May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month
I didn't know it at the time, but this new kid to our class would soon become one of my best friends growing up. In the 5th grade, Gia Phu Phan (pronounce ya fu fon) showed up to class one day and I can remember this quiet, if not steely-eyed figure trying to understand what was going on. Gestures and crude sign language were how we helped him navigate our strange American school ways. Nothing seemed to phase him. He just looked intently at all that was happening to him, taking it all in. Classroom work was difficult because of the language barrier, but the playground was where he shown. He could do things with a soccer ball that none of us could do. To hear him laugh and see him have fun was wonderful. Eventually, he started trying out the language. Pronunciation would always be difficult for him, but he was determined like nothing I had ever seen. I don't think I have ever heard him say my actual name, Todd. Just, "Toe." Ds were just something that didn't happen so "Toe" just stuck.
For some reason, we became fast friends. I ran interference for him as he grappled with this new land. I seemed to know he had been through a lot, that he was a survivor. But I truly had no idea what he had already been through. I learned much later that by age 10 he had experiences most of us born in the U.S. will never, ever know. What I did not know was that Gia Phu was one of the surviving children who risked their actual lives to flee Vietnam during the terrible aftermath of the end to the Vietnam Conflict in 1975. Shot at. Swimming in the open ocean to an overcrowded vessel. Floating at sea for who knows how long? The odds of this young child making it alive to the United States was remarkably low. Sponsored by a local church, Gia Phu came over with an uncle, but would never see his parents again.
I share this because it is not only a remarkable story of courage and success but because it is not an unfamiliar story to immigrants from Pacific Asia. It was Jeanie Jew in 1976 who was the President of the Organization of Chinese American Women, who began advocating with the government about its lack of Asian Pacific representation in the U.S. bicentennial celebrations that same year. She was successful in getting the first Asian Heritage Week started in 1979. In May 1990, the holiday was expanded further when President George Bush signed a proclamation making it month-long for that year. On October 23, 1992, Bush signed legislation designating May of every year Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The month of May was also chosen to commemorate two significant events in history: the immigration of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 (Golden Spike Day). The diversity and common experiences of the many ethnic groups are celebrated during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with numerous community festivals (www.archives.gov/eeo/special-observances).
Let's take some time this month to share about the journeys, contributions, and resilience of our Asian Pacific community. The beauty of the United States is that with the exception of the Native Nations, all of us came from some other land at some point. We are all here now. Together! As human beings, we are much more alike than different and we all have important stories to share of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going together. In the spirit of Asian Pacific month, let's celebrate our diversity as a community, honor each person for who they are, and build our community to be the resilient community that it really is.
A great all-around resource: https://asianpacificheritage.gov/
NEA has collected a number of great lessons that are listed out by grade level. Take a look. https://www.nea.org/professional-excellence/student-engagement/tools-tips/teaching-asian-and-pacific-islander-heritage