With May comes many things: flowers in bloom, baseball season, plenty of sunshine and an eye toward summer. It also gives us a chance to celebrate so many remarkable people, from moms on Mother’s Day and Veterans on Memorial Day to the 22 million Asian Americans and 1.6 million Pacific Islanders who have shaped our country’s history and culture.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was launched in 1977 to commemorate two milestones: the first Japanese immigrant to the U.S. and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, both of which took place in the month of May. Today, it’s a much-loved celebration that’s as dynamic as Asian and Pacific Islander cultures themselves. Read on for seven inspiring icons whose lasting impact on America is worth celebrating during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (and every month).
1. Carlos Bulosan, Filipino American
Carlos Bulosan was an activist, writer, poet and the first literary voice for Filipino Americans. A prolific writer, he raised awareness for not only his own immigrant experience, but for the experience of 150,000 other Filipino immigrants who arrived in the U.S. during the first half of the 1900s.
When Bulosan arrived in the U.S. at age 17, he was determined to further his education and support his family. However, he spoke little English and had limited opportunities. After spending two years reading and writing while recovering from an illness, Bulosan turned the hardships that he and other immigrants faced into a semi-autobiographical novel, America Is in the Heart. The novel is just as powerful today as when it was first published in 1943.
Get inspired: Encourage your little one to write a story about a challenge they overcame!
2. Sammy Lee, Korean American
Dr. Sammy Lee was born in California in 1920 to Korean immigrants. A platform diver, he was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal. But his path to gold wasn’t easy. He was only permitted to swim one day per week in his local public pool, so he had to practice diving over a sand pit.
Lee qualified for the Olympic team during his years at Occidental College and USC, but he wasn’t able to compete until the 1948 London Olympics. There, he received near-perfect scores and went on to win a gold medal. He was a 28-year old medical corpsman in the Army Reserves during these Games. Four years later, Lee was a Major in the Korean War when he was eligible to compete in the Helsinki Games. The Army gave him a month to train and compete. He returned with another gold medal for platform diving. This made him the first to win consecutive gold medals for platform diving, and the only Asian American to hold this honor.
Even after retiring from diving and becoming an ENT doctor, Lee continued to coach and mentor divers. He served as an Olympic ambassador under three presidents and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.
Get inspired: Head outside and see how fast you can go, or hit the pool if it’s warm enough!
3. Kalpana Chawla, Indian American
Kalpana Chawla’s interest in aviation started the moment she first saw an airplane in the sky. More than a decade later, Chawla graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, but as a woman she found limited career prospects in India. Chawla immigrated to the U.S. to pursue masters and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering in 1982. She started working at NASA that same year and was chosen to become an astronaut in 1995.
Chawla was the first female astronaut of Indian descent to go to space. During her first voyage in 1997, she was a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Chawla’s second flight was a 16-day mission on Columbia. All seven members of the crew lost their lives on that fatal mission in 2003 as the spacecraft was destroyed during re-entry. But Chawla’s passion and commitment to breaking barriers lives on, inspiring new generations to pursue careers in spaceflight.
Get inspired: Use NASA’s Spot the Station tool and see the International Space Station in the sky at home!
4. Tammy Duckworth, Thai American
After retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Reserve Forces, Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth served as a Representative before becoming a Senator from Illinois. Sen. Duckworth is the first member of Congress of Thai descent and the first sitting senator to give birth while in office. A Purple Heart recipient who lost her legs while serving in Iraq, Sen. Duckworth is also the first female amputee to serve in Congress.
While public service was always important to Sen. Duckworth, she hadn’t considered serving in Congress. While she was recovering in the hospital, however, she advocated for other soldiers who suffered from injuries or needed medical assistance. She soon realized that as a public servant she’d be able to advocate for and assist many more people. Sen. Duckworth’s optimism inspires us to keep a positive outlook when confronting challenges.
Get inspired: Say “Hello Miko” and ask what the state capital of Illinois is!
5. Jacqueline Nguyen, Vietnamese American
In 1975, at age ten, Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen moved to the U.S. as a refugee of the Vietnam War. Her family initially lived in a “tent city” at Camp Pendleton before settling in San Diego. After law school, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s office. In 2002, she was appointed to the Superior Court in California, making her the first Vietnamese female judge.
In 2012, Judge Nguyen was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and became the first Asian-American woman to serve on a federal appellate court. This appointment also means that Judge Nguyen was the first Vietnamese-American federal judge and the first Asian American female federal judge in California.
Get inspired: How many judges are there in the U.S? How could you find this out?
6. I. M. Pei, Chinese American
Known for such iconic buildings as the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I. M. Pei is one of the most influential architects of the last century.
Pei was inspired to become an architect at age 9. At age 17, he moved to the U.S. from China to pursue an architecture degree. After graduating from MIT and Harvard, Pei started his career in architecture.
Pei was known for conducting extensive research before designing his famous buildings. Even though he was a classical music enthusiast, he traveled with the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner, to rock concerts before designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Ohio. The same dedication was on display with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Pei traveled to important Islamic architectural sites around the world so that he could better understand a culture he had little exposure to before. This icon’s legacy will live on in his buildings!
Get inspired: If you could build anything you wanted, what would it be? Draw it or try it!
7. George Takei, Japanese American
Best known for playing Lieutenant Sulu in the original “Star Trek” TV series and later movies, George Takei is also an author and an activist. Takei was born in Los Angeles, California, to Japanese-American parents. Takei received bachelors and masters degrees in theater when few roles were available to Asian Americans.
His childhood was defined by almost four years spent in internment camps during WWII and the struggles the family faced once they returned to Los Angeles after the war. These experiences influenced his work as an activist and led to him most recently starring in a Broadway musical and writing a graphic novel focusing on this personal history. Takei’s success with the still popular “Star Trek” series has allowed him to find his voice as an activist and a platform to continue telling his stories.
Get inspired: You can be an actor, too! Try putting on a family show with Miko.
Let’s continue to celebrate the millions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders whose cultures enhance the lives of all Americans.