The Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) hosted a black-tie gala to close out this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AA&PI) Heritage Month Wednesday night. Students, faculty and community members gathered at the University of Michigan Museum of Art for a festive night celebrating AA&PI culture and history.
The theme of this year’s celebration, “Are You Listening? Oral Histories and Storytelling from AA&PI Communities,” was introduced at a virtual opening ceremony March 17. LSA sophomore Aarushi Ganguly, a member of this event’s planning committee, spoke about the significance of the theme at the March 17 opening ceremony.
“AA&PI populations have long been characterized as silent, which is a result of being washed over by imperialism, monolithic stereotypes and white supremacy,” Ganguly said. “This Heritage Month, we hope to call attention to the vast diversity within these communities. We will create space for individuals both in and outside of the AA&PI community to learn, reflect and grow.”
MESA Program Coordinator Aia Hawari explained to the crowd the importance of using the word “and” when referring to AA&PI communities in order to recognize the unique experiences for Asian Americans and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian communities.
“We hope to honor the Oceanian community as a separate community from the Asian American communities,” Hawari said. “So in our heritage programming in the use of this word, we acknowledge the regional historic, religious, ethnic, cultural differences and all the other ways that we are very, very diverse.”
The event began with a performance from Maize Mirchi, a student a capella group that blends contemporary American songs with traditional South Asian music.
LSA freshman Rohan Puri, a member of Maize Mirchi, spoke on the importance of this event given the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes saw a rise, spurred by popularized rhetoric surrounding the pandemic. Since the COVID-19 outbreak first began in March 2020, hate crimes against Asians rose 76% according to a report published by the FBI in October 2021.
“In the past couple of years … Asian hate has been at an all-time high,” Puri said. “Everyone coming together here and celebrating the heritage of these cultures is a really, really good thing.”
The night also featured a dance performance from VeryUs, an Asian-interest student group that combines both modern and traditional Asian songs and dances.
Event organizers then recognized the top three essays from an essay contest that prompted writers to share a memory related to a cultural food. Business freshman Allison Wei was among the top three essay contestants; Wei shared an excerpt of her essay about her grandmother’s cucumber salad.
“How can I explain that I’m not eating for fullness, but for wholeness, to fill all the parts of me including the gaping questions about my cultural identity?” the excerpt read. “But even in the silence, I learned. Truthfully, I learned more about my Asian American identity at the dining table than any history textbook or class has ever taught me.”
Public Health senior Nithya Arun, former Central Student Government president, also attended the event and was awarded the Yuri Kochiyama Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her advocacy on behalf of the AA&PI community. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Arun reflected on the work CSG has done to support AA&PI students at the University, including an initiative to rename Angell Hall, a building on campus named after the University’s longest-serving president James Angell. While serving as a U.S. ambassador to China, Angell contributed to the Angell Treaty of 1880, often regarded as the precursor to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“I believe that we shouldn’t name buildings after people who wanted a certain demographic of people out of this institution, or out of this country,” Arun said. “That stands against what this institution now stands for.”
Reflecting on the event in an interview with The Daily, Hawari described feeling inspired by the creativity of students who shared their stories through performances, essays and other forms of art that express the best version of themselves.
“Hearing our students be able to tell their narratives through the essays, seeing them express themselves in artistic ways through the different performances, they get to represent themselves,” Hawari said. “They get to write their own narrative.”
Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at email@example.com.