Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Do you know what it is? Yes, it is one of those heritage/history months. But why and how was this heritage month established? As we have seen a rapid increase in attacks against people of Asian descent, let’s think about the meaning of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the history of Asian Pacific Americans.

Written by Dr. Masako Endo, Adjunct Professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (Sociology & Anthropology)   

Originally written in May 2021, updated in May 2022

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month


Asia: Asia is the world’s largest and most densely populated continent. Be aware of the differences in geographical areas: North Asia (Russia), Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Western Asia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Sinai Peninsula, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen), South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), East Asia (China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan), and Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor, Vietnam).

Asian: The term “Asian” concerns the people, culture, and customs related to the continent of Asia. The term “oriental” is offensive and should not be used as a synonym.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is a celebration and recognition of the contributions and influence of Asians and Pacific Islanders to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

Asian Pacific Americans: The umbrella term “Asian Pacific” includes all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

Immigrant: An immigrant is a person who moves to another country, usually for permanent residence. They may or may not be citizens. The terms “foreigner,” “illegal immigrant,” and “alien” are offensive and should not be used as synonyms.

Scapegoat/Scapegoating: A person or group blamed for wrongs that were not of their doing. Perpetrators use scapegoating as an outlet for feelings of frustration, anxiety, and aggression.

The Other/Otherness: The dominant group constructs “the Other” as socially and culturally inferior. “Othering” is used to assert one’s “normal” identity (the dominant group) by differentiating from “the Other.”

Racism: Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed toward someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.

Racialization: The process by which people use understandings of race to categorize and marginalize individuals or groups.

Refugee: A refugee is a person forced to flee their country due to violence or persecution. The term “migrant” may be offensive in some contexts.

Xenophobia: Fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners.

Yellow Peril: The concept of “yellow peril” refers to Western racist fears that Asians, the Chinese in particular, would erode Western culture and values.

How Did Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Start?

The creation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month cannot be discussed without mentioning Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer. Jeanie Jew witnessed the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and was concerned about the lack of recognition given to Asian Pacific Americans, compared to the other racially minoritized groups. Jew first approached Representative Frank Horton of New York about the idea of promoting public awareness of Asian Pacific Americans’ contributions to the United States. In 1977, Representatives Horton and Norman Mineta introduced a United States House of Representatives resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. In the same year, Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced a similar resolution, however, neither of these resolutions passed. In 1978, Representative Horton introduced a joint resolution, which proposed that the President should proclaim the week beginning on May 4 as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. After the joint resolution was passed by the House, President Jimmy Carter signed it into law on October 5, 1978. However, the law did not contain provisions for the following years. Therefore, community organizations and advocates were required to submit new requests each year by having Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush continue to reauthorize the bill. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to expand the commemorative week to the entire month of May. Then, in 1992, Horton, along with multiple co-sponsors, introduced the legislation that would permanently designate May as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month,” which became law after Congress supported it.

The Month of May and the History of Asian Pacific Americans

Upon establishing Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, it was important to recognize the week beginning on May 4 to be designated to honor Asian Pacific Americans. This particular week in history included the following key events: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the U.S. on May 7, 1843; and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, of which Chinese laborers were an integral part. As these events indicate, there has been a long history of Asian immigration to the United States since the mid-1800s. From the beginning, Asian immigrant groups contributed greatly to the building of the United States by working as miners, railroad builders, farmers, and laborers

Yet, Asian Americans have historically been constructed as “the Other” in American culture. In the 1850s, anti-Chinese sentiment began to spread as white miners blamed Chinese miners for taking their jobs. The rhetoric of the Chinese taking “white jobs” led to a series of violent attacks against the Chinese, and such events culminated in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Furthermore, in 1885, armed white miners attacked the Chinese section of Rock Springs, Wyoming, killing twenty-eight Chinese miners, looting, and burning their homes. In the late nineteenth century, racism against the Chinese further continued and shortly became directed against the growing number of Japanese laborers. People of Asian descent as a whole were racialized as the “yellow peril.”

Asian’s racial “Otherness” was officially articulated in the following rulings and laws regarding immigration:

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - The purpose of this law was to stem the flow of laborers and immigrants from China.
  • Takao Ozawa v. The United States (1922) - The United States Supreme Court found that Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, who claimed himself to be fully Americanized, was ineligible for naturalization due to him not being Caucasian.
  • The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) - The United States Supreme Court ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant from India, who had previously been granted U.S. citizenship by the federal court in Oregon, was ineligible for citizenship. The ruling emphasized that Indians were not white while acknowledging Thind’s claim that Indians belonged to the Caucasian race.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 - This law terminated further immigration from Japan to the United States.

The U.S. Asian Relations and Asian Americans/Continued Exclusion Always Foreign

Throughout the twentieth century, people of Asian descent continued to be treated as outsiders in the United States. In 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes and property to live in internment camps. In the context of the war against the Axis powers, Japanese Americans, unlike German and Italian Americans, were viewed as foreign and therefore possible threats during the war. In the 1980s, racism against Asians and Asian Americans revived with the rise of Pacific Rim economies. Between the 1980s and the 1990s, the number of hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans rapidly increased. For example, in 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American draftsman was beaten to death by two white men in a Detroit bar. Chin’s killers, a Chrysler foreman and a laid-off auto worker mistook him for Japanese and blamed him for the declining Detroit auto industry. What these examples show is that racism against Asian Pacific Americans has persisted in relation to the U.S.’s relations with Asian countries. Whether it is WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Japanese economic miracle, the rise of the East Asian NIEs, or China’s rapid economic growth, each event has aroused xenophobia among some Americans and directed their anxiety onto the Asian Pacific American community.

What Now?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen the ongoing racist and xenophobic attacks against Asian Pacific Americans. This is yet another instance of scapegoating the Asian and Pacific Islander community. As many of us know and as history shows, scapegoating does not solve anything. We need to remember the history of Asia Pacific Americans and learn from it. As Jeanie Jew hoped in the 1970s, let us observe Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by learning and celebrating the contributions that Asian Pacific Americans have made to American society. In 2021, we need to do so more than ever.

Rowan University Community of Support for Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Identities:

Wellness Center: All Rowan University students are encouraged to access mental health resources and support through the Wellness Center, by calling 856.256.4333 or emailing 

Employee Advisory ServiceAll Rowan University faculty and staff are encouraged to access mental health resources and support by contacting the Employee Advisory Service. Schedule a session by calling 1.866.327.9133

Student clubs to join include the Asian Cultural Association, South Asian Students AssociationRowan RangeelaJapanese Culture ClubVietnamese Students AssociationRowan University Philippine American CoalitionWomen of Color AllianceMen of Color AllianceMinority Association of Premedical StudentsInternational Club, and Muslim Student Association.

Women of Color Collective (WCC): WCC aims to build community among women, womyn, and womxn of color on campus. Through WCC, women, womyn, and womxn of color will gain a network to share their stories and provide support for challenges and successes they experience in their daily lives. WCC is for all women, womyn, and womxn of color across campus. Please contact SJICR for virtual meeting dates and details.

For all student complaints involving discrimination and harassment, please visit

Events with Social Justice, Inclusion and Conflict Resolution (SJICR)

SJICR in collaboration with student organizations and departments across campus hosted Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month events in April 2022. Some of their events included: 

  • The Model Minority Myth in Literary Representation 
  • ADIPA/APPI Heritage Month 
  • Movie Night and Discussion: Kung Fu Panda
  • Making Poke 
  • Spring Fest
  • Tai Chi with Master Li 
  • Tak Speaker Series 
  • Into to Japanese Tea Party 
  • Confucius and Mencius on the Morality of War 
  • Pho & Boba Date
  • Confucianism vs. Liberalism 

SJICR leadership shared further information on their Tai Chi with Master Li event: 

Who is Master Li?
Master Li trains students in both the contemporary and traditional Chinese Martial Arts, both External and Internal Styles, from the most basic beginning levels to the highest and most demanding levels of proficiency for martial arts competition. His student’s ages range from 5 to over 70 years old. Master Li’s teaching philosophy is to teach his students openly and hide nothing. He will help you be the best you can be. Whether you wish to study for health reasons or for martial arts, Master Li is happy to guide you along the way. Master Li acted in Chinese Kung Fu Films between 1983 and 1993. (Titles available upon request). He performed individual roles and doubled for male and female co-actors in Kung Fu scenes.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a mind-body exercise originating from ancient China, where it started as a famous martial art. It’s practiced around the world as an effective exercise for health. At the heart of it, Tai Chi is a moving meditation in the form of a series of gentle exercises that create harmony between the mind and body. The ultimate purpose is to cultivate our inner life energy (qi) to flow smoothly and powerfully through the body. This is a spiritual experience, as much as a physical one.

Further Emotional Support

As anti-Asian attacks continue, Asian Pacific Americans feel fear, anger, and anxiety. Please do not hesitate to seek help.

Asian American-led Mental Health Resources

-Asian Mental Health Collective

-The Asian Mental Health Project

-Asians Do Therapy

Resources for Continued Learning:

Virtual AAPI Events

Asian Pacific Heritage Month

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Asia Society

Detroit Institute of Arts Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Selected further readings (online)

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

What You Can Do to Fight Violence and Racism against Asian Americans

The Long, Ugly History of Anti-Asian Racism and Violence in the U.S.

Asian Americans Then and Now

American Incarceration

How One Woman’s Story Led to the Creation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (This article focuses on Jeanie Jew.)

Videos and Documentaries

Stop Asian Hate

White House Proclamation…

Asian Americans


Abelmann, Nancy and John Lie. 1995. Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Baldoz, Rick. 2011. The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America,1898-1946. New York: New York University Press.

Espiritu, Yen Le. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ichioka, Yuji. 1988. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924.New York: The Free Press.

Lee, Robert G. 1999. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: TempleUniversity Press.

Shah, Nayan. 2012. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Takaki, Ronald. 1998 [1989]. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Takaki, Ronald. 1984[1983]. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.