I was 8 years old when I immigrated to the United States. My father had arrived in America three years earlier, leaving behind his pregnant wife and two daughters. My mother, my two sisters and I traveled from Taiwan on a cargo ship because it was all my father could afford.
The early years were difficult. We didn’t speak English, and we were overwhelmed by the new world we found ourselves living in. But with love, faith and hard work, my parents turned their one-bedroom Queens apartment into a loving home for their daughters and enabled us to access the opportunities in this country.
Our immigrant story — a distinctly American one — mirrors that of millions of other families who have made immense sacrifices to come to this country in search of a better life.
How many are aware that Asian Americans fought for our independence in the Revolutionary War and sacrificed their lives during the U.S. Civil War? How many know about the thousands of Chinese immigrants who labored to construct the transcontinental railroad? And how many appreciate the patriotism of Japanese Americans who fought courageously to defeat the Nazis in World War II, despite their families being interned stateside? Our story is inextricably linked to America’s story.
Yet our history is too often overlooked, our contributions to this nation are sometimes forgotten, and our right to be here is too often questioned. Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) history is American history. And it is time for it to be recognized as such. That’s why I am advocating for a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture on the National Mall — a place where our contributions can be displayed alongside other monuments to the story of our country.
There are about 24 million Asian Americans living in the United States today, about 7 percent of the national population. We contribute to every aspect of American life. Public servants such as Jonny Kim — who previously served as a Navy SEAL and earned an MD from Harvard Medical School — will help lead the United States back to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis project. Business leaders such as Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang oversee companies that are developing the breakthrough technologies of tomorrow. Entrepreneurs such as Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and DoorDash CEO Tony Xu are creating products and companies that continue to revolutionize the way we work and live. Meanwhile, even Hollywood is starting to open its doors to Asian American actors, actresses and directors after decades of disgraceful discrimination and lack of opportunity.
Yet, unfortunately, the events of the past few years have cast a disconcerting shadow over our community. The pandemic hit everyone hard, but Asian Americans were especially vulnerable, as many are small business owners who were forced to shutter their operations. In addition, reports that the coronavirus originated in China and the rising tensions in U.S.-China relations raised fears within the Asian American community. There has been a litany of news stories about Asians and Asian Americans — women especially — being harassed, spat upon, threatened and even killed over little more than their ethnicity.
The vitriol directed at the AANHPI community is so unsettling that Asian Americans have privately expressed fears that internment camps might be set up in the United States once again. As far-fetched as this might sound to many outside the AANHPI community, let me assure you, this fear is real to them.
The level of hatred is unacceptable, and many are choosing to fight back by establishing an array of nonprofit organizations to help protect and advocate for our community. Five Asian American fashion icons banded together to form the House of Slay to fight anti-AANHPI violence. I applaud these efforts. Now it is time for the country to do its part by creating an AANHPI Heritage museum on the National Mall.
Some might question why a museum is needed for Asian Americans specifically. I would answer that Asian Americans were once targeted with legislation banning them from becoming American citizens. Even though this legislation has long since been repealed, the lingering aftereffects of this discrimination can still be felt.
A National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture would go a long way to not only educate and enlighten but also reduce fear and bring us together — something that is very much needed today.
Elaine Chao was the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet. She served as U.S. labor secretary and U.S. transportation secretary.