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What does Asian Pacific American Heritage Month mean to me?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in Urbana, Ill., without an Asian American community, I struggled to grasp what the Chinese American part of my identity meant to me.

Irene Strohbeen

We were children of Chinese Filipino immigrants, born when my father came to pursue his PhD in civil engineering. My family was close, but they couldn’t protect my sister and I from being bullied in grade school by the boys challenging us to a “Kung Fu” fight.

Later, the lack of Chinese (Mandarin) language skills meant we weren’t able to fit into a Chinese American community anyway. We didn’t grow up within the Chinese culture; we didn’t even celebrate Chinese New Year.

I guess the absence of a community meant the absence of holidays and other cultural celebrations. We did gain the cultural value of the importance of food in all celebrations and gatherings however!

Irene (left) and her family in 1964

Since those early years, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month has helped me to better understand and embrace my own Asian heritage. Congress established this month in 1992 to annually recognize the contributions of AAPI people in America. Soon after, my employer Kimberly-Clark held its first May Conference to support and recognize their AAPI employees. They brought in a wonderful line-up of Asian American speakers, and it made me proud to be a part of this community of articulate and powerful speakers who put a voice to our shared identity and experiences. The conference also helped to create that missing AAPI community for me, connecting me with first- and second-generation Asian Americans as we formed our own employee resource group.

Irene’s family at her son’s college graduation

Since then, May always brings opportunities to learn more about AAPI heritage and history, but 2021 has really brought the population together across the country. The huge increase in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans, especially the shootings in Atlanta, have resulted in an outpouring of community-building and support. Dozens of online webinars and discussions were offered throughout the month about AAPI history, racism, culture and identity. It’s been a bit exhausting but also exciting to see such interest and action!

Irene and her sister Evelyn at a Milwaukee Brewers game

Locally, the month started with the Appleton Common Council unanimously passing Maiyoua Thao’s resolution condemning xenophobia and anti-Asian racism and hate. Although the process was slower and more tortuous than expected, it provided a chance for many local allies to vocalize their support for the AAPI community, including the Community Foundation, United Way Fox Cities, YMCA, and many other organizations and individuals. This support was so meaningful and appreciated—and helped to make a difference.

AAPI Heritage month will always be a time for me to reflect on my identity & continue learning about the history of the AAPI peoples here in this country, because that is my heritage and history.

Originally posted in May 2021. Photo at top: Irene Strohbeen (highlighted) and her 5th grade class.
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