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AAPI Voices: Race, Culture and Community

"All people, regardless of gender, origin or language, have a right for human dignity and freedom," Nilda Valmores, Executive Director of My Sister's House, said.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — May is Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month. It’s an opportunity for the public to celebrate and learn more about the history, culture, and people of all diverse AAPI communities and groups. But, despite ongoing efforts to recognize AAPI communities each year throughout the U.S., many Americans are still unaware or misinformed about AAPI people, history and culture.

"One of the things most folks will say is 'Happy Chinese New Year,' Stephanie Nguyen, Executive Director of Asian Resources, Inc., said.  "They think everybody celebrates Chinese New Year. But, the Chinese New Year is celebrated by the Chinese. It falls under the same time as the Lunar New Year. Lunar New Year is celebrated by the Vietnamese, Mien and Korean communities. We try to correct individuals when they say, 'Happy Chinese New Year' or ‘Kung Hei Fat Choy,’ and I have to correct them and say, 'No, I'm Vietnamese. So, it's called Tết. That is one of the most important holidays in the Vietnamese community.”

Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) is a newly formed non-profit organization on a mission to engage and empower Asian Americans to fight racism, increase representation, and share community resources. On behalf of LAAUNCH, Savanta Research surveyed 2,766 U.S. residents, ages 18 and over, between March 29 to April 14, 2021. Based on the online survey, researchers found 42% of Americans cannot name a well-known Asian American. Data also shows nearly 80% of Asian Americans say they do not feel respected and are discriminated against in the U.S.

“I'm Filipino, but people call us Asian or Pacific Islander,” Jinky Dolar, President of OCA Sacramento, said. “There are a lot of different assumptions about Filipinos. People think since you’re Filipino, you're in the nursing field, you’re a bad driver, you’re always late, or highly superstitious. No, I'm not in the nursing field. I'm in sales. Don’t make assumptions about a person or a group of people; instead, get to know a person and their experiences. It's a sense of family that I value the most. What I most remember, when I was a child, is really adopting the elders. We treated them as a family right away, like 'po' or 'bless your forehead' when you see them.”

The U.S. Asian population is extremely diverse. According to data from the Pew Research Center, a record 23-million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each group comes with unique histories, cultures, languages and other characteristics.

“There are over 2,000 different Asian languages,” Nguyen said. “But, people assume we all speak the same language. They assume we all speak Chinese. I get asked the question, ‘If somebody says something in Chinese, will you understand?' I say, 'No, absolutely not.’ It's completely different. It's like saying something in English or Spanish.”

Data from the Pew Research Center also shows nearly half of all Asian Americans live in the West, with about a third in California. Asian Americans are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country, surpassing Hispanics, in 2055. By 2060, the U.S. Asian population is projected to reach 46 million. Asians currently make up about 7% of the nation's overall population. 

In a national proclamation on Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander Heritage Month, U.S. President Joe Biden explained “AANHPI communities face systemic barriers to economic justice, health equity, educational attainment, and personal safety. These challenges are compounded by stark gaps in Federal data, which too often fails to reflect the diversity of AANHPI communities and the particular barriers that Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, and South Asian communities in the United States continue to face.”

“I'm Filipino, Filipino American, and I have a little bit of Chinese blood in me,” Nilda Valmores, Executive Director of My Sister's House, said. “It's only natural that people want to be identified. People want to be counted. I look at demographics all the time. Sometimes, you don't even see Asians referenced or the different types of Asians that exist. I remember, especially growing up, people didn't know where the Philippines was, or what was the Philippines. The Philippines is one of those countries where there's a lot of poverty, yet there's a lot of happiness, too. People, even though in spite of that poverty, they learn to enjoy each other and the moments that they have. And, that's something I value. All people, regardless of gender, origin or language, have a right for human dignity and freedom.”

Stop AAPI Hate is a national coalition addressing anti-Asian racism across the U.S. The latest data from the organization shows anti-Asian hate incidents are on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. About 6,603 hate incidents against Asians and Pacific Islanders were reported to the organization between mid-March 2020 when the pandemic began to March 31, 2021. About 40% of the hate incident reports in the past year occurred in California.

“I am one of those that has been a victim of some type of anti-Asian violence or anti-Asian hatred,” Nguyen said. “I stayed quiet because that's what I was taught. I come from a very Catholic and traditional family background. I was told by my parents when I was being picked on to just walk the other way or turn the other way. Now, I'm not doing that anymore. I'm going to speak up. Our AAPI voices matter.”

Despite the increase in reported anti-Asian hate incidents surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, about 37% of white Americans say they are not aware of an increase in hate crimes and racism against Asian Americans over the past year. That’s according to the LAAUNCH online survey. It also shows 24% of white Americans say anti-Asian American racism isn't a problem that should be addressed.

"I identify as an Asian Indian, East Indian for some," Ram Thanapandian, President of APAPA, Sacramento Chapter, said. "The longer it takes for me to explain to somebody that anti-Asian hate is a problem and then how it is going to impact you and then how you can help me, I think that it's not your best ally. The best ally is the one who believes that that's a problem for me. Your problem is my problem. Our community really believes education is the most important thing. We also believe that you should help in any way you can because there is a way to help in some way. I think that is what our culture always seems to impart to us. Hate never got anybody anywhere. This time, it is specifically not Indians being targeted, but Asians. But, it's just a matter of time until it spills over. If AAPI voices are together, it becomes much louder and much clearer."

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