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Oh, great! ANOTHER cultural observance

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- The month of May marks yet another cultural observance. This time it’s the Asian American Pacific Islander celebration. Well, that’s a mouthful. Just about every month the federal government by Presidential Proclamation, Executive Orders and Public Law uses government resources to highlight these Special Emphasis Observances. May just happens to be the month of the Asians.

I wish I had a dime for every time one of these observances hits the calendar and heard, “Cultural observances are so ridiculous. When are they going to have the Italian month, the Irish month or the month that celebrates white males?” These comments are grumbled quietly in the right audiences because they aren’t exactly politically correct.

In less harsh circles, I’ve heard these observances create greater division in our already divided society. We should not be emphasizing our differences, instead, we should be focusing on ‘we the people’ as Americans first and foremost.

If I must be brutally honest, I have felt a collective eye roll across Department of Defense agencies regarding these events rather than a genuine desire to celebrate culture and diversity. Events and observances take place like clockwork. Month after month, observance after observance with the common themes of low participation and a struggle to make the observance meaningful.

Until ten years ago, I agreed. I have a unique situation. I was born in Vietnam and adopted by Americans - both Caucasian. I grew up the youngest of four children. My two brothers were born naturally to my parents and my sister and I were adopted. Growing up, my mother believed strongly in a colorblind household. Looking past color and ethnicity, she wanted us to accept that we were Americans first and foremost. There was no emphasis on Asian culture in our household. I didn’t even try Vietnamese food until after college. We were Americans. There was no need for further discussion.

A fantastic ideal in theory, it didn’t serve me very well. In the real world bullies called me a “chink,” I dated men who had an ‘Asian thing,’ and the entire world seemed to notice I was Asian before I did.

Ironically, I began to embrace my culture because of an Asian American Pacific Islander celebration. It’s still a tongue twister. Ten years ago, I had just moved to a tiny overseas community in Germany. I was at the softball field, minding my own business, when a middle-aged Asian woman walked up to me, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You’re Asian. Why aren’t you helping with Asian/Pacific Month?”

Taken aback by her directness, I stumbled over my words and meekly offered that I hadn’t heard about it. In her stern, authoritative way she said, “You should help.” Who was I to argue? So, help I did.

Before I knew it, I was sucked into a frenzy of activity, organization and food preparation for our local observance. We took a field trip to Munich to gather our Asian ingredients and I allowed the wave to wash over me.

The observance was an Asian invasion. Almost every Asian (and their spouses and friends) on base had arrived to offer a helping hand. We cooked food samples the entire day. I’d never felt so proud to be Vietnamese. The event was a rousing success with many community members coming out to share in the food and cultural displays we had prepared.

From that moment on, I stopped rolling my eyes at these events and I started paying more attention. I began to attend more observances and soon realized there were amazing stories to be told. People were sharing their own stories. Conversations were occurring one at a time. Soon my friends and I talked about observances and how we felt about our country’s cultural divisions. We talked about our own experiences and laughed at our own stereotypes. Fact is, we were talking and sharing.

Yes, it’s ANOTHER cultural observance, and I cannot wait. Month after month, one conversation at a time, we share in our diversity. I am still uniquely and proudly American, but with every Asian American Pacific Islander celebration, I look forward to letting my voice be heard and sharing in my Vietnamese culture. I just wish the name was shorter. Grab a friend and go check out your observances, you might learn a little something about a different culture or you might learn a little something about yourself!