On the burden of heritage

The burden of heritage (1)

Before coming to Sarah Lawrence, I never truly considered API (Asian/Pacific Islander) Heritage Month to be a real thing: though my high school was majority East and South Asian, we never acknowledged May as anything other than the hectic time before finals, or when the weather was just starting to scorch.  A large part of that was institutional: most of our teachers and almost all of our administration was white, so it was never formally integrated into our school or academic life.  


We barely learned about APIs in or out of our history classes, and our immigrant parents certainly weren’t particularly knowledgeable about Asian American history – the irony is that the majority of Asian Americans today belong to a different wave of immigration (post-1965, when laws changed to alter restrictions to Asian immigration) than the Asian Americans discussed in what’s typically honored as Asian American history (eg. Asian Americans involved in anti-Vietnam movements, the farmworker rights movements, etc.)  The distinctness of two waves of immigration, pre- and post-1965, have created two segments of Asian America: one is an aging population, an era of radical and politicized Asian Americans belonging to civil rights movements in the 70s (ala Yuri Kochiyama and Richard Aoki).  


The second is now: the American children of a new wave of post-1965 immigrants.  We live with the aftermath of a radical history that was technically never ours, and so the vast majority of us (Asian immigrants post-1965 and their children) don’t inherit that history consciously. It’s a strange burden, an abstract one: it’s not our literal lineage, but the abstract histories of racialization and trauma that belong to us now.  


This API Heritage Month, I think a lot about how to pay tribute to, and to remember, the pre-1965 Chinese-Americans, the banned ones, the lynched ones, the large Chinese communities of the Midwest that died out generations before me.  The era of Chinese Americans who literally no longer exist – and yet, they are the reason I’m allowed to.  


According to the 2014 census, the majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born (69 percent).  So in many ways, the Asian America of now, the Asian America sprung out of post-1965 legislative changes, is still coming of age.  It’s still emergent.  It’s still unformed.  My parents’ favorite pastime is to speculate about what will become of this generation they’ve birthed: who will we become?  I know when my mother asks this, what she is really asking is: where are you going that I cannot?  The question is also one of possibility: will we show our solidarity?  Will we show up and makes spaces for each other? And most importantly, can we continue to honor our inherited (willingly or unwillingly, it’s not our choice) histories while creating our own lineages?  I’m more than hopeful.  We owe so much to those pasts that did not belong to us – but more importantly, we deserve so much more in the future.



Kristin Chang is a staff writer at Even If Your Voice Shakes. She is from California.  She studies languages, cries over poetry, and invents alter-egos-of-color for Wonder Woman. If you liked or learned from this article, please consider paying her: cash.me/kristinxchang.


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