On Monday evening, students filled the Center for Multicultural Life at 30 College Street for the kickoff celebration of Asian Heritage Month. This event is the first of eight that will take place in April as part of a celebration of Asian and Asian American identity. The programming has been designed to include representation for a variety of identities that exist within the broad category of “Asian,” with a special effort made to be inclusive of intersecting identities.
“It’s important to create spaces for students who identify as Asian or Asian American to be able to have dialogues pertaining to their identity, discrimination [or] microaggressions,” said Arah Kang ’19, president of the Asian Students Alliance (ASA). “There are a lot of great stories to be shared and voices to be heard on this campus.”
Comedy, slam poetry, discussions of identity and a celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi are all coming up as parts of the series.
The month of programming at Bowdoin is inspired by the national observance of Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, which has been celebrated in May annually since its designation by Congress in 1992. It was first celebrated as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week in May of 1979 after a Joint Resolution proclaiming it was signed by President Jimmy Carter. Its traditional celebration in May commemorates both the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States in May of 1843 and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which was built largely by Chinese laborers.
Asian Heritage Month is celebrated in April at Bowdoin because May is the final month of the semester and is dominated by reading period and finals week. Many other colleges and universities do the same thing.
Director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life Benjamin Harris said the goal of his office was to support student groups in creating events on campus that best reflected students’ interests. Rather than determining and organizing all of the programming itself, the Center brought together a variety of existing organizations—including ASA, the Asian Studies Department and even the English Department—in their conceptualization and promotion of events.
Kang said that ASA started planning for the celebration in November, searching for keynote speakers and performers and reaching out to agencies and notable figures. ASA members decided on certain events from last year to keep and improve upon, but they also planned events that will be new for this year’s celebration. Kang oversaw all the planning, working with a team of six ASA executive board members and a first-year committee.
“This is the largest amount of programming that we have ever done for our heritage month,” Kang said.
Guests visiting Bowdoin as part of the celebration include Paul Tran, a slam poet who performed last night at Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill. and Lisa Ko, an award-winning novelist. Kang is particularly looking forward to a panel of faculty and students called “The Untold: Diverse Stories of Asian Americans at Bowdoin,” an intersectional conversation that will focus on the question, “When did you realize that you were Asian?”
This is the third year the celebration will last for an entire month, as opposed to a week, as was the case before Harris arrived at Bowdoin. Harris said the longer window for programming will make it easier to reach more students, since most have busy schedules.
“With so many competing interests on campus and things that are happening, how can we get them to have programming that’s more effective and that can reach a broad number of students?” Harris said. “One week makes it a little bit challenging to try to do four or five programs in a week. I’d rather do four or five programs for the month, and therefore you can actually spread out some of the love and give opportunities for folks to actually attend and not have to compromise work and school.”
Despite the extension, limited time and the busy lives of Bowdoin students mean that not every iteration of Asian identity can be explicitly represented during the month’s events. Still, Harris believes that April’s programming will further dialogue about the plurality of experiences at Bowdoin and create a space where all individuals can feel empowered to share their expression of identity and culture.
“I think it’s important, when it comes to talking about different identities, that people have an opportunity to express their culture and their contribution to the larger American experiment,” Harris said.
Kang is also excited about the chance for Asian students to share the experiences related to their identities with the broader campus community.
“[I hope] that there will be further understanding of the students who identify as Asian from the Bowdoin community and for students to potentially learn new things that they might not have known before,” said Kang. “I also hope the month will bring a sense of pride and a chance for Asian students to embrace their heritage and culture.”