On Oct. 5, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a resolution declaring the first week of May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week. In June of 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill that made Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week into Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
For APAHM, Ohio State students spoke about their experiences growing up in the U.S. and what it means for them to be Asian-American.
Ethan Chan, third-year in biology
Born and raised in Dayton, Ethan had always felt like he had to hold back the Asian side of his identity, for he felt it interfered with his American culture.
“I kind of just wanted to fit in, really,” he said. “When I was younger, I would just talk to other people about American culture, ignore my heritage, kind of.”
However, while Ethan’s grandparents mainly focused on the cultural aspects of his heritage, he said his parents — his father is from Malaysia and his mother is from China — didn’t put much of an emphasis on culture, as he felt they similarly wanted to integrate better into American culture like he later did.
In elementary and middle school, Ethan said he had to deal with his own personal image, that he felt like he “looked different and felt different.”
“When I talked to people, I’d always have in the back of my head that I was different, that I wouldn’t fit in, that my ideas would be different and I’d just be the wrong kind of person in a way,” he said.
“I kind of just wanted to fit in, really … When I was younger, I would just talk to other people about American culture, ignore my heritage, kind of.” —Ethan Chan, a third-year in biology
However in high school, Ethan said he cared less about what he used to think.
“I kind of became more of who I am, which is kind of an integration between American culture and Asian culture,” he said.
Even so, Ethan said that growing up, he received “quite a bit” of racist comments from the other kids at school such as comments about his eyes, and even ate more American food just to avoid comments about food that might have been more unfamiliar to those around him.
Now, Ethan is a part of student organizations such as the Asian American Association, Asian Pacific Islander Cohort and Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, which he said happened as a result of wanting to explore more of his roots since he didn’t when he was younger, which includes learning Chinese. His dad speaks Malay and his mom speaks Mandarin, so they couldn’t speak to each other and as a result Ethan said he never really learned it.
To Ethan, being Asian-American means being a part of a melting pot of cultures, standing back and being a part of one’s own culture.
“You don’t have to spread [your culture], but it’s nice that you’re here in America and that a part of being Asian-American is to show people what your culture means to you, why it’s important, because I feel like all cultures are important and it’s good to understand them,” he said.
Malle Ratsavong, second-year prospective civil engineering major
As the kid of Lao refugees who came to the U.S. to avoid the Lao Civil War, early on in her life, Malle said she never really noticed that she was different from other people on the east side of Columbus until the fourth grade.
“I never really noticed I was different until one day one of my classmates came up to me and was like ‘are you Chinese or Asian?’” she said.
And while middle school was when she started to become more interested in things like K-pop and Korean culture, high school was when she began to explore her own Lao ethnicity. She realized her history teachers could inform her on American history, but not on the history of her own culture.
This experience, she said, led to her doing more research on her own background, such as looking more into the civil war that brought her parents to the U.S. and finding out that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita.
“It’s not like being Korean or Japanese or anything else that’s like more mainstream or well known in the United States,” she said. “It’s harder for me to go like ‘Oh, let’s look up Lao culture on the internet and find some stuff’ and be like ‘Oh this is who I am.’”
Not being able to find much information on her own heritage, along with the other experiences she had growing up as an Asian-American, has shaped her goals of what she wants to accomplish today in the Asian community at Ohio State.
Her drive to help others like her led her to taking up leadership positions within the Asian community such as becoming the advocacy co-chair for AAA and being a mentor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cohort, a peer mentorship program at Ohio State.
“Being Asian-American is being able to merge those two and become a better you, because not only are you American but you’re also something else.”—Malle Ratsavong, a second-year prospective civil engineering major
While she believes there is diversity at Ohio State, Malle said early in her first semester, she felt as though many of the Asian student organizations didn’t connect with her, due to many of them being East Asian-focused.
“I wanted somewhere to like talk to people who speak my language, or know what [coming from a family of refugees] is like,” she said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes that a lot of Asians are rich and we’re well-educated and made of money, and while that may be the case for some Asian people, that’s not the case for me, so like being poor is also a thing, so I couldn’t really fit in with those orgs.”
Even so, she wants to be more involved within the Asian community at Ohio State to give students like her a place to call home. She said she hopes that being in these new leadership positions, she can do just that.
As for what being Asian-American means to her, it’s not about having to choose between being a part of the Asian culture or American culture.
“Being Asian-American is being able to merge those two and become a better you, because not only are you American but you’re also something else,” she said.
Denise Liew, fourth-year in marketing and economics
When she was in the seventh grade, Denise moved to the U.S. from Malaysia. And while she considers herself Malaysian-Chinese American, she said when she first got to the U.S., she didn’t run into a language barrier since she grew up speaking English. Instead, she dealt with more of a culture shock.
“People would question why am I taking art classes because ‘people like me are better at the technical fields or STEM majors,’” Liew said. “When you have a childhood in Asia, we’re just like everyone else, we can take art classes, we can take music classes, we can take science classes, but here all of a sudden it’s like I can’t take them, because I have a different skin color from you?”
Growing up, Denise said she faced a lot of invisibility issues, issues that still continue for her today.
“There [was] just a lot of invisibility in the classrooms, like my voice was barely heard,” she said. “Even now, invisibility was and still is a reality for me and my community, you know professors don’t acknowledge my presence or my input in the classrooms.”
Invisibility, she said, included the textbooks.
“Studying AP U.S. History in high school, it’s like, where are we in your history?” she said. “Even though we played like a huge role, we’re watered down to just caricatures with long braids and railroads and friends of Mao Zedong, and we’re not that.”
“Subconsciously, it did something to our confidence, it did something to the way we carry ourselves in our community, and just the way we behave, the way we dream about our future careers.”—Denise Liew, a fourth-year in marketing and economics
Despite considering herself Asian-American, Denise said she preferred the term Asian Pacific Islander Desi American, or APIDA, due to its inclusivity.
Even so, she believes how Asians are represented, in the media — or the lack thereof — is a large reason for the invisibility she said her and people like her experience today.
“Characters that we’ve read about even in storybooks and whatnot, they don’t look like us,” she said. “As a result, we believed that our stories don’t deserve to be told and subconsciously, it did something to our confidence, it did something to the way we carry ourselves in our community, and just the way we behave, the way we dream about our future careers.”
This led her to step up, she said, becoming involved in organizations such as AAA so that she could educate the APIDA community about issues and encouraging them to tell their own stories.
“I want the APIDA stories to be told not as your black and white stereotypical characters, but as complex individuals,” she said. ”We are not a homogenous group of people to fulfill your diversity quota. We are multidimensional human beings and that made me more aware, and even if I know I’m not educated, I actively strive to be educated on issues like this.”
The APIDA community, Denise said, often are misunderstood as timid and soft-spoken. But she knows differently, as she has met many people in the APIDA community who are willing to speak out against the invisibility in media.
These issues of invisibility, she said, include not only there being a lack of representation of Asian-Americans in the media, but also many times the media portraying Asians and Asian children only as future engineers and accountants. However, she said that in reality there are many Asian actors, actresses, artists and fashion designers out in the world too.
As for being a part of the Asian-American and APIDA community, to Denise, it might not be too different from other groups of people.
“For me, I am just another child of God,” she said. “Not so separate from everyone else. I might have a different lifestyle from some, but I’m still American with American rights, so that’s how I define Asian-American, or APIDA.”