EWU Event Programming in May Brings Attention to the Joys and Struggles of Being Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander

By Cannon Barnett, Reporter

There are mixed emotions among staff and students as Eastern Washington University celebrates Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) month this year.

On one hand, AANHPI individuals on campus are given an opportunity to share their cultures and histories without judgement, but on the other it brings up painful memories of the ways discrimination is still experienced today.

The Easterner sat down with members of the Asian Student Association (ASA), and AANHPI Month Chair Dr. Pui-Yan Lam to discuss the experiences of Eastern Washington University’s Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian populations.

The month is a time for all those who fall under the AANHPI umbrella to share their cultures without judgment.

“Everyone knows the [smell of kimchi] is not the most enjoyable smell, but for me when I go home and open up the fridge, and the fridge is fuming with kimchi… I’m home,” said Kaylee Melton, communications chair of the ASA. “It is very exciting to have people around me who are not judgmental in that way, they understand that sometimes good things smell bad.”

There are a number of on-campus events being put on in order to facilitate this cultural sharing, such as a spring market in the Averello Student mall May 25th, and a documentary about Asian American photographer Corky Lee.

Lam, who has been working towards increasing visibility of Asian Americans on EWU campus for over 20 years, said that photography and film are a large part of Asian American heritage.

“ [Corky Lee captured] social movements that are directly about racism in the United States ot things like labor movements, and just the everyday life of Asians and Asian Americans,” Lam said. “This is an example of how photography plays a very, very important role in telling our histories and experiences.”

Another goal of AANHPI month on campus is to broaden people’s understanding of the AANHPI population, said Lam.

“If we really want to look at the heritage of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders we have to look at our history – especially our history related to the United States. Sometimes it means we have to look at the ugly history of oppression and colonization that has affected [AANHPI people],” she said. 

Jasmine Paloma, co-chair of the ASA, echoed this sentiment.

“A lot of discrimination from the past doesn’t get brought up in history class,” She said.

AANHPI month at EWU has a lot of focus on the historical and present issues that the groups face.

Lam said that while people on campus are exposed to historical courses and international students, Asian Americans have different experiences and are often viewed as perpetual foreigners despite in some cases having been born and raised in America for generations.

Such perceptions from the wider population have always been present, said Lam, but a recent example was the spike in Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic brings to light the racism and violence that Asian Americans have faced not just recently…” Lam said. “Because of the pandemic and the Atlanta shooting people realize oh, this is what Asian Americans experience.”

Lam said that there is controversy surrounding the grouping of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, as the grouping was somewhat arbitrarily assigned by the government. The NHPI club did not respond to a request for an interview.

“At Eastern, we consulted with our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander club and they want to celebrate with us together in May, but we try to be mindful of the programming that we make an effort to make sure that the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander experiences are represented,” Lam said.

Melton said that while she feels mostly safe on campus, she feels that sometimes that Eastern is supporting AANHPI students out of pity. 

“It’s hard to tell when people are just writing a check and not actually communicating with you. I think that actions speak louder than words, and actions speak louder than checks,” Melton said.

In the future, Lam hopes that her work at EWU and in the wider community will help people to develop a more nuanced understanding of Asians and Asian Americans.

“There are no simple narratives or stories. People have to make an effort to understand the complexities of our communities… we are more than our racial identities,” Lam said.