Snapshots of History

Series Captures Asian Pacific American Voices

Posted May 13, 2008 at 10:58am

Though they were substantial, the achievements of Asian Pacific Americans remained largely obscured from the general public’s view until the late 1970s, when lawmakers passed a resolution setting aside a week to celebrate Asian Pacific heritage.

That weeklong celebration has since expanded to last for the month of May, and this year — on the 30th anniversary of the resolution — the United States Capitol Historical Society and the Heritage Series LLC have joined to create an oral history series featuring six current and former Asian Pacific American Members of Congress.

“No one understands the Asian Pacific American community,” said Norman Mineta, former secretary of Commerce and Transportation and former Democratic Representative from California, in an interview.

Asian Pacific Americans are one of the largest and most diverse ethnic minorities in the United States. There are an estimated 15.9 million residing in the United States, making up more than 5 percent of the total population.

In the oral history series, titled “Yielding the Floor: Reflections of Asian Pacific Americans in the Nation’s Capitol,” Members of Congress recall stories of pain and pride, speaking about their encounters with racism and the patriotism that motivates them to work in public service. The series features interviews with Mineta, Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and David Wu (D-Ore.). Former Rep. Ronald Sarasin (R-Conn.), president of the USCHS, conducted the interviews.

Samantha Cheng, a first-generation Chinese-American who produced, directed and developed the videos, said she believes that cultural differences have kept Asian Pacific Americans from speaking up and sharing their accomplishments.

“Culturally, we are very quiet, and we tend to take a back seat,” Cheng said.

She said that many Asian parents, including her own, emphasize diligence, scholastic achievement and American patriotism, sometimes at the expense of ethnic pride.

Matsui, who was born in the internment camp in Arizona where her parents met and married, grew up with similar values.

“My parents never really spoke about [internment],” Matsui says in the video. “We were encouraged to be ‘all American,’ in essence.”

Mineta, a Japanese-American who was sent to an internment camp at age 13 during World War II, was the co-author of the resolution designating Asian Pacific American Heritage Week in 1978.

The first 10 days of May were chosen to commemorate two important milestones in Asian Pacific American history: the arrival of the first documented Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed on May 10, 1869. Congress expanded the celebration into a monthlong event in 1992.

“Rather than being a melting pot, to me, I think of the United States as a tapestry with yarns of different colors,” Mineta said. “Each of those yarns are distinctive, strong, beautiful on their own, but when they’re woven together, they make even a stronger tapestry.”

In their oral histories, the Hawaiian Senators describe the effect of World War II on Asian Pacific Americans.

Akaka recalls looking out the window while in school and witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Inouye speaks about his service overseas in the Army during World War II, and the horrifying nature of war.

Both Senators have dedicated themselves to improving the quality of life of the Hawaiian people.

“When I became a politician, Hawaiians were on the bottom of the social, economic and political ladder,” Inouye says in the video.

Inouye says he believes that as a result of Hawaiians’ gentle and a compassionate temperament, they have been easy prey for exploitation.

But despite the suffering experienced historically by Asian Pacific Americans, often at the hands of the U.S. government, the subjects of the video remain patriotic.

Mineta said that his experience in an internment camp taught him the greatness of America. He said he believes President Ronald Reagan repaired the damage from the gross Constitutional violation the government committed by holding Japanese American citizens captive during World War II with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

In that act, the government officially apologized to the Japanese community and individual internees, and made redress payments of $20,000 per person.

To Mineta, “the beauty of the country [is] that you can redress your wrongs.”

Honda, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, echoes Mineta in the video, noting that his understanding that sometimes government will make mistakes is part of his motivation to be in politics.

“The key for me was turning that energy that was negative in anger into a positive one, one of participatory activities, that would make me part of the solution rather than being part of the problem,” he says.

“Yielding the Floor: Reflections of Asian Pacific Americans in the Nation’s Capitol” is made up of six full-length oral history video interviews. A 25-minute video featuring highlights from the complete series is also available.

Both videos can be viewed online at uschsnewmedia-podcasts.uschs.org.

The producer’s ultimate goal is to place the series on a DVD and send it to schools around the country. The highlights video was shown last Thursday at a USCHS youth forum for local middle and high school students, and it will be shown at two Asian Pacific American events in Los Angeles and New York this month.