Recognizing the Contributions of Asian Pacific Americans

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time set aside to honor the immense contributions this community has made to the nation’s history. As part of an effort to recognize the complex challenges and achievements of what is now the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, this month PBS has been airing “Asian Americans,” a five-hour documentary chronicling how this diverse demographic has profoundly altered our collective identity.

Renee Tajima-Pena, who teaches AsianAmerican studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a series producer of “Asian Americans.” In a recent interview with Nichi Bei, a community news group with a JapaneseAmerican and pan AsianAmerican focus, she explained that one of her goals in creating the documentary was to present a part of history that is often glossed over in classrooms and textbooks, such as the internment camps that thousands of Japanese-Americans were forced to live in during WWII. “[The documentary] is the story of not how Asian Americans became Americans, but how Asian Americans helped shaped America. If you’re Asian American, you can’t avoid racism and discrimination. My family always talked about the camps. When I was 10 years old, I did a school report based on interviews with my mother and grandmother, and my teacher accused me of lying about it … she said nothing like that could ever happen in America.”

The series tracks the AsianAmerican experience from the first major immigrant wave in the late 19th century to the present as AsianAmericans begin to assert themselves in the face of increasingly hostile rhetoric and dangerous xenophobia. As the documentary opens, it is 1869 and thousands of Chinese immigrants have constructed the first transcontinental railroad spanning from the Pacific Coast to Utah. But most photos commemorating the completion of the project omit the Chinese workers who toiled for years under dangerous conditions. Many of these early Chinese immigrants went on to stay in America, raise families, and start businesses, ushering in a new era of AsianAmerican ingenuity. But, amid their contributions to our culture, they have been forced to endure violence, racism, and forced internment. Attacks on Chinese immigrants were rampant when they first arrived in the U.S. in the 1800s, and following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, thousands of JapaneseAmericans were incarcerated in concentration camps after failing “loyalty questionnaires” from the U.S. government.

Through the duration of “Asian Americans,” we are presented with several AsianAmericans who share their experiences of living in the U.S., giving the series a personal touch that transcends a mere history lesson. We meet Satsuki Ina, who was born at a California concentration camp during WWII and watched her parents lose faith in a nation that was senselessly destroying their lives. We meet Mike Nakayama, who joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam in 1967, only to find himself the target of ethnic slurs from a drill sergeant. And we meet Edison Uno, who led a campaign in the 1970s and ’80s, seeking reparations for past injustices to the AsianAmerican community. At a time when AsianAmericans find themselves victims of a new wave of xenophobic violence as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tajima Pena hopes that her film will remind viewers that immigrants have always been a source of strength for America, even in the face of unfathomable adversity. And she hopes that any AsianAmericans watching at home “come away with a real feeling of pride in their story, in their heritage.” [See Docuseries Offers Fresh Look at AsianAmericna Experience by Takeshi Nakayama, Nichi Bei,, 21.May.2020.]


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