Celebrating AAPI Heritage

Contributor: Bonny Bunson
A little more than two years ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded into the minds and fears of Americans, I entered an elevator in a Washington, D.C. building, with a mask on. Stopping at one of the floors, the doors opened, and a gentleman entered, hesitated, looked at me, and moved as far away from me as he could once he realized that the doors had closed. He looked anxiously at me and asked from behind his mask, “Are you from China?”
It took me a moment to realize he was asking me that question because there had been so much in the news about COVID originating in Wuhan, China. “No,” I said in reply, “I am American.” We reached my floor, and I exited in a mild state of shock at being asked such a question. 
In reflecting on the incident, I was less offended by the question than I was surprised. It also made me stop and consider what would prompt someone to react with such fear. I cannot speak to the intentions or feelings of the other person, but it is the closest I have come personally in my life to possible outright prejudice based on my own personal background. 

You see, I am a Chinese American, and I was born and grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, a region that is famous for its racial and cultural diversity. My parents are both originally from Shanghai and came to the United States as students. They stayed in the D.C. area and made it their home. 
Growing up, I benefited immensely from both living in the D.C. area with a keen awareness of my Chinese heritage and the many opportunities that the nation’s Capital affords. I learned three dialects of Chinese, spent my Sundays at Chinese School, summers of my childhood in Hong Kong and among Chinese speakers in Singapore, and cherished the many customs and traditions of my family. 
One of the best aspects of that heritage was a powerful appreciation of family history. I learned about my family’s roots in Shanghai, the need to flee from China during the Cultural Revolution under Mao, and the way that my mother, father, and many uncles came to the United States to build careers and plant deep roots in America. 

The experience of my family was just one of the millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who have come to the United States and established lives and flourishing businesses. To be sure, those experiences historically have been at times filled with prejudice and intolerance, even in the last few years because of COVID. Still, AAPI in America have a long and impressive record of fortitude and real grit in the face of many hardships. 

What can we all do to celebrate the achievements of AAPI? First, in our own families and personal circles, celebrate the many rich cultural traditions of so many families from so many countries, territories, and islands. Second, we should all be willing to stand up to intolerance against AAPI anywhere we see it. Finally, give our support to AAPI businesses and startups. 
Which brings me to Alterre. 

Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar launched their first footwear collection in 2015 during New York fashion week and are great examples of AAPI entrepreneurs. Their success is a reminder to everyone – especially AAPI – of the importance of traditions, of innovation, and of working hard in the face of every obstacle and challenge. 
For me, I cherish my heritage, my family, and my roots. I proudly celebrate being an Asian American Pacific Islander. 


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