Under the baobab: Asian Americans are ‘essential threads’ to our social fabric
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May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In 1978 Congress officially recognized it as a weeklong celebration. Then in 1992 Congress expanded the commemoration to a month. At its last meeting, the State College Borough Council issued a proclamation read by Mayor Ezra Nanes and accepted by council member Gopal Balachandran which said in part:
“… we are blessed to have residents of the Borough of State College who … constitute approximately 11 percent of our populations in the Borough of State College, and they have enriched the ethnic and social fabric of our community, with their diverse languages, cultures, and religious traditions; and those of Asian and Pacific Islander origin contribute to and enrich our community with their leadership, creativity, talent, enterprise and skill in countless ways including as professors, scientists, technologists, doctors, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, workers, writers, investors, elected officials, philanthropists, volunteers and more. They are an integral part of building and supporting a vibrant and resilient economy in the Borough of State College.”
Asian and Pacific Islanders of China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh make up over half the world’s population. In the U.S., people with Asian ancestors people those who identify Asian in combination with other races, make up 7.2% of the total population. While U.S. population grew by 7.4% that group grew by over 55%.
The first large-scale immigration of Asians into the United States happened in 1848. The British defeated China in the Opium Wars, which ended in 1842. The Chinese, like many others, were drawn to the California gold rush where Chinese miners experienced their first taste of discrimination in the form of the Foreign Miner Tax, which was supposed to be collected from all foreign miners but it was only imposed on the Chinese.
The first major impact Asians had on America was the building of the railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroad. Chinese laborers made up a majority of the Central Pacific workforce that built the transcontinental railroad east from California. It began as an experiment after an 1865 want ad soliciting 5,000 workers only netted a few hundred. It was suggested that the Chinese be recruited. Two years later, between 80-90% of the Central Pacific workforce was Chinese; the rest were mostly Irish. Eight thousand Chinese worked on building the tunnels while another 3,000 laid track. Due to the abuse and bad working conditions, some sources claim that up to 1,000 Chinese died during the construction of the railroad. It was not the only anti-Asian abuse in U.S. history.
The Japanese nation attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Ten weeks later President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Nearly 75,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken into custody and interned in prison camps. Another 45,000 Japanese nationals living in the United States were also incarcerated.
In our modern era, Asian people are being increasingly targeted by hate crimes. Last March I laid flowers at the shops in Atlanta where six Asian women were killed by a young anti-Asian fanatic. Many mistakenly blame the Chinese for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet despite these trials, tribulations and abuse, Asians in American have prospered. Vice-President Kamala Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1958. Now Harris is a heartbeat away from the presidency. Many Asian Americans are important leaders in our local community. Judge Donald Hahn was the first Korean-American to be elected mayor of State College. On Monday, Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, who was born in India, will officially take over as Penn State’s 19th president. Along with Balachandran, Vickie Fong, Shih-In Ma, Dr. Nalini Krishnankutty, Hyeseon Kim, Dr. Talat Azhar, Dr. Suresh Canagarajah, Dr. Paul Shrivastava, Dean Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Dr. Juan Qiu, Savita Iyer and Chuck Fong are essential threads to our social fabric.
Charles Dumas is a lifetime political activist, a professor emeritus from Penn State, and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. Congress in 2012. He lives with his partner and wife of 50 years in State College.