Local women celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month
Many people recognize May as the unofficial start of summer, the conclusion of the school year and even Mental Health Month. But May has one other distinction that’s just as important, if not more so: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.
The U.S. has celebrated Asian and Pacific Islander culture this month since 1990, with Congress making it an annual designation in 1992. Before that, it had been celebrated during the week including May 7 and May 10 since 1977.
According to the month’s official website, Congress originally chose those two dates to commemorate the first immigration of Japanese people to the U.S. (May 7, 1843) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869), on which the majority of workers were Chinese.
For some Asian Americans, this month is a way to feel connected to their heritage. Michelle Luu, a 2015 graduate of Wylie East High School, was born in California to Cambodian parents.
“Food is really the only thing passed down,” she said. “My mom makes a lot of wontons. We also have 100-pound bags of rice.”
The 23-year-old grew up hearing multiple languages spoken at home – her parents have knowledge of Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Thai in addition to English and their native Khmer – and would translate important documents for her mother as early as third grade. Now, though, she can understand parts of her parents’ languages but can speak only English herself.
She hopes to become fluent in Mandarin, mostly for professional reasons. Luu graduated from Texas A&M University in 2019 and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Health degree there.
For her, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month also shines light on representation of Asian American culture in media – or the lack thereof. Growing up, the only movie Luu really connected with was Disney’s “Mulan.”
Now, though, Asian media is starting to gain popularity. Streaming platforms make foreign-made TV shows and films – such as Oscar-winning South Korean drama “Parasite” – more readily available.
Social media also helps Luu feel seen. She noted that one particular Facebook group, “Subtle Asian Traits,” is filled with jokes and stories from other people of Asian heritage all over the world.
But it’s more than the pleasure of sharing experiences. For Luu, the rising prominence of Asian culture provides the representation that young people need.
“I have a friend who’s getting her Ph.D. in community health,” she said. “She told me how her professors are mostly white men. But there’s so much diversity that soon we’ll have more women and people of color as professors. Diversity shows that anyone can achieve what they want to achieve.”
Lavon resident Daisy Wu, 56, exemplifies this concept. She emigrated from China at age 28 to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering from Louisiana State University.
Her husband Ju joined her later, and the two liked the U.S. so much that they eventually became citizens.
“American people are really friendly,” she said. “In China, you don’t say hello to people you don’t know. When people would wave to me [on LSU’s campus], I’d wonder if I knew them.”
Wu grew up in Zhengzhou, a large city in east-central China. At 17, she began studying electrical engineering at Hunan University in Changsha, in the southern part of the country.
She wanted to study computer science, which is what she requested when she took the mandatory National College Entrance Exam. However, the governing Communist Party of China (CPC) can choose what each student majors in.
Although she didn’t enjoy electrical engineering as much as she would’ve enjoyed computer science, Wu went on to get her master’s in the same subject.
After working for three years at Hainan University on Hainan Island, she headed to America for her doctorate. She had studied English in college, making it less difficult for her to adjust to a new language and culture.
It was only after she arrived that she realized she had a choice in what to study. Instead of getting a doctorate, she obtained another master’s, this time in computer science.
A company in Dallas offered her a job in bank tech, so she and Ju relocated from Louisiana. They had a son named Jeffrey, now 24, after they moved.
They’ve tried their best to pass down their heritage – and like with Luu’s family, it’s usually through food.
Wu reported that most Chinese food is heavy on the vegetables. She didn’t even have cheese until she immigrated; the first time she tried it was when an LSU friend took her to Taco Bell.
She and her husband sent Jeffrey to a Chinese school for a short time, hoping to pass down their native Mandarin, but he didn’t like the classes.
It demonstrates the dichotomy of living within two different cultures.
“Although we’re Chinese, we’re American,” she said. “When people say they don’t like China, it’s the government they mean. Chinese people are suffering too.”
Lately she’s worried that COVID-19’s origin in China might cause people to look at Asians in a negative way. Luckily, though, she noted that she’s never experienced nasty comments firsthand.
It’s a bit different on Luu’s end. She still sometimes receives questions from peers asking where she’s “really” from when she says she’s from California or Wylie. In elementary school, kids would sometimes use racial slurs when referring to her.
Her younger sister Nika was once working at a RaceTrac when a customer angrily told her to “go back to [her] home country.”
Jokes and questions about Luu’s culture don’t offend her as long as she can tell they’re in good taste and are from trusted friends. When they’re not, she feels sadder for the other person than for herself.
“Since I’ve gone to college and met a variety of people, I’ve noticed that it’s ignorance. I’m not offended, but they need to travel more and meet more people,” Luu said. “I get more concerned when people say they ‘don’t see color.’ It’s like they’re not acknowledging our differences and inequalities. But I know they’re trying to say they see you as a human.”
That’s also what makes Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month so significant to Wu.
“America is so powerful because America has so many different cultures and people,” she said. “They bring their strength. There’s something you can learn from everyone.”
By Morgan Howard • [email protected]