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May is a pleasant time of year. It’s when we trade in our textbooks and pages of Statistics notes for picnics outside in the mild weather. For many Asians and Pacific Islanders across the U.S, May is special for another reason. May is designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time meant to celebrate the artistic, intellectual, and historic achievements of AAPI communities. 

Usually, I would have no problem giving a spiel about the longstanding endurance and achievements of the AAPI community in the American arena. Only this time is different. 2020 has challenged us all in a number of ways, mentally, physically, and spiritually. But in the midst of the chaos and strain, it’s important to recognize the toll the ongoing pandemic has taken on the AAPI community. We have been ostracized, blamed, and forgotten, time and time again. This is a trend not unique to the AAPI community, but it stings nevertheless. 

This May, I wanted to take the time to reflect on what it means to be AAPI in 21st century America. In my own experience, I’ve found my Asian American identity to be a double-edged sword. When I would reveal to peers and strangers that I was of South Asian descent, the reaction was usually predictable. 

“Wow, does that mean your parents are doctors or something?” 

People hold the perception that AAPI individuals and families are more likely to succeed, both socially and financially. We’ve heard about the Model Minority Myth in the past, a stereotype that exaggerates how well off API Americans are in terms of socioeconomic status. The Myth is inherently problematic by minimizing the hardships API Americans and immigrants have faced and by painting the community as a monolith, essentially ignoring the social disparities within the community. While people associate my Asian-ness with being well off, they are blissfully ignorant of my own personal circumstances that deviate from the picture-esque “ideal” Asian American. No, my parents aren’t doctors. And no, we aren’t rich.  

But going even further, 2020 has shaken the foundation of the AAPI identity by highlighting its two-faced nature.

While the Myth is troublesome, it is something we have been used to for most of our lives. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted another stereotype that has plagued the AAPI community for decades: the perpetual foreigner stigma. AAPI communities are seen as perpetual foreigners no matter how hard they might work to assimilate to American culture. We have seen this stereotype overtake mainstream media through a resurgence in xenophobic sentiment as a result of the pandemic. The devastating rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and the senseless act of labeling the virus as the ‘Chinese virus’ are evidence of how the perpetual foreigner stereotype prevails. Despite years of community-wide efforts to rebrand ourselves, when worst comes to worst, we are still seen as outsiders in our own country.  

The duality of the Asian identity can be exhausting. On one hand, we are lauded as champions of the American system. Minorities who have prevailed against all odds, the group that has “beaten” systematic racism. Our successes are exaggerated and our failures are swept under the carpet. On the other hand, we are pointed at with scrutiny and told to “go back where we came from”. Our food is tossed for looking weird and being “smelly”. Our features are distorted to look more pleasant to the white gaze. Our languages are bulldozed over and we are chastised for speaking our native tongues. It is exhausting and at times it is incredibly hard to fend off stereotypes coming from both sides. That is why it’s important now more than ever to point out this hypocrisy and dismantle it any way we can. 

This leads back to the question: what does it mean to be AAPI? If you asked me a year ago, I might have given you a different answer. But 2020 has reminded me that my Asian identity will always be contested, whether it be by white society, my surrounding community, or the world around me. The pandemic has shown me that the perception of AAPI communities will always change to match the outgoing narrative. If society needs a success story to convince others of the fairness of a broken system, they point to us. If they are overcome with the pressing need for an ‘other’, someone to expel and turn away, they volunteer our names and our stories. 

This May I wanted to take the time to remember the strength and resilience of my community. AAPI heritage will continue to be celebrated long beyond the confines of a single month, we will continue to uplift one another every day. While I take the time to celebrate the heritage that ties me to my friends and family, I will keep these thoughts at the back of my mind. I will remember how 2020 has challenged the perception of the AAPI identity, and how we are so much more than ‘the model minority’ or the ‘perpetual foreigner’. We are so much more than what they paint us to be. The first step is recognizing that and elevating one another beyond the restraints society has placed on our shared identity. This May should be different because we will use our community bonds to actively fight stigma at every corner we see it. I hope that it is the May where we strive to take back our voices and redefine what it means to be AAPI.

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