The Process of Being Seen and Seeing Ourselves

The Process of Being Seen and Seeing Ourselves

The Process of Being Seen and Seeing Ourselves

The Asian-American and Pacific Islander Experience

Upper School English Teacher
Incoming Interim Director of Service Learning & External Engagement

Ever since 1979, at least a part of May has been devoted to the recognition of Asian/Pacific American Heritage, and ever since 1992, the entire month of May has been officially designated Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month as it recognizes two important dates in history: May 7, 1843, the date when Japanese immigrants were first recorded arriving in the United States and May 10, 1869, the day that the first transcontinental railroad was completed at great expense to the Chinese-Americans who labored to complete it.1

Chinese railroad workers in 1869

Japanese immigrants working in a railroad camp, ca.1895

All this means to say that the history of Asian-American contributions to this country’s development track back almost to its founding and that for two generations, Americans have been called to recognize this history.

At the same time, a recent class conversation sticks out to me. In the midst of teaching my class on Asian-American literature, I had mentioned that May is Asian/Pacific Heritage Month. One of my Asian-American students, a senior, told me that he didn’t know that. It’s easy to presume that his lack of knowledge was an anomaly, that most Asian-Americans would know of their history month. However, my own life experience tells a different story: before beginning work in education, I myself did not know about this month, nor did many in my family. In the end, while the month is meant to pay homage to those Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that helped to build the United States brick-by-brick, these bricks seem to go unnoticed by the majority of Americans, even those that are meant to be celebrated.

Part of this lack of awareness is due to the history of Asian-American and Pacific Islander immigration to the United States. Prior to 1965, the United States engaged in strict quota systems of immigration overall, and people from Asia suffered the strictest quotas. Chinese people were and continue to be the only nationality of people ever formally excluded from travel and immigration to the United States, and this ban lasted for almost eighty years. Asian families who lived through this era of American history endured racism and segregation that brought along, among other things, the advent of Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves. It is this group of immigrants and their progeny that, inspired by the civil rights movement, birthed the term Asian-American for the first time in the 1960s. A group of people who lived and contributed to American history decided, for the first time, to identify themselves as such.

However, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 brought a new wave of immigration spurred on by the abolition of quotas based on race or nationality. All of a sudden, people from all over the world could bring their own histories to this country and their own hopes. Without the voices of previous generations of immigrants to tell them the stories of history, they could not hear the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the first Chinatowns passed down to them. Many of these new immigrants would come from new areas and new countries and so actually would not share much culturally with prior immigrants.

Furthermore, without real exposure within their education, these newer generations would largely be oblivious to a longer historical narrative. Erika Lee’s “The Making of Asian-America”2 (from which I draw much of the historical commentary above) is one of the first collections of history that focuses on the long history of Asian people in America, and it is too new (published in 2015) to have made a large impact in the majority of students’ educations.

For years, my students have told me that the Asian-American experience in history class has been learning about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment. The same was also true of my experience in school.

Without a connection to a common history and with varying ties to the United States, the connection to an Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, let alone a month to celebrate it, are often varied. However, the advent of COVID-193 and its association with China has put a spotlight on the fact that those in the AAPI community can see themselves as individuals with their own complex identities, but that those in the wider world around them may only see something foreign. The events of the past year, in fact, have put a spotlight on how vulnerable a group becomes without this commonly understood sense of belonging that is rooted in history.

The United States, along with a few other countries with large Asian populations, have seen a marked rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate speech. According to the Pew Research Center, about 4-in-10 Americans report that it is more common for people to express racist views about Asian people now than it was before COVID-19. The same report states that Asian-Americans are more likely to suffer the sting of racial slurs, and since this report’s publication in July 2020, the world has witnessed an increase of violent crimes against the Asian-American community, including the attacks on elderly Asian-Americans and the shootings in Atlanta. As of April 2021, this has resulted in a one-third of Asian-Americans fearing physical and verbal threats and the belief that such threats are becoming more commonplace.4

South Korean born American actor Steven Yuen, who starred in the Golden Globe winning movie, “Minari,” written by Lee Isaac Chung. [Photo: Gage Skidmore]

Chinese director Chloe Zhao, the first person of color to win an Oscar for best director for the film “Nomadland.” [Photo: Gage Skidmore]

Japanese-American basketball player, Rui Hachimura, on the Washington Wizards [Photo: All Pro Reels]

In one incident, filmed in New York City in April, a man who is kicking an older Asian woman is heard saying, “You don’t belong here.” While it is easy to think that this is all new, this lack of belonging is something that many in the Asian-American community would say began much before the pandemic. In all, for many in the Asian-American community, this year has reaffirmed that a sense of belonging can be tenuous at best. It has reaffirmed the fact that Asian-Americans are still perceived as being foreign in their own homelands.

Though SSSAS has not been immune to the challenges of the world around us, the school has been working to be more conscious of the struggles of those within its walls. Student groups like the Student Committee on Racial Equity (SCORE) have made it their mission to make the issues of the invisible more visible to all. Forums that they have held have helped to bring some visibility to the slights that people have experienced even before the pandemic, and have helped to illustrate that the tolerance and normalization of such behavior before the pandemic allowed for the escalation that has occurred during it. Our advisory program centered around the racial lens of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging has discussed microaggressions, putting the experience of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders at the center of understanding that small everyday slights do not stay small in the experience of the person living with them. While I can’t say that this response has completely transformed the experience of our students and faculty, and I can definitely say that there is further work to be done, I can also say that these actions are the first time we as a school have centered these experiences in my time at the school, and this is a start.

I can also say that this is the first time that I can recall so much energy within the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community at the school to act in its own interests. We are still individuals, unwilling to speak for large swathes of experiences that are not our own, but in 2021, the AAPI community is bounded by a clearer common experience than perhaps any time I can remember. The power of this common experience is something I see in my students at the school as they work to question and change their world to see them in the full light of their humanity. Despite the lack of a commonly understood history and commonly understood ways forward, this year has brought forth many conversations on how to work together towards a common goal: a sense of safety, a sense of belonging in one’s own home and in one’s own skin.

The month of May is meant to celebrate the accomplishments of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders throughout U.S. history, and this year it is more important than ever to remember those contributions, to remind us that Asian-American does not mean foreign. I hope, however, to look back on our present moment as a time when people started to see the problems that those in the AAPI community endure and begin to fix them—together. That would be something truly worth celebrating.


1Wood, M. (2012, April). Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month | Law Library of Congress [Web page].

2Lee, E. (2016). “The Making of Asian America: A History.” Simon & Schuster.

3Ruiz, N. G., Horowitz, J. M., & Tamir, C. (2020, July 1). Many Black, Asian Americans Say They Have Experienced Discrimination Amid Coronavirus. “Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project.”

4Ruiz, N. G., Edwards, K., & Lopez, M. H. (2021, April 21). One-third of Asian Americans fear threats, physical attacks and most say violence against them is rising. “Pew Research Center: Fact Tank.”

Voices from Our Community

On starting conversations on anti-AAPI hate…

I think the hate crimes were kind of an eye-opener for a lot of people that Asians actually do go through racism. I think people think that Asians just do their thing and we can just poke fun at them, so these hate crimes opened the door for people to see Asians as a group with their own problems and own issues and not just as a side group. It also opened up more room for conversations not just about beating up old people, but also just that Asians were generally taken pretty lightly and now should be given more weight in general conversations.
~Christopher Yu ’21

It’s sad that we have to have multiple hate crimes to actually talk about this.
~Jonathan Kho ’23

I feel like my non-PoC friends are more comfortable talking about Asians this year. There’s still some nervousness about it, but they’re easier to talk to about this now.
~Elinor West ’21

On the growing pains of our current moment…

Everything’s kind of awkward lately because a lot of people are not passionate about it. It doesn’t feel serious. They’re talking about it because they have to.
~Calysta Lee ’23

I don’t think many Asians talk about Asian hate crimes.
~Elinor West ’21

It’s more awkward talking about [“American Born Chinese”, a ninth grade English text] because it’s not exactly talking about present day issues or hate towards Asians.
~Anonymous ’24