Every year towards the end of May the city of Columbus, Ohio hosts the Asian Festival, one of the largest Asian arts and cultural celebration in the US. A two-day weekend event, the Festival caps the month-long Asian Pacific American Heritage month, a national observance with seminal origin in the House Joint Resolution 540 introduced in 1977 by Rep. Frank Norton (R-NY-34).
The month of May commemorates a few important “firsts” among Asian-Americans. It was in May 7, 1843 that the first Asian immigrant arrived from Japan. It also marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 10, 1869, a herculean project undertaken largely with Chinese labor. What started out as a ten day observation evolved into a month-long celebration of American citizens and residents and their Asian roots. Today the heritage month includes people whose ancestry ranges from the vast continent of Asia to the far-flung Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
Though preparations for this years year’s Asian Festival — the 24th consecutive so far — are proceeding at a steady clip, there is a palpable sense of unease and urgency among the organization’s volunteers. It’s as if big things are afoot; that this year’s Festival holds special meaning like none before.
And why not? After all, this is the first year of POTUS 45, a young administration that won the US presidential race of 2016 with an ugly baggage of bigotry and xenophobia in tow. While dog whistling against immigrants is nothing new in America, the brazenness during and after the election, and the near-hysterical blaming of America’s so-called decline on anything and anyone foreign-born is cause for great concern.
There is no doubt that the 2016 elections will go down into modern US history as one of the most controversial. It is not simply that racial slurs and biased accusations were brought against particular ethnic groups and religions; it was that the central values of America — a country that draws its lifeblood from recurring waves of immigration — and America’s relationship with the world were challenged to their very core.
“Why do you think the Asian Festival is important?” asked a middle aged volunteer I met a few months after the elections.
It was a serious question, one posed without guile or sarcasm. It’s also a question that gave voice to the unease that I felt since the elections, echoing some of the issues I’ve turned over in my mind since then, and also some of the convictions I’ve nurtured over the years.
I did not hesitate to reply. “The Festival celebrates diversity and promotes understanding among people of different cultures,” I said. “It helps visitors learn more about Asians, which lowers suspicion, fear and hatred. In the Age of Trump, we need this more than ever.”
I hoped that my answer motivated the volunteer, an immigrant from Korea. With the tragic history of her country in my mind, it wasn’t lost on me how Asia’s ledger as a whole is in woeful deficit when it comes to the ideals of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Let’s be honest. In the 20th century alone, Asia has been racked by inequality, poverty, invasions, religious persecution, civil wars and famine. Time and again it’s witnessed the pitiful flight of refugees to havens overseas. It’s as if every possible form of cruelty that man could inflict on his fellow man has happened in this vast and ancient continent. What could Asia hold up for a young nation such as America to learn from?
That of course is the two-way dialog that Asian-Americans find ourselves in. Perhaps, in the Age of Trump, we can show that in spite of our divisions, Asians can band together to celebrate the things that keep us going: our stories and myths; our songs and music; our handicrafts; our dances; our games; our festivals and our traditions. These are things that are part of our heritage, things that make life worthwhile in the face of struggles and hardships it comes with.
In the US there’s a stereotype of Asian-Americans as so-called model minorities. While true to some extent, it’s not wholly reflective of the complex experiences Asian immigrants face. Far from monolithic, Asian-Americans are made of diverse subgroups that grapple with the immigrant experience in their own unique way.
Success certainly hasn’t come evenly to every single one. In fact we face the challenges and obstacles endemic to the American immigrant experience, something that the model minority myth glosses over. Meanwhile the promise of upward mobility remains true, yet not all find it within their reach.
It’s when we cut across the boundaries of ethnicity and culture to offer guidance and assistance to our fellow Asian migrants that we do our share to foster tolerance and understanding. Oddly this is something that we may not accomplish in our respective countries of origin had we not chosen to immigrate to America instead. Living in America, the Land of Second Chances, we can shrug off our historical baggage and have an honest try at building trust and giving mutual aid.
All told, these ideals run counter to the dog-eat-dog ethos that has become synonymous with “negotiating”, “winning” and “greatness”, an unfortunate outcome of last year’s presidential elections. Now more than ever, there’s an urgent need to counteract this cynical view of the world. If the Asian Festival leads towards this goal, then it’s certainly something worth celebrating.
All photos were taken at the 2016 Asian Festival. To see more images, please check out this portrait album.