Committee for Children Blog

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By Zheng Wang

Growing up in China, I didn’t know I had “Asian eyes.” I’m not referring to the slanted eye shape connected with a racist gesture. I’m talking about smaller eyes that nearly disappear when I smile. In reality, Asian people’s eyes come in many shapes and sizes, just like people of other races. Yet smaller, squinted eyes have become one of many Asian stereotypes based on appearance. One time as I posed for a photo with a large group of friends, there came the helpful reminder from my friend behind the camera: “Zheng, open your eyes!” Everyone laughed as he took the picture. I didn’t think much of it, aside from a strange sense of embarrassment. I supposed it was nice that I could help the group achieve a happy photo.

When I was asked to write this article, the prompt was: What does it mean to be Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)? That is a complicated question. The AAPI community is hardly a monolith, as it encompasses many distinct ethnicities and cultures. Yet our community does share a common experience that is unfortunately rooted in prejudice and oppression. After a dramatic rise in anti-AAPI hatred in recent years and a string of horrific crimes in the past few months, it’s challenging to talk about being AAPI without delving into a deep well of historical injustice and collective trauma, a lot of which is still not widely known today.

AAPI people make up the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the United States, which means we are also the new kid. Kept mostly out of the mainstream images of the “typical” American life, we’re an easy target for racism and xenophobia—two toxic elements that comingle and combine to form a pervasive force of othering.

Othering can be subtle. It shows up as jokes and offhand remarks. It’s a lack of representation and opportunities. It’s overlooking, omitting, and “not leadership material.” It’s why questions like “where are you from?” quickly turn problematic when California or Texas is not an acceptable answer. It’s why comments like “you don’t have an accent” can be so problematic. I took that comment as a compliment when I was new to this country. Now, 27 years later and as a United States citizen, I question what it implies. When the same questions and comments are directed at my US-born AAPI friends, the intention behind the remarks deserves serious examination.

I have lived a fortunate life. No one has called me by racial slurs, yelled “go back to your country,” or spat at me—a newly popular tactic during the pandemic. Even when I experienced microaggressions—a stranger assuming I didn’t grow up with toilet paper, or my friend saying “open your eyes” to make everyone laugh— I brushed them off and moved on. Like a lot of AAPI folks, I was taught to be good and avoid making waves. But when the Atlanta shootings happened, I found myself deeply shaken. Not making waves has not kept the AAPI community safe. A cultural climate of othering, no matter how trivial it may seem in the moment, gives rise to discrimination, injustice, and tragedies. It must stop.

As our nation wakes up to the prevalence and impact of racism, I’ve started to confront my own suppressed feelings and insecurities. Did I experience racism without recognizing it? Did I choose to ignore it? Did I deny my Asian identity in order to assimilate and fit in? I now realize that I must have. From time to time over the years, I would look in the mirror and feel self-conscious about my Asian face. Especially my eyes. It’s difficult to describe that feeling of looking in the mirror and thinking my eyes are not American.

Today, I can honestly say I’m grateful for our collective awakening, uncomfortable as it may be. I’m prouder of my identity than ever before. I’m proud of my face because I see my mother in my eyes, my father in my cheeks, and my heritage in my smile. I will no longer downplay my own experiences or ignore the plight of my community. I’m not tired of fighting because I have not fought enough. To my fellow AAPI friends, I invite you to step out, speak up, and proudly bring your full self to the table.

If you want to be an ally to the AAPI community, I encourage you to start taking small steps. Read up on AAPI history in the United States. Watch AAPI movies, plays, and TV shows. Learn about the concepts of othering, model minority, and stereotype threat. And when you interact with us, put aside your assumptions and bring your authentic curiosity.

So, what does it mean to be AAPI? It means being part of a rich and beautiful heritage—a dazzling legacy of art, languages, cuisines, inventions, and philosophies that stretches back thousands of years and continues to evolve with time. It means kindness, resilience, and gentle strength. It elevates family, community, and the greater good. AAPI Heritage Month is just a reminder of what has always been there: a colorful array of cultures and traditions worthy of being embraced and celebrated.

It’s a reminder for me, too.