Who are we?

WE ARE HERE: 30 INSPIRING ASIAN AMERICANS AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS WHO HAVE SHAPED THE UNITED STATES

By Naomi Hirahara, illustrated by Illianette Ferandez (New York: Running Press Kids, 2022, 128 pp., $17.99, hardcover)

People from Asia and the Pacific arrive on these shores and imagine their lineage still linked to their country of origin. They might consider themselves immigrants from China or India, a person with roots in Korea or Guam, or refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia. Each place is a home with its own culture, language, and history. It reminds me of my maternal grandmother who called herself Nihonjin when talking about culture, Nisei when comparing her to those first immigrants from Japan, and American if she were talking about her citizenship. These labels can confuse as much as they clarify.

The same is true for the idea of an Asian American, which is relatively new. According to Densho’s Website, Yuji Ichioka and Gemma Gee coined the term for a 1968 college class. The term was to create cross-ethnic solidarity to challenge white supremacist notions that “Orientals” could not be distinguished from one another.

Fifty years later, a new wave of anti-Asian violence rose during the pandemic, and the Asian Pacific American Center at the Smithsonian responded by publishing “We Are Here: 30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Shaped the United States.” Featuring drawings by Chicago-based illustrator, Illi Ferandez, and profiles by mystery book writer and journalist, Naomi Hirahara, it introduces us to a broader definition of who now fits under this ever-expanding tent of Asian and Pacific Islander America.

Two activists exemplify that founding notion of solidarity. Grace Lee Boggs organized communities in Detroit with her African American husband, James, and Philip Vera Cruz, the elder of the collection, led a Filipino farm worker strike in Delano, Calif. and helped start the United Farm Workers, which was built across racial and ethnic differences.

I couldn’t stop myself from reading bios of the rich and famous, learning that Keanu Reeves was born in Beirut and a high school dropout, and that when the youngest person in the book, Naomi Osaka, skipped a press conference, it sparked an international debate about the mental health of athletes. Not surprisingly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wasn’t the first in his family to become a professional wrestler, that was his grandfather — though Peter Gene Hernandez, aka Bruno Mars, was nicknamed after another professional wrestler.

Most inspiring, however, are those who I would not have known were it not for this book, and I might not have considered them as part of a greater Asian American and Pacific Islander community. People come from nations and territories that span the Pacific and stretch across Asia to the Middle East. For instance, Mau Piailug from Micronesia learned sacred navigation techniques from his grandfather and successfully sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti proving the wisdom of ancient wayfinders. Lydia X.Z. Brown was diagnosed as autistic in the eighth grade and came out as nonbinary and genderqueer after high school, all while advocating for disability rights, which was eventually celebrated by President Barack Obama. Shirin Neshat uses experimental photography, film and performance to explore lives of Iranian women who must live under the veil.

After reading all of the biographies, I wondered if this idea of an Asian/Pacific Islander America could fit all the people and experiences represented in those pages. I worried it would dilute the sentiments that inspired the original term. Then I remembered Asian America was once new and radical and full of possibility. This book reminds us of that past while inviting us to imagine a more diverse community, full of hope and with enough room for all of us.

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