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Did you know May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month? It is a moment where our country recognizes the many contributions our AAPI community have made throughout US history including in food, nutrition, and healthcare. While some people may wish to celebrate by ordering from a local restaurant or taking a stab at cooking their favorite Asian recipe, I want to encourage all of us to go a little deeper this year by focusing on the people behind the cuisine.
My parents immigrated from Taiwan, established a small Chinese carry-out business, and raised our family in the Chicagoland area. As a restaurant kid, I learned to prepare fried rice when I was just eight years old and handled the cashier by age thirteen. At a young age, my parents instilled in me a hard work ethic and a passion for food and cooking. Many Asian cuisines have been embraced by our American culture. However, many of us Asian Americans do not feel celebrated as people right now.
This year has been painful for many Asians and people of color (including Black, Brown, and Indigenous folx). In 2020, hate crimes against Asians in America increased nearly 150%. Recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia and Indianapolis, Indiana as well as the random attacks happening during daily life, especially targeting older adults, have left us fearing for our mothers, fathers, and friends. These recent tragedies deserve our concern and attention more than learning fun facts about AAPI history or easy recipes for everyone to try this month. The AAPI community is hurting. I am hurting, and honestly, I am scared.
Fear is a normal and healthy response in the face of danger or stressful situations. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that regulates our “fight or flight” response kicks in to help us prepare to face a threat or flee to safety. The body automatically increases muscle contraction, raises the heart rate, dilates the pupils, and decreases stomach movement and secretion, which suppresses appetite and digestion in order to bring more oxygen to the brain. Sometimes, stress can motivate people under non-life-threatening situations; such as during a test or job interview. Once the threat or perceived threat of danger has passed, the body will try to re-establish homeostatic equilibrium through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response.
The body wants to maintain equilibrium and spend most of its time in the “rest and digest” phase. However, when someone is under chronic stress, or in a persistent state of fear, the stress response is not able to return to a state of balance. This causes disturbances in normal body functions such as in digestion, sleep, immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems. Overtime, chronic stress on the body can lead to serious illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.
In the last year COVID alone has put the majority of us under immense stress. Reports of digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation have skyrocketed this past year, as have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability not too far behind.
It has indeed been a challenging year for all of us, but for people of color (POC) experiencing systemic racism in our country, the stress has been amplified with compounding negative mental and physical health effects. The killing of George Floyd and Adam Toledo, the Atlanta and Indianapolis shootings, and numerous targeted hate crimes all contribute to the collective racial trauma experienced by POC community members, who then are bearing additional health risks from increased stress.
There should be time and space for all of us to grieve and process what we’ve lost during the pandemic, and we all need to take care of ourselves and our families. For this month of May, however, we want to especially care for our AAPI community members. For my Asian American and POC community members, please take care of yourselves and one another. Find some moments to center your joy and others to rest and digest.
For my White allies, I challenge you to celebrate AAPI not just in May but everyday through meaningful action. Here’s a few easy action items to explore:
- Take time on your own to learn about AAPI history, learn about the culture and history behind your favorite dishes
- Offer a generous tip to your local Asian restaurant even if you order for delivery
- Donate to an AAPI organization that is doing the work to educate and mobilize our communities for change.
- If you see or hear something that is unkind or flat-out racist, step in and say something. Depending on the situation, try diverting the attention to de-escalate the conflict or situation.
- Empower yourself by signing up for a bystander intervention training to stop anti-Asian/American and xenophobic harassment.
Taking action even when scary or inconvenient, or at personal cost, is what being an ally truly means. Kindness and compassion goes a long way and we desperately need it now more than ever. Happy AAPI Heritage Month!