Japanese American members of Congress Norman Mineta (D-CA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) introduced bills in the summer of 1977 to recognize the first ten days of May as Asian-American Heritage Week. The bill was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and later extended to a month by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. President Barack Obama issued a Proclamation in 2009 recognizing May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month across the nation.
Mineta, Inouye, and Matsunaga originally proposed the first ten days of May because they encompassed the anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the contributions of Chinese workers to the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Focus was later expanded to include the historical and cultural contributions of all Americans of Asian ancestry in both the past and the present.
This may be the most culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse group of Americans of any ancestry, as Asia is the largest continent on earth, both in landmass and population. This diversity is reflected in the Asian immigrant experience in America. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino immigrants were the four largest groups to arrive on American shores in the 19th century. Their labor added to the work of Polynesian Americans to build much of the agricultural and industrial infrastructure of Hawai’i and the West Coast.
The later decades of the 20th century saw Vietnamese, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, and Indonesians arrive from Southeast Asia, and Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, and Bengalis from the Indian subcontinent. Taiwanese came in significant numbers after the Communist victory in China in 1949. Armenians, Mongolians, Afghans, Kazakhs, and Turkmens came from central Asia. As the new millennium arrived, Arabs and Kurds from across the Middle East added their contributions to the ever evolving cultural landscape.
In 2006, President George W. Bush designated May as Jewish American Heritage Month as well, to highlight the enormous contributions Jewish immigrants and their American-born descendants have given to the development of the nation. From the early synagogues established during the colonial period to the large waves of Jewish immigration to Ellis Island in the early 20th century, Jews have been a significant part of American society from the beginning. Their contributions to art, literature, language, ethics, cuisine, business, and entertainment have transformed the nation and the world.
As a social science teacher, there are many topics and resources you can incorporate into your lesson plans to highlight the historical contributions and experiences of these cultures in America. The Chinese experience in California, for example, serves as a microcosm of the immigrant story as a whole, from their role in the Gold Rush and building the railroad to the discrimination they faced in the period of school segregation and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Historic “Chinatowns” across the country have helped the development of all our major cities, and Chinese language, food, health care disciplines, and beliefs have become part of mainstream culture.
The Japanese American internment camps of World War II and the heroism of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is one of the most dramatic stories in American history. The U.S. annexation of Hawai’i and the consequent Hawaiian cultural and political renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s are fascinating chapters of our national story. The experiences of refugees fleeing war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and establishing vibrant and productive communities here in the United States also offer many possibilities for creative lessons.
Language and cultural activities as well as comparative religion studies are good ways to examine how Asian and Jewish immigrant communities influenced American democracy and popular culture. Utilize the resources available to you among your students and their families and in your community. Incorporate Asian and Jewish cultural decor in your classroom. Host a multicultural potluck. Invite guest speakers to class. Showcase traditional music and dance. Take advantage of the wonderful documentary films produced in the last 30 years on the experiences of Asian and Jewish immigrants.
Works by authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Gavan Daws, Iris Chang, Ronald Takaki, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and Alfred Kazin can add rich multicultural and interdisciplinary dimensions to your units and lessons. There are now many well known Asian-American, Polynesian-American, and Jewish-American actors, directors, artists, musicians, corporate leaders, athletes, and politicians who have become household names. Look at how these immigrant communities have contributed to popular film, music, dance, visual arts, fashion, technology, slang expressions, ethical values, politics, and social behavior.
It is always better to have too many classroom resources than not enough, and the possibilities of topics to cover this month are endless. Build your unit around a structure of classwork, homework, essays, and testing assessments and support those assignments with a rich array of multimedia and participatory activities. Experiment with what works best and capitalize on what your school and students have to offer. Most of all, enjoy yourself as you celebrate these important elements of America’s cultural heritage.
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