May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, which is a time to celebrate the rich culture and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and their deep cultural connections with the ocean. The month of May is significant—it commemorates the first Japanese immigrant to the United States, who arrived on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869, which was primarily built by Chinese immigrants.
The history of this country is rich with Asian American stories, culture and contributions—even if they aren’t always recognized in the way they deserve. From contributions to science and technology—Chinese-American physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was instrumental in the field of atomic science and Indian-American computer scientist Ajay Bhatt developed the USB—to challenging outdated and racist laws, Asian Americans have helped shape this country into what it is today. These accomplishments were often in the face of cruel racism and prejudice, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China, and Japanese Internment camps in World War II, which incarcerated 120,000 Japanese-Americans in an act Congress later called based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
We are still living in the shadow of those actions today, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light long-simmering anti-Asian racism. There has been a disturbing increase in anti-Asian violence, including the devastating shooting in Atlanta that primarily targeted Asian American women. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, there have been 3,800 reports of anti-Asian violence, and 68% of those were against women. In light of these findings, the Senate recently passed an anti-Asian hate crimes bill, which is expected to pass the House and be signed into law. While I’m optimistic, I know there is much more to be done.
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This is one of many crises facing Asian and Pacific Islander people. The majority of people living in high-risk climate zones live in the Asian Pacific and South Asian regions. For many, ignoring the effects of climate change is simply not an option as seas rise and storms increase. In 2018, about half of all the natural disasters worldwide occurred in the Asian Pacific region.
Among the somber climate change effects in the Asian Pacific and South Asian regions, we’re seeing passionate individuals and groups pave the way to action with strong climate leadership. One example is Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a Pwo navigator. As a Pwo navigator, Thompson has been recognized through a sacred ritual as a master navigator of traditional voyaging. Nainoa Thompson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and has helped inspire a revival of traditional Polynesian voyaging practices. He has spoken extensively about the art of voyaging and the unique bond one forges with the ocean. “What’s good about the deck of the canoe, because we’re not sailing with instruments,” he stated, “[is that] it requires the navigator to constantly be observing. They’re looking at the surface of the oceans all the time.” The rich history of sea navigation and the health of our ocean are undeniably linked. By sharing his intimate knowledge of our ocean with people around the world, Thompson helps inspire people to not only protect our ocean but also to continue to build their own relationships with the sea.
“My draw to the ocean is because I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it because of just the infinite beauty of life itself. It was the definition for me.” –Nainoa Thompson
Thompson is one of many people taking action around the country and around the world for our ocean. All month we will be sharing more stories of Asian/Pacific Americans in ocean conservation, and we hope you will join us! I also encourage us all to learn more about the historic and current injustices faced by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and celebrate their history, culture, art and achievements through this month and beyond.