Fostering Connection and Joy: Celebrating AAPI Communities during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Image Source: ©Lane Oatey/Getty Images

Here at the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, the importance of connection, resilience, and fostering belonging is at the forefront of my mind. AAPI Heritage month, a celebration of the accomplishments and the diversity of individuals, families, and communities in the United States with roots in the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, speaks deeply to my professional mission. 

In my role as Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at HMH, I have the privilege of leading HMH’s equity and inclusion success in creating learning solutions that represent all students and honor their diverse communities. At HMH we look forward to celebrating AAPI Heritage Month as an opportunity to learn more about the specific educational opportunities and challenges faced by AAPI students, what brings them joy, what creates well-being, and what best supports their learning and growth. Guiding us in this work is the conviction that all students have a right to walk into a classroom and know that they will feel they belong.

A Question of Belonging

Earlier this year, I gained new insight into a specific obstacle to this sense of belonging for members of the AAPI community. I was attending an HMH employee resource group (ERG) gathering, an activity that’s a favorite part of my work. These gatherings can center on celebration, support, or learning, and they often hit on all three of those elements at once. At a Lunar New Year celebration hosted by HMH’s Asian Heritage and Advocacy (AHA) ERG, AHA members with AAPI heritage empathized with one another about being asked a certain question by non-AAPI people. This is a question that, it turns out, is not really a question:

“Where are you from?”

This question in this context usually has an innocent intent, but it is not harmless. It’s a way of saying, intended or not, You’re different. I haven’t been asked that question, not in that exact way, but I understand what it’s like being asked a question that isn’t really a question but a way to say, You’re different. Do you belong here?

And as one of the leaders of the AHA ERG pointed out to me, it’s not just a message about belonging or not belonging. As he put it, “We don’t often hear that question being asked as much of white or Black individuals. And yet, some of us in the AAPI community still get that question even if we have perfect American accents. It’s essentially the issue of assuming someone is ‘the other.’”

Image source: Arthor, 6 years old, courtesy of Benita Flucker

Unique Challenges

This kind of obstacle to a sense of belonging is very personal to me, as my family includes AAPI heritage, including my 7-year-old granddaughter Grace, whom I talked about in a previous post on the challenges faced by students with parents in the military, my 4-year-old granddaughter Gwenie, and Gwenie’s brother, my six-year-old grandson Arthor, shown in the picture above in his first-grade classroom. I know their stories, their joy, and I want for all students what I want for my grandbabies: that they get the support they need to know they belong despite the alarming studies reporting the issues faced by AAPI students. Asian American Pacific Islander civil rights successes have made gains against the prejudices, biases, and ignorance that harms AAPI communities, but these challenges continue, especially as they affect AAPI students. According to a 2020 study by the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, 81.5% of AAPI students reported being bullied or verbally harassed; 24% faced shunning and social isolation; and 8% reported physical assaults. The most vulnerable were children, especially girls, as the study found that “youth were more likely than adults to be harassed at school (16.7% v. 1.8%), public parks (13.5% v. 11.2%), and online (16.7% v. 10.1%) [and] girls were 2.5 times more likely to report hate incidents than boys . . .”

This bullying and harassment is one of a host of hindrances that students from AAPI communities may face, such as discrimination, mental health issues, multilingual learner (MLL) challenges, and a general lack of understanding from others about the abundant diversity within the very broad conception of AAPI as a singular entity—according to AAPI Data, there are seventy-four distinct origin groups within the AAPI population. As an AAPI colleague of mine at HMH pointed out, “Even just the history of looping Asians into one big category, ‘Chinaman,’ or maybe the more PC ‘Chinese’ today, can be perceived by some as a microaggression or ignorance at best.”

How might we help overcome these biases and see each child for who they are?

A Girl Named Hà

This question makes me think of a young girl named Hà. She’s the main character of “Inside Out and Back Again,” a narrative poem by Thanhà Lại featured in HMH’s Into Reading program. Hà, who has just immigrated with her family to the United States from Vietnam, works diligently to learn a new language, English, and she has a hard time feeling understood, feeling seen, and knowing that she is truly part of her new school in an unknown new world. As Hà focuses on learning the rules of a new language, she seeks support from a teacher who cheers her on, telling Hà that things won’t always be as challenging as they are right now. At that moment in the story, when the stress of the new school has given Hà near-constant nervousness, which she describes as feeling like dragonflies in her stomach, Hà isn’t so sure.

I appreciate how the story illuminates the journey of multilingual learners. This journey, which many AAPI students share with multilingual learners from other cultures, is fraught with challenges but also full of triumphs and progress. On a large-scale, historical level, the AAPI community has played a significant role in this progress, as can be seen in the Supreme Court case of Lau v. Nichols, which was driven by advocacy for thousands of multilingual learners of Chinese ancestry in San Francisco schools. On a smaller scale, an example of the ongoing, joyous contributions of AAPI multilingual learners can be seen in “Inside Out and Back Again,” where Hà’s unique cultural background allows her to bring new life into a description of the universal feeling of nervousness, expressing that feeling as dragonflies, avoiding the more routine and timeworn English turn of phrase: butterflies.

I am enamored with the life taking flight within “Inside Out and Back Again.” Even as it’s touching on several of the most difficult challenges that AAPI students can run into, it’s framing them as part of the story of a unique, caring young girl from a very specific world. Like some first-generation immigrants, Hà seems unsure of her place in the world, as if she no longer belongs to the world she and her family left and doesn’t yet quite fit in her new world either.

In “Inside Out and Back Again,” Hà finds comfort in the support she receives from a teacher helping her learn English. It doesn’t necessarily wave away any of her struggles or even get rid of the dragonflies in her stomach, but in the story it gives her the strength to keep moving toward the greater sense of connection, hope, and belonging she feels at the end of the story, when her developing grasp of English helps her start to forge a connection with fellow students.

As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, let’s honor the resilience, creativity, and strength of AAPI communities, supporting students in building connections and joy, ensuring that the spirit of inclusivity and acceptance is prevalent in educational spaces.

Image source: HMH Into Reading


Explore Asian Pacific Islander Month with classroom activities found on Shaped's "8 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Activities" blog article.