Sunday, May 27, 2012

Recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May) Is The Least We Can Do...

"NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2012 as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month."

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have made a tremendous contribution to my life as well as the human community. Growing up in riot torn 1960's Los Angeles County would have destroyed me long go were it not for the rise of Buddhism in Judeo-Christian American society. I'm particularly indebted to the Asian American Buddhist  community.  In the face great resistance, what began as 19th Century bonded Asian labor has become inseparable from the spine of America's greatness.

Racism and assimilation played a dubious role in suppressing their contributions. America is made stronger when the full story of its citizenry is openly told. We honor Asian Americans and Pacific Islander's Heritage whenever we recognize their truth without being asked to do so.  Caring means more than restitution.

We must acknowledge many Asians arrived on America's shores as Buddhist. Chinese immigrant service to completing the transcontinental railroad was inseparable from Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian culture. It's amazing to consider how many history books neglect to mention this simple point.

Quan Yin, c.1850 
San Bernardino,CA
Frontier America showed the Asian community no quarter.  It was as vile in  "taming" Asian American culture as it was every other non-white community. Asians were hung, neighborhoods were burned, communities were driven out of town, and citizenship was denied. Rape, torture, beatings, robbery, murder, extortion and all sorts of crimes were exacted upon them. Menial work, servitude, prostitution, drug cultivation and sales were often the only means of earning a living wage. Survival was not easy. Some Asian communities literally lived underground to shelter themselves from the onslaught.

Fresno, California

Extra-judicial violence and legislative predjudice were meted out against the Asian American community for a hundred years (c.1840 -1940). World War II ushered in a zenith of prejudice, racism, and discrimination causing grief throughout AAPI communities.

Japanese Americans were hardest hit during the war. Despite it all, their 442 Regimental Combat Team distinguished itself while shouldering segregation and interment as well violating the Buddhist creed of non-violence held by some families for centuries. It was they, not the so-called American Buddhist community of today, who found themselves making decisions that would alter American consciousness about the AAPI experience forever.

On the other hand, Japan's Zen Buddhist leaders supported the country's war on America. Japan's Shinto/Buddhist peasantry was conscripted to fight pitched battles in service of an emperor they believed to be a living god. While Japan's Buddhist soldiers died in the Pacific, Japanese American Buddhists died on behalf of American interests in Europe. At one point, the world's grisly battlefields laid strewn with Buddhist bodies on both sides. World War II was hell.

The Buddhist aspect of WWII is yet to be told. President Obama's proclamation of AAPI Heritage month opens the way for deeper dialogue. We are indebted to his leadership and must join together in our efforts to address predjudice of the past.

The Pacific Island experience of Hawaii also deserves recognition. Today, the aging remnants of American's 1960s hippie New Age movement, including the legendary Ram Das, pervade the Hawaiian Islands. Their new-found indulgence in Eastern spirituality flutters through palm trees in a myriad of exotic boutique tourist retreats. The Dalai Lama has visited twice--each time extolling the virtues of  peace and the taming of indigenous anger. At times it seems the spirit of Aloha has been righteously appropriated by luxury vacation marketeers and Western spiritualists.

Princess Ka'iulani at 10 yrs
Princess Kaiulani
This month however, let the stories of King Kameamea, Queen Ka Ľahumanu, Queen Liliuokalani and Princess Kaiulani resound in our hearts from the Hawaiian point of view. We owe it to them and the better part of ourselves.  Let's admit they were treated as a culture that stood in the way.  Their human legacy was subordinated then and now to secure America's Westernmost military outpost invasively peopled by an Anglicized civilian population.

Having been stripped of sovereignty, they had no choice. Hawaiians stood by powerlessly as the Japanese arm of Hitler's War defiled their sacred shores. They unwillingly paid a price that saved continental America tremendous grief. It's hardly ever mentioned that if it were not for Pearl Harbor the Japanese fleet may have targeted Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, or San Diego. Instead, Anglicized Hawaii is championed for taking the brunt of the war's first volley. The ancient Hawaiian Kingdom remains unacknowledged for enduring attack by the enemies of an America some would say illegally occupied native Hawaiian lands.

The Untouchables of India also deserve a place at the Asian American table. Despite the perception they only exist in India, the often exploited Untouchable community lives among us. Within the last decade torrid stories of sexploitation, pedophilia, fraud, slavery, and death have come forward. Hundreds of Untouchable men, women, and children sought justice and release from bondage in Berkeley, California (2001). India's Untouchable (Dalit) Ambedkarite Buddhist movement is the largest and most dynamic social uplift movement in the modern era. The amount of human beings involved is greater than those affected by Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama combined. Jai Bhim. Yet, we know little of their plight in America and abroad.

All this and much more must be considered before the truth of Asian American and Pacific Island experience can be fully appreciated. We are all participants in the American democratic experiment whether our experience has been positive or negative. The AAPI experience has been both. When the results are finally in, my hope is that Buddhism in America will have a compassionate role of informed caring commensurate to its doctrine. A short list of AAPI contributions is worthy of recognition. But in truth, meditating for ten thousand million billion years could not express the gratitude we owe to the nameless faceless Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans who have contributed to our nation.

Well done Mr. President...

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