallas, which held its 25th annual Asian Festival. In addition to city celebrations, a number of events occurred on college campuses across the country, including at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa.
Contributions by Asian Americans can be seen throughout American society, with influences in business, academics, entertainment, and government. The current Congress has a record high number of members that are of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry, at 14 in total, 13 of which are in the House of Representative. Public service contributions by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders also extend to the US military, with over 11,300 officers in the armed forces. Recently, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. became the Navy’s highest ranking official after assuming the leadership of US Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing, highest-income, and best-educated ethnic group in the United States, with more than 18 million people across the country. Hawai‘i has the most of any state, with over half the population identifying as Asian American. New York City meanwhile, has the largest Asia American population of any city in the country with over one million. These numbers are likely to grow as data projections suggest the Asian American population will exceed 47 million by 2060.
Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.