May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to pay tribute to the generations of Asians who have enriched America's history, identity, and culture. It also offers an opportunity to improve awareness and appreciation for the diverse Asian cultures and communities that make up the United States today.
The people of Asia and the Pacific Islands have contributed to the history of Noth American since the mid-1500s. During the Age of Exploration, as the western world was seeking new routes Asia, Asia was also exploring the West. The earliest records indicate sailors from the Philippines were part of the landing party at Morro Bay, California in 1587.
Asian immigrant groups also participated in the early settlement of the United States, contributing to economic development especially in the American West. Chinese sailors worked in the shipping trades in the Pacific Northwest and New England. Chinese workers were also vital in the building of the transcontinental railroad. Likewise, Indian, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants worked in western lumber camps, while Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese Americans played an important role in the agriculture industries in California.
This history is not simply one of labor, however. In the late nineteenth century Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese students began coming to the United States to attend college. Asian immigrants also served in the military. During the Civil War, Chinese soldiers fought for the Union Army. Soldiers of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino heritage served with distinction in the American Armed Forces in both World Wars and the wars since.
Additionally, the Asian cultural legacy has been greatly influential on the United States. Food is perhaps the most visible contribution. However, there are also practices for spiritual and physical well-being such as yoga, martial arts, and acupuncture. Music, art, dance, film, and architecture have also been influenced by Asian American culture. The iconic toy, the yo-yo, was brought to the US by a Filipino immigrant, Pedro Flores.
Despite the many contributions Asian American have made to the country, they often have been met with discrimination and even hate. From the treatment of Chinese railroad workers to the Japanese internment camps during World War II to the recent increase in hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have not always been valued. Nonetheless, since 1977 an effort has been made to commemorate this heritage on a national level. Following these initial efforts, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week was officially established as law in 1979. Then in 1990, Congress expanded the celebration to a month. May was chosen as it coincided with the anniversaries of the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. To learn more about Asian and Pacific American history and heritage, check out the book display on the main floor of the Library.