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Community Center celebrates ‘API’ Heritage Month

Teresa Gaines, Staff Writer

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The month of May is best known for its budding flowers and, at least in Contra Costa County, confusing weather patterns of sunshine one day and dramatic overcast the next. But to others, the month of May is about the budding cultural awareness and celebration of Asian/Pacific American heritage.

Asian/Pacific Americans, or Asian/Pacific Islanders (API), make up roughly 15 percent of the 1.1 million residents of Contra Costa County. In a 2008 consensus, it was estimated that a quarter of that population spoke a language native to API at home and that 41.6 percent of the API population of the county were born outside of the United States.

Because of the large presence in the community, the Youth Program at the LGBTQ+ Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County (RCC) decided to recognize and celebrate the designated API awareness month with a group focused on a discussion of cultural understanding and reverence.

The group was facilitated by Youth Program Director Daphnee Valdez who identifies as a bisexual Filipino woman with early Spanish and Chinese roots. She talked about her own difficulties and observations within the API community as well as offered the space for others to share too while snacking on lumpia that Valdez’s mother had made for the youth. The recurring themes of the discussion became harmful stereotypes, visibility of the API culture in America and clashing intercommunity views.

“This month of awareness means an opportunity to be seen. It also means that our struggle is still very real in terms of being present and in terms of people recognizing that we have problems; we are not just one community that has all these privileges — because we don’t,” Valdez explained.

A big issue within the community is deportation. A common stereotype in American mainstream culture is that Mexican immigrants are the only ones who are getting deported. In reality, it is a struggle for many API people as well. A group member described how her cousins are undocumented and have to be careful in order to not be deported.  They have spent their entire lives in America and wouldn’t know how to live in the Philippines if they were deported, a country that has a poverty incidence of 26 percent.

Valdez explained that of the most harmful stereotypes of the community centers on appearances, “Asian men are often seen as more feminine of center. A lot of Asian men have been emasculated because of colonization and really because of the raping of our culture and displacing us. All these stereotypical caricatures of Asian men, specifically Chinese men, with big buck teeth and long hair are so harmful.”

There is also the common thought that if you are not white, you must be a foreigner.

“Even if we are born in America we are always seen as foreign. People ask us ‘do you speak English?’ and ‘where are you really from?’ when it’s like I was born here in California, and they still ask ‘no, where are you really from?’”

The discussion touched on how often times, women, including transgender women, are seen as “exotic” or submissive and are fetishized.

“People will say how exotic we are because we’re so brown. I have dated some white men who just liked the fact that I am Asian; you could just feel that energy of being fetishized,” said Valdez.

Although the population of API households is growing in Contra Costa County, it is a general misconception that these household incomes are affluent because of Asian parents earning a lot of money. If the sources of those incomes were examined closely, it would oftentimes come to light that there are multiple contributors to it in one household.

As Valdez describes, “People think that just because you’re Asian you’re rich when really what it comes down to is multiple people or families in one household who all work. It may look like we earn $70,000 to $100,000 annually when really it’s like six different people contributing to the household.”

It ultimately ignores the reality for many Muong, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laos people in the Bay Area. Samoan and Tongan people specifically are erased in representation and are living in poverty and in the projects, especially in San Francisco. This is partly because there are Japanese and Chinese presences that overshadow other Asian identities by holding a lot of capital in the form of business and generational occurrences.

In terms of political views within the community, there is a divide that further creates conflict. Within communities of color, there is a backlash within families of feelings of being a traitor toward your own ethnicity or race when views differ.

Valdez said, “There are the super liberal radical API folks who are super down for the movement to create radical change and a revolution but then you have the more conservative, republican Asian American folks who voted for Trump.”

It was discussed that an example of combatting intercommunity conflict can be changing long-held dynamics of shaming one another. Within a lot of the API communities, there is a deeply held principle that one must “suffer in silence” and always be humble in order to show respect to those around you. Valdez expressed just how harmful it can be to constantly be worried about “saving face.”

Fifteen year-old youth group member Jaden said he had never even heard of May being API awareness month until it was brought up at the RCC but that he wishes he had, “I should have known about it because I have friends in the community. I should have been a little more curious about where they came from and asked about it.”

The Youth Director also invited her lifelong close friend Elena, who grew up in Concord along with Valdez, to share her story. Elena identified herself as 75 percent Japanese who is a first-generation American. She expressed how her development did not come from a “typical” Asian household of grades being the most important focus in order to get into medical or law school. Her parents didn’t expect her to stay home and study instead of enjoy other activities, but rather encouraged her to be herself and to be a good person.

“I love being Asian, I love being a lesbian,” said Elena, “Coming out as a lesbian to my parents was one of the easiest things I have ever gone through. I wasn’t scared to let them in and I am forever grateful to my parents and family and friends.”

During the group, Valdez led a game that her mother used to play as a child in the Philippines. While living in the Philippines, there weren’t many toys to go around for entertainment. Instead, they created their own games, such as tumbang preso.

While their Youth Director stood in a circle of sticks and protected a cup at her feet, the youth ran around her and threw objects at the cup trying to knock it over while Valdez tried to tag them “out” before they could do so. Giggles and loud exclamations of victory and failure ensued.

The group ended on the idea that May should not be the only month in which the stories of API people are told. Rather, Valdez summed it up as, “API month is one small step in getting recognized in the community, in the world, especially when we still struggle today with our own internal feelings of not being seen. Sometimes it takes the effort of actually making it a celebration of a month or a day for us to recognize that this is important.”

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Community Center celebrates ‘API’ Heritage Month