Asian American and Pacific Islander Contributions to Our Nation’s History
By Suzanne Hensell, OPACE
Every May, National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is celebrated to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 (the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants).
Among the AAPI communities’ contributions to America’s rich heritage are:
- Birthright Citizenship: After a year-long battle between Wong Kim Ark (born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants) and the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that children born in America to foreigners were U.S. citizens.
- Technology: Taiwanese American Jerry Yang co-founded the web portal Yahoo! and Taiwanese American Steven Chen co-founded the video-sharing platform YouTube.
- Architecture: Chinese American I.M. Pei designed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. Japanese American Minoru Yamasaki designed the original World Trade Center.
- Fashion: Chinese American fashion designer Vera Wang is best known for her bridal wear, and Thailand born designer Phillip Lim and his partner, Wen Zhou, grew their fledgling start-up to a successful international fashion brand.
Reflections from One of Our Own
FSIS’ own C. Natalie Lui Duncan, deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Management, shared her experiences as young girl raised in the Chinese American community in New York City.
Portrait of C. Natalie Lui Duncan after her Senior Executive Service appointment to the Small Business Administration (SBA).
As we commemorate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I would like to take a few moments to reflect upon the Chinese American community in which I was brought up, the values that shaped who I am today, and the people in my life who have made a meaningful difference.
I was born in Hong Kong and relocated with my family to Melbourne, Australia, when I turned one. At the age of five, my family and I made a transpacific journey to America when my Dad accepted a call to serve as the Senior Pastor of the First Chinese Presbyterian Church (FCPC) in the heart of Chinatown, New York City. For much of my childhood, Mom, Dad and I lived in the manse – a no frills apartment co-located with the church administrative offices that was owned by FCPC overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. To this day, I recall the sounds, sights and smells unique to Chinatown – of dim sum, live fish and crabs, fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat, colorful dragon dances during Chinese New Year, and elderly men and women passing time playing mahjong at Columbus Park. My Mom enrolled me in Chinese school, where I learned the basics of reading and writing in Cantonese. As a pastor’s kid, I was invited to scores of Chinese wedding banquets and attended more funerals in the Chinese cultural tradition by the time I was a teenager than most people attend over their lifetimes.
As a social worker who divided her time across three elementary schools based in Chinatown, my mom worked with underprivileged children who were struggling academically, socially and emotionally. Many of them were children of first-generation Chinese immigrants who spoke broken English and worked 12-hour days, in minimum wage jobs, in Chinatown’s restaurants and garment factories. Many were living at the margins of society and ill equipped to set the conditions for their children to succeed in America. Mom worked to bridge gaps, raise the children’s self-esteem and connect them with resources to address their learning disabilities. In his ministry, Dad tended to the spiritual needs of Chinese immigrant families – the vast majority of whom resided in Queens and Brooklyn, and trekked out to Chinatown each Sunday to worship, socialize and do their Chinese grocery shopping for the week. Recognizing the need for new immigrants to better assimilate into American society and adapt to their new surroundings, Mom taught classes to prepare them for the U.S. citizenship test and established programs to keep children occupied with healthy fun activities and and keep them out of trouble on Saturdays and in the summer.
While my parents immersed me in Chinese cultural traditions, they felt that it was important to expand my horizons beyond the boundaries of Chinatown and expose me to American culture. At an early age, they introduced me to opera at the Met, symphonies at Carnegie Hall, and Broadway shows. On Saturdays, Mom took me to shop at B. Altman, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdales, where ladies got dressed up and wore hats and gloves to shop in the ‘80s. My mom cultivated in me a love of reading. At an early age, she took me to the flagship New York Public Library on 42nd Street and the Mid-Manhattan Library down the street where I did much of my research for school assignments. She took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Guggenheim Museum on Saturdays, opening my eyes to whole new worlds. She and my Dad viewed education as the pathway to a better life and made tremendous sacrifices to send me to schools recognized for academic excellence. Unlike the stereotypical “Tiger Moms” featured in the Joy Luck Club, however, Mom gave me room and space to grow and pursue my academic and professional interests. She and Dad instilled in me the importance of living a life of purpose in service to others.
A high point of my career was my service with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as the Senior Advisor to the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In this capacity, I was privileged to witness the lives of Americans by Choice up-close at immigration ceremonies held in and around D.C. and across the Nation – from distinguished luminaries such as the author, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, to members of the U.S. Military who viewed America as a “Beacon of Hope.” It was gratifying to play a role in strengthening the agency’s readiness to undertake immigration reform as it was considered a priority by the President and its merits were debated in the halls of Congress.
Only in America, would the daughter of Chinese immigrants from modest roots have a unique opportunity to work for, and serve alongside, our Nation’s top immigration official, and subsequently serve in senior executive positions of the U.S. government. The positions spanned federal agencies with diverse mission sets ranging from national security and helping small businesses start and grow to agriculture and food safety.
Each of us has a unique story to tell about our personal and professional journey, which inevitably include obstacles, setbacks, and triumphs. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story.
For More Information
There are many resources available regarding the contributions of Asian and Pacific Islander peoples; asianpacificheritage.gov/about/ lists websites and event calendars. View a Digital Town Hall: Asian Americans in the Time of COVID-19 on the Public Broadcasting Service’s website, which also features a five-part film series entitled Asian Americans, which examines the role that Asian Americans have played in shaping our nation’s history.