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Savannah Hopkinson: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month reminds us of the value of preserving history

The author (right) with her sister, mother and grandmother at her grandmother's 90th birthday celebration.
The author (right) with her sister, mother and grandmother at her grandmother's 90th birthday celebration.
Savannah Hopkinson

Last year I found myself in need of some family history information for something I was working on. As I started to go through documents and stories, it dawned on me how little I really knew about my family history.

That may seem surprising coming from someone who takes pride in their heritage, but it’s not unusual. Ancestry.com recently found that roughly a third of Americans can’t name all of their grandparents. Off the top of my head, I could name three of mine. Only one of my great-grandparents’ names came to me immediately when I tried to remember them, and it was only because my own father was named after him.

Confronted by my own lack of familial knowledge, I spent a few hours looking through some old documents and stories that had been written down. I learned a couple things: My great-grandmother was adopted and I had a grandfather somewhere down the line that had been killed by being run over by a train. But the amount I didn’t know still far outweighed that which I did.

Family history is a source of identity for a lot of us. Over time, I’ve been able to track down and learn more about my dad’s side of the family, but there’s a chasm full of the unknown when it comes to my mom’s. In a somewhat serendipitous twist of fate, I found myself traveling back to her home country of the Philippines last month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The oral tradition is especially prevalent in Asian, South Pacific and African countries. This makes it hard to track down documents, many of which have been lost or ruined over time due to extreme weather conditions. I recently learned that my Filipino grandfather’s grave was moved sometime in the last few decades, but nobody knows where.

In an effort to preserve the stories of my heritage, I decided to speak with my now 90-year-old Filipino grandmother and record her telling me as much as possible about her life. We sat down one evening and I listened as she unveiled an entire library of stories and information I had never heard before. She told me about her own family growing up, how her mother died due to complications from childbirth and what it was like to be a teenager during World War II with the Japanese taking over their village.

I’ve had a lot of experiences that made me feel less than others, experiences that taught me to be ashamed or embarrassed of my background. Recently I’ve tried to reclaim a love for the heritage that makes up a large part of who I am. As I listened to my grandma relay the story of her life, I felt a swell of pride. I was so proud to come from such a rich background, and simultaneously humbled by the fact I had never taken the time to care before now.

I don’t pretend to speak for the more than 21 million Asian residents (alone or in combination)in the United States, but I know that my story isn’t an anomaly, either. They’re the reason that observances like Asian Pacific American Heritage Month have value and reason to exist. Each of us has a unique background and family history that helps shape who we are, but many have been made to feel ashamed or told to forget where they come from.

Until about a month ago, I wasn’t even aware Asian Pacific American Heritage Month existed. Finding out about it almost immediately sent me on a mental, emotional and ultimately physical journey contemplating what that heritage means to me. I’m pleased to say that it’s finally something I see as a strength, not a weakness or black mark.

Everyone’s heritage is worth remembering and preserving. Some of us just need that reminder more than others.