The History of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

The History of Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month 

Asian and Pacific American Heritage month was the idea of former congressional staffer Jeanie Jew who first approached Rep. Frank Horton about the idea of designating a month to recognize Asian Pacific Americans, following the United States’ bicentennial celebration in 1976. In June 1977, Horton and Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to proclaim the first 10 days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. A month later, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate by former U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga.

President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution for the celebration on Oct. 5, 1978. In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to extend Asian American Heritage Week to a month. On May 14, 1991, a public law was passed unanimously by congress and then signed by Bush, proclaiming May 1991 and May 1992 as Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month. By 1992, May was officially designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The month of May was chosen because it commemorates the migration of the first immigrants from Japan to the United States on May 7, 1843 and to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad by over 20,0000 Asian immigrants on May 10, 1869. However, the first Asian immigrants arrived in the U.S. in 1587 when Filipinos first began migrating to California. Immigrants continued to come from the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands through 1920 when the first Samoans were documented in Hawaii.

What does AAPI mean?

The acronym AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander. This acronym has become more commonly used following the Stop AAPI Hate Campaign to raise awareness of the attacks and hate toward the AAPI community since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Asian Pacific Institute, this term includes “all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander ancestry, who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions and/or the diasporic communities of these geographic regions.”

According to Dr. Dawn Lee Tu, faculty director at de Anza College and former director of Asian Pacific American student development at UC Berkeley, she explains that the term “Asian American” was first used by student activists in 1968 to identify Asian groups during a time when Americans would use the derogatory term “oriental” to refer to Asians in the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau helped evolve the term Asian American into Asian Pacific Islander in the 1980s and early 90s when this is how the organization reported this ethnic group on Census data. And finally, in 1997, the White House Office of Management and Budget made the two terms “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” two separate racial categories.

Where are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from?

The U.S. Census Bureau classifies people of Asian descent as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent,” including, but not limited to China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, India, Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines.

Pacific Islanders are people who descended from the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. This classification includes, but is not limited to people from Native Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Guam, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.

The following is a list of commonly used Asian American and Pacific Islander-related terms. While these terms may commonly be used, it is important to note there is a possibility some cultural identities can overlap in this larger classification of AAPI individuals.

  • AAPI: Asian American and Pacific Islander. This term generally includes all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander descent.
  • Asian: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent.
  • East Asian: A person of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Mongolian descent.
  • South Asian: A person of Indian, Bangladesh, Sri Lankan, Nepal and Pakistani backgrounds.
  • Southeast Asian: A person of Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao, Indonesian, Thai or Singaporean descent.
  • Central Asian: A person with origins in the original peoples of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
  • Pacific Islander: A person with origins in the original peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
  • West Asian: A person with origins in the original peoples of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.