The Power of Words: Why Swarthmore's "Asian Heritage Month" is Now Asian x Asian American Heritages Month

In 1977, resolutions were introduced to both of the chambers of the US Congress to proclaim the first 10 days of May as “Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week.” The month of May was chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the US and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Both of these resolutions failed to pass through. So, a year later, then Rep. Frank Horton of New York introduced a resolution to dedicate a seven day commemoration, which was eventually passed and presidentially signed. Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was extended to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in 1992.

Here at Swarthmore, we have had a tradition of celebrating this month in April, usually going under the name “Asian Heritage Month.” This year, we at the planning committee have decided to change the month’s name to Asian x Asian American Heritages Month (AxAAHM). Some may see this as an insignificant complication that implies the same meaning, but this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

To be honest, the planning committee had a difficult time trying to choose a name for the month. Each of us had different and strong opinions on the topic. We ended up having a nearly  three hour meeting in which we only talked about what our name would be, where we came up with countless options. Eventually, we narrowed down and came to our consensus.

So, what is the difference between “Asian Heritage Month” and “Asian x Asian American Heritages Month?”

For one, there are vast differences in the meanings of  “Asian” and “Asian American.” “Asian” is used to describe the people, places, cultures, etc. of Asia. On the other hand, “Asian American” is used to describe the experiences and histories of those with ancestry or history in Asia (no matter how recent or old) , but who also identify with living in the Americas. Furthermore, this is complicated by the difference between “Asian-American” and “Asian American” where any folx of Asian (-) American communities feel like the removal of the dash validates our experiences. Folx of our communities may use all, one, some, or none of these terms (among various others) to describe ourselves.

The nuanced differences among these terms, as well as AxAAHM Planning Committee’s difficulty in picking a name for the month, represent the complex and contentious topic of the naming of our communities.

Acronyms, including API (Asian-Pacific Islander), APA (Asian-Pacific American), AAPI (Asian (-) American-Pacific Islander), API/A (Asian Pacific Islander/American or in America), APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American), AANHPI (Asian (-) American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander), and countless others are often used. Contrary to popular belief, each of these acronyms means a different thing.

The nuanced differences among these terms, as well as AxAAHM Planning Committee’s difficulty in picking a name for the month, represent the complex and contentious topic of the naming of our communities.It is absolutely crucial to understand that all of the terms we have discussed represent not one community, but a collective of diverse communities.

Here is where we get to idea of “heritage” versus “heritages. ” Asia is the largest and most populated continent, full of many diverse communities, beliefs, cultures, and peoples. To state that there are such things as one “Asian culture” or “Asian heritage” is to harmfully paint this diverse area as a monolith, often leading to the perpetuation of orientalism. Some divide the continent into West, Southwest, Central, South, Southeast, and East Asia in attempts to understand its sheer diversity and to provide “specificity.” But even so, there is not one West, Southwest, Central, South, Southeast, or East Asian heritage. And it doesn’t stop on the level of countries. It is crucial to take into account the histories of modern state building within the Asian continent (many in a “post”colonial context) that often forced various groups together into numerous states that had never existed before, with many of the dominant groups in these states moving to nation-state building projects. On the intranational, intraregional, interregional, and intracontinental levels, Asia and its countries, occupied and colonized territories, and regions are not monoliths and manifest various systems of power, privilege, and oppression. It gets even more diverse as we look at the various global diasporas from the peoples of Asia and the different circumstances in which they occurred, including those to the Americas and more specifically the US.

Within the US, the idea of the “Asian monolith” is also perpetuated by the equation of Asian to East-Asianness in the contexts of discussing both Asia and the US. People often say “Asian” when only referring to “East Asian.” This harmful erasure of non-East Asian Asians has directly contributed to the exclusion of non-East Asian Asians from “Asian” spaces, from the “Asian” label, and from “Asian” identity.  It has also contributed to lacks in specific sociopolitical and economic agencies among many non-East Asian Asian American groups and to the erasure of the specific and diverse issues, experiences, and heritages of various non-East Asian groups (such the effects of the work of ICE on South and Southeast Asian communities, systemic Islamophobia, rises in hate crimes, and surveillance faced by West Asian/Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, health disparities faced by Southeast Asian communities, the school to deportation pipeline, and many more)

Clearly, there is an incredible level of complexity to this issue. There is no way to represent all of this by just using the singular “heritage.”

But, why have we decided name the month for Asian and Asian American heritages, but not Pacific Islander ones? The fact is that Pacific Islanders/Oceanians continue to be vastly underrepresented on our campus and other ones across the country. Nobody on our planning committee identifies as Pacific Islander or Oceanian. We do not feel it is appropriate to attempt to speak for narratives that are not ours, especially given the erasure of Pacific Islander/Oceanian voices within “API” spaces and on campus.

This month, we don’t want to only celebrate culture. If a month is to truly be dedicated to our heritages, we can’t  perpetuate and celebrate our monolithization and the erasure of marginalized voices. We want this month to represent the diverse experiences and struggles of those among the Asian and Asian American collectives.

And with that, happy Asian x Asian American Heritages Month!