Campus News

UK honors Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 11, 2023) — Tiana Thé, executive communications specialist in UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications and the Office for Institutional Diversity, shares commentary on AAPI Heritage Month and ways the University of Kentucky community can learn more and get involved.


Across the United States, communities are celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month throughout May. Like all heritage months, this is an opportunity to learn more about AAPI culture and celebrate the invaluable contributions of these communities.

It is also an important opportunity to recall the history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in America. And we do that best through storytelling.

Beginning in the 1850s, America depended on Chinese laborers to build foundational infrastructure that catapulted economic development. But when the railroads were finished and labor needs shifted, and after decades of service to the United States under oppressive conditions, Chinese immigrants went from essential to objectionable.

And after the ratification of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major U.S. federal legislation that denied entry to immigrants of a specific ethnicity and class, the storied history of all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States became even more disfigured by xenophobia, violence, fear and perilous contradictions.

America loved their food and culture, but it hated the cooks and artists.

America sought remedies from Eastern medicine and practices, but it persecuted the healers and practitioners and told them they were dirty with disease.

America needed skilled farmers and agricultural experts, but it incarcerated the cultivators, their families and all those who “looked like them” during World War II — the constitutionality of Japanese internment camps during the second world war was only recently overturned in 2018.

This was not the America they were promised.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is an inscription that welcomes those passing through Ellis Island. Part of it reads,

“Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The poem memorializes one version of America’s immigration story.

But in the cramped, wooden barracks on Angel Island, which imprisoned Asians and other would-be immigrants, the writing on the walls tells a different version of America’s immigration story — a version too often excluded from our history books. 

From 1910-1940 Angel Island — called the Ellis Island of the West — detained would-be immigrants from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and Russia. But the overwhelming majority came from Asia.

Men, women and children were imprisoned and abused on Angel Island. After their long journey to the states, before they could even take a step on the land of liberty and justice for all, they were forced to endure unwarranted physical and mental abuse for weeks or months, with one of the longest detentions lasting 756 days. Ultimately, most of the detainees were turned away.

More than 200 poems were carved into the harsh walls of the Angel Island detention barracks. Poems that reveal anger and pain, confusion and disappointment.

“There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls

They are all cries of suffering and sadness

The day that I am rid of this prison and become successful

I must remember that this chapter once existed … ” Angel Island poem

Today, their poems are voices of resilience and determination — words of wisdom and hope from walls of the past.

Storytellers archive our history and lay the foundation for our future; they tell us how to survive and prosper. Through storytelling, communities evolve and grow stronger and revel in the collective joys of their unique culture. And the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History ensures this essential tradition continues.

An oral history project, titled “Stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Kentucky,” was funded by grants from the UK Sustainability Challenge Grant program and UNITE Research program. The project’s goal is to collect, archive and share untold stories about Kentuckians of Asian and Pacific Island descent. Thirteen faculty and staff as well as two graduate and one undergraduate student have been involved in the project for the last two years. Keiko Tanaka, Ph.D, professor of rural sociology and director of undergraduate studies in community and leadership development, helps lead this project and also interviews many of the participants. About this effort she says, “The interviewees include AAPI Kentuckians diverse in age and ethnical background — many of whom have been associated with UK. This oral history archive highlights various journeys they took at different points in U.S. historical time before arriving in Kentucky. Many, if not all, have gone through great adjustments to embrace their place (both physically and metaphysically) in Lexington. Although the grant funding ended, we hope to continue this oral history project as a community-engaged project where anyone interested in collecting, archiving and sharing stories of AAPI Kentuckians can participate.”

So far, the project has archived 12 oral history interviews with various Asian/Asian American Kentuckians. You can listen to their interviews here.

The interviews share with us the richness of Asian and Pacific Island cultures and shines a light on the contributions to Kentucky’s culture. The project explores the intricacies of immigrant families and their dynamics as they navigate a new environment. It gives a platform to the struggles and fears of being Asian in an ever-evolving sociopolitical landscape. It celebrates the academic, social, political and communal achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have realized the hopes and dreams of those men, women and children whose America was Angel Island.

The AAPI story is not a monolith. Each generation grows more empowered as they give themselves permission to be loud and speak out against that which continues to haunt their prosperity — a loudness not afforded to their ancestors. This May, we celebrate AAPI strength, resilience, beauty and continued advocacy. We celebrate the Angel Island dreams.  

There are several opportunities to get involved in AAPI Heritage Month through the “Lex Get HAAPI!” community events.

The schedule of “Lex Get HAAPI!” events is as follows:

  • May 12: WUKY@91.3FM Rock & Roots. “All Asian American Musicians” from 11 a.m. to noon by DeBraun Thomas and Dan Wu.
  • May 16: Kentucky Poetry Society Open Mic featuring Teja Sudhakar (UK 2022 alum).
  • May 19: Opening of the Lex Get HAAPI Art Exhibit @ LexArts ArtsPlace Gallery Performance Hall. Opening reception and performances from 5-8 p.m. Cultural performances include a fashion show, dance performances and poetry readings by diverse poets from high school to adult. Teppan food truck and West Sixth truck will be at the reception.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.