Serving as an important reminder of the fact that the AAPI community helped build this country, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month also celebrates their history and many cultures, as well as those contributions to the United States. Asia is a massive continent that is home to diverse ethnicities and histories, and the innumerable customs of its many countries have intertwined with American society over the years. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center article, “a record 20 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.” Learning about their fellows’ Asian norms and traditions should only serve to strengthen the bond Americans have with each other, but unfortunately, people tend to fear what they do not understand. With the recent uptick in hate crimes targeting the Asian community, recognizing and supporting Asian Americans is more important than ever before, and AAPI month presents the perfect opportunity. One of the most powerful things Asian Americans can do is to share their stories and experiences, so I decided to write about some of my AAPI family members—I wanted to give them a voice. My hope is that when people read these accounts, they will gain a new perspective or find ways to relate to the experiences.
Chasing the American Dream: Anand and Laxmi Sunadham
First, like many Asian Americans, I have an immigration story—in 2000, my family moved to the United States from India. While my brother and I were then too young to understand, my parents, Anand and Laxmi Sunadham, still remember weathering the transition.
After an arranged marriage in 1986, fourteen years passed before my parents made the choice to immigrate to the United States. Before the move, my father was working as a software development manager for a large electronics firm in Hyderabad, while my mother was a homemaker taking care of my brother and me.
Back in those days, my father was also helping graduate students with their projects in addition to his regular job, and as a return favor, one of those students helped him file his work visa in the United States. From there, he completed a handful of interviews and landed a job with a consulting company that contracted him out to another firm. At first, he traveled to the States alone, arriving in Chicago with just $1,000 in his pocket. That amount was gone after a couple of weeks—his new employer unfortunately withheld his first paycheck, and so only borrowed money from a friend helped him stay afloat until his company eventually began paying him. In addition to financial hardship, there were other difficulties my father faced as a new immigrant to the United States—he did not have a car, nor did he even know how to drive, and he could not rent an apartment as he did not have a credit history.
Throughout the time my father was getting settled in the United States, my mother was also busy taking care of my brother and me back in Hyderabad, putting on a brave face as she parented all on her own. The three of us lived in a small, one-bedroom, one-bathroom house at the time, and she made breakfast and packed our lunches every day before school. Though my brother would ride his own bike, my mother made sure that I was picked up by the auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled open-air taxi, that would drop me off at my kindergarten classes, and when the day was done, she would pick me up herself on her Honda scooter if it did not arrive on time to bring me home. When we were not in classes, my mother kept us busy with other activities. She made time for the music teacher to come to our house when my brother was learning how to play Sitar—an-Indian stringed instrument—and we would also make regular visits to our grandmother’s house, the movie theater, and the local swimming pool. As kids, we were so preoccupied with the fun she curated that my mother says she does not remember us being too sad about our father’s absence, despite her own despondence at such. Throughout all that time, my mother gave everything to hold our family together, and thankfully, my father eventually sent word that we could join him in the United States.
After enduring about six months alone in his new country, my father finally obtained his American driver’s license and bought his first car, having had to make do with rides from a generous colleague and cab rides until then. After showing a landlord documentation that he owned land in India, he was able to move into the apartment that he would eventually share with my mother, brother, and me. When he sent for us, we packed only our clothes, passports, and some snacks—just like my father had done months before, we essentially left our entire life behind to start anew. On the day we left, my mother recalls that it was very hectic because almost every member of our family showed up to send us off at the airport. That was our first time flying, and my mother somehow miraculously navigated the three of us through the gates and security despite having to deal with me—a screaming and crying toddler who was terrified of getting on the plane. We would soon join my father in Chicago, where the four of us would share a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a family friend in order to afford the rent.
My father still recalls how that anxiety of his very new way of life was immediately washed away by happiness when our family was reunited. Now that I am older, I know that both of my parents made many sacrifices to realize a dream of providing a better life for their children. All the success I have had in life is thanks to their ceaseless efforts to provide me as much opportunity as possible, and I will forever be grateful for their love and support.
Two Sides: Gail Crear Ellis
Much, much later after having immigrated to the States, I would gain another family member—this one, with a far different perspective than my own. My sister‑in-law, Gail Crear Ellis, is the daughter of a Filipino mother and American father—having been born here, hers is an American story that is heavily influenced by her Filipino heritage.
Like that of many Asian immigrant families in the United States, Gail’s childhood in Texas featured a home with three bedrooms shared by 6‑7 other family members, including her grandparents. But when I asked her, Gail noted that, even though she was raised by a poor family in a crowded house with cultural mores that did not match the American dream, she never felt underprivileged thanks to her bond with her family. Out of all of them, she was closest with her maternal grandmother, who spoke to her in Tagalog—a common language spoken in the Philippines—and always pushed her to learn the mother tongue. But Gail’s study of Tagalog came to a halt when she was eight and her grandmother passed. Without her biggest motivator, the language now only reminded her of that painful loss and Gail no longer felt the drive to continue studying it—instead, she began speaking solely English, a language she had learned perfectly by the time she started kindergarten. Regardless of her language proficiencies, her teachers at the time only took one look at her and—solely because of that—became adamant that Gail join English To Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, forcing her mother to petition school leaders to keep Gail out of unnecessary ESOL. Gail may not have realized it herself at the time, but such an experience marked one of her first brushes with her dual identity.
Yes, forgoing the study of Tagalog was just the start of Gail’s reckoning with her mixed heritage—beginning in the third grade, she went to stay with her father, David, and his side of the family in Minnesota during the summers. Though Gail had always considered herself Filipino and had not questioned her identity to that point, life with her father’s upper middle-class, white family provided significant culture shock. Already uncomfortable since her father had not been in her life much up to that point, having to adjust to the very different lifestyle David and his family enjoyed only amplified Gail’s feeling very out of place. It did not help that, as these people were essentially strangers with unclear intentions, their compliments of her “Asian” physical features felt almost discriminatory, whereas similar comments from her Filipino family felt more genuine.
After this experience, Gail became increasingly insecure about her mixed identity as she entered middle and high school, with heightened awareness regarding her differences compared to those around her—things shifted so much that she began noticing small things that had not been an issue before, like medical and school forms that often ask people to check a box to identify their race. At the time, there was not a “Mixed” category available, so she was forced to either choose “White/Caucasian” or “Asian” every time. Of course, there was the option to choose “Other,” but just considering it made her feel invalidated because it stripped her of both her identities.
Now an adult, Gail does not still harbor the insecurities that she felt growing up, having become comfortable with her blended identity. In fact, she is now the mother of a baby girl, Audrey, who will also grow up as a person of mixed descent, and Gail wants to teach her daughter that culture is rooted in tradition and not physical features or the color of her skin—culture is the conglomerate of values, how one shows love, family, work ethic, food, and more. I remember that Gail said one of her favorite parts of Filipino culture is that her people can find community anywhere in the world, that Filipino people have a way of making other Filipinos feel like family even if they are not blood related. I know she is excited to share that aspect of her culture with Audrey, as well as everything else that makes Filipino culture amazing and special.
Recognizing the Struggle: How Everyone Can Help Support Diversity and Inclusion
These are just two of millions of Asian American stories, but I know that many others within the AAPI community can likely relate somehow. Numerous Asian American immigrants will have gone through the same hardships as my parents did in trying to start a new, better life. According to the New York State Immigrant Action, the biggest challenges that immigrants face are language barriers, lack of employment opportunities, housing, access to medical services, transportation issues, cultural differences, raising children, and prejudice—these are piled on top of the everyday struggles we all face while chasing the American Dream. And even though my sister-in-law Gail has now settled into herself, for many mixed-race Asian Americans out there, the dichotomy between cultures is very still much felt— according to NBC News, some feel “mixed cultures has made life richer and more inclusive; others talk of struggling for acceptance by one side or another of their roots.”
Unfortunately, greater acceptance remains a problem for the entire AAPI community. Asian Americans have long felt the need to prove to others that the racism they experience in the United States is real, largely in thanks to a societal lack of understanding regarding historical discrimination against AAPI people, aided in part by the established “model minority” stigma. Given the terrible increase in recent attacks on Asian Americans, never has there been a better time to addresses these grievances and have these discussions. We must listen to the AAPI community and attempt to bridge that gap of understanding and truly learn about their experiences and struggles. To help get started, here are some ways to help in the fight against AAPI hate and racism:
Support local AAPI groups.
Speak out if you witness a hate crime or incident.
Take active part in sensitivity training.
Check in with AAPI peers and coworkers.
Educate yourself regarding AAPI discrimination.
Support local Asian-owned businesses.
With these starting steps, and through cultural awareness, open minds, and kindness, we can move forward together as a society and ensure that the AAPI community is forever welcomed and appreciated in the United States.
About the AuthorMore Content by Nisha Ellis