AAPI Heritage Month: How to Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Culture

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Learn about AAPI history, culture and events to celebrate this year.

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purple and pink design with flowers celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month
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May marks the official celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, heritage in the US. The acronym can also be expanded to AANHPI to include Native Hawaiians.

Although AAPI people are often lumped together in the same ethnic category, the large group comprises folks with backgrounds from Southern and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Western Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands. Each has its own unique culture, language and history.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the US, and have experienced a rise in bigoted attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. May isn't the only time to learn about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but it does give us a chance to expand our understanding of different cultures and the multitude of contributions by AAPI people. 

Below you'll find resources to celebrate and support Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders during AAPI Heritage Month. Keep reading to learn about how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a crucial role in this society for over 170 years. 

What is the history of AAPI Heritage Month?

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were originally commemorated during the first week of May following a congressional resolution passed in 1978. It wasn't until 1992 that the entire month of May was designated to observe AAPI heritage with relevant activities, programs and ceremonies. 

A Japanese woman instructs a young girl in calligraphy

AAPI month marks a good time to learn about Asian American culture and history.

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

The month of May marks two significant events in Asian American history -- the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the US on May 7, 1843, and the anniversary of the completion of the first US transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Chinese railway workers were essential in connecting Americans across the country by train. 

This year's AAPI Heritage Month theme is Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration, focused on "efforts in advancing leaders in the Federal and DC governments," according to the Federal Asian Pacific American Council. 

How to educate yourself or others about AAPI history and culture

Official government websites, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, include information on exhibits and educational events, as well as news articles and resources. The National Park Service also spotlights places and stories related to AAPI history. 

The National Education Association provides a long list of AAPI history lesson plans, activities and educational resources for K-12 teachers. 

How to find good books for AAPI month or anytime

If you want to dig into a novel or nonfiction book, the following resources can help you find great reads concerning AAPI history and culture. 

Where to see AAPI movies, documentaries and TV shows

If you want to watch documentaries, films or TV programs related to the AAPI experience, here are some ways to do it at home. 

How to celebrate AAPI month where you live

Many cities are holding their own events for AAPI month, and the easiest way to find out about a program close to you is to search "AAPI month" and enter your city. Major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston provide online resources for art and cultural events, concerts, discussions and more. You can also look online to find out which local businesses might be sponsoring activities. 

What is the history of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants in America?

For over 170 years, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a crucial role in forging American identity. Starting in the 1850s, Chinese contract laborers were instrumental in building up infrastructure and the economy while working in mines, railroads and factories, and as farmers and fishermen. In subsequent decades, waves of immigrants, including Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Filipino workers, replaced them as low-wage labor following legislation that excluded people from Asian countries from citizenship rights and more. 

The pattern of Asian immigration in the US correlated to the demands of the early industrialists and agricultural merchants. During periods of shifting labor needs, land expansion, economic recession and war, Asian immigrants faced intense discrimination and anti-immigrant violence. 

For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 denied naturalization to Chinese immigrants and severely restricted immigration from China over the next 60 years. The 1917 Immigration Act barred all immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act denied entry to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and South Asian Indians, prohibiting naturalization. During World War II, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt interned some 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens. 

Many Asian immigrants were brutally detained and turned away at Angel Island, dubbed the Ellis Island of the West. It wasn't until 1952 that the US government overturned the naturalization bans of Asian immigrants. But laws remained discriminatory until 1965 when, in response to the struggles of the civil rights movement, the US government shifted its policy and overturned the restrictive quotas.