Teaching kids about our nation’s rich diversity of heritages year-round is key to nurturing them to be compassionate and inclusive individuals. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, also more recently known as Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, is the perfect opportunity to highlight and celebrate the contributions of Americans from the Asian diaspora.
“By teaching [youth] about Asian Americans, other students will be less likely to see us as ‘others’ but as friends, neighbors and classmates who belong,” explains Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Jeung also believes teaching AAPI narratives is necessary to promote ethnic pride among AAPI students and to counter bullying.
When is AAPI Heritage Month?
The month of May was chosen as AAPI Heritage Month to commemorate the first Japanese immigrant who arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843, and the May 10, 1869 completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the U.S., an effort largely fueled by Chinese immigrant laborers.
This commemorative period was originally signed into law in 1978 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week by President Jimmy Carter and then extended to a month in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. In 2009, the name was changed to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and in 2021, the White House updated the month to its current official name of Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander Heritage Month (or AANHPI Heritage Month), which is slowly being adopted by more folks.
Why is celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month important?
“The contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders to the U.S. is too often overlooked in our education system or treated as a footnote or a special elective,” says Triana Patel, manager of youth and family public programs at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. “Hate is so often the result of isolation, disconnect and a lack of understanding.”
Patel believes cultural competency and learning to appreciate those different from ourselves helps us be better humans. “That’s something everyone wants for their kids,” she adds. “Because learning about the people and cultures around us lets us move through the world with a sense of connection, this connection brings real joy and meaning — for those of us who are part of the Asian diaspora or have Asian heritage, as well as for those of us who live in diverse communities.”
Max Chan, marketing manager from the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, reiterates the importance of teaching kids that everyone’s history matters. “Regardless of your origins, you are valid here and have every right to have your place in the narrative of America honored and heard.”
Patel summarizes the answer to why we need to celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month very powerfully, “Asians and Asian Americans are not ‘the other’ — it’s who we are now as a country.” It is time for all grown-ups and children to really get to know our whole selves — and here are nine fun ideas to get us started!
Creative AANHPI Heritage Month activities for kids
Looking for fun activities for teaching kids about Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander cultures and celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month? Here’s a great place to get started.
1. Celebrate prominent AANHPI citizens
The following enriching compilation books make it easy to learn about history-making Asian American Pacific Islanders who have contributed to all aspects of American society, including policymaking, entertainment, medicine, science, architecture and more.
- “Asian-Americans Who Inspire Us” by Analiza Quiroz Wolf (all ages): Spotlights 16 Asian Americans who changed the world.
- “Awesome Asian Americans: 20 Stars Who Made America Amazing” by Phil Amara and Oliver Chin (ages 11-14): Features profiles of groundbreaking citizens with action-packed, superhero-style illustrations.
- “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang (young adults+): The entertaining and accessible compilation illustrates the evolution of Asian American representation.
2. Check out Asian American Pacific Islander museums and cultural organizations
Here are some virtual and in-person event highlights, but be sure to search for programming in your region.
- Asian Art Museum AAPI Heritage Month Celebration features both in-person and virtual programming, including music, talks, performances, art activities, lesson plans, cooking demonstrations and more.
- Seattle Center Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Celebration takes place on May 6, and “features food, music, vendors, performances, and a cultural display of nations.”
- “United We Stand” 44th Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Festival will be hybrid this year, with in-person and virtual booths. Hosted by the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA), it’s the longest running and largest annual Pan-Asian festival on the East Coast.
3. Host AANHPI-heritage-themed dinner and movie nights
The pandemic hit AANHPI-owned businesses, restaurants in particular, extra hard. Why not support local restaurants and have a fun themed movie night (or afternoon) during the month of May and beyond? Here are some tasty and entertaining ideas:
- Order a Hawaiian plate from a local restaurant and watch “Moana,” “Lilo and Stitch,” or for older kiddos, try Netflix’s “Finding ‘Ohana.”
- “Raya and the Last Dragon” deliciously celebrates the cultures of Southeast Asia. Dine in or get takeout from your favorite Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Cambodian or Laotian restaurant. Don’t have one yet? This is the perfect opportunity to find one.
- Have a Chinese dumpling party followed by “Turning Red.” Start with the Disney Pixar Short, “Bao,” by the same director Domee Shi, to begin the conversation about the Chinese-Canadian experience. “Over the Moon” and “Abominable” are also great options set in China.
- Support a local South Asian restaurant and immerse kids in these stories of the South Asian diaspora. “Spin,” about an Indian American teen who wants to be a DJ, is available to stream on Disney+. Or is it time to introduce “Bend It Like Beckham”? Director Gurinder Chadha followed up with another wonderful movie called “Blinded by the Light” (both films are rated PG-13) about a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager in the 1980s, who can’t get enough of Bruce Springsteen’s music.
- Korean filmmakers and K-pop stars are finally receiving well-deserved worldwide recognition, but Korean Americans have long been contributing to the cultural fabric of America. Whether you decide on Korean fried chicken, Korean BBQ, bibimbap or kimbap, the culinary options are as delectable as they are endless. For cinematic enjoyment, try “To All the Boys I Loved Before,” a sweet, teen rom-com trilogy, based on the popular novels by Jenny Han, or “Twinsters,” a winning documentary by Samantha Futerman, who is adopted to the U.S. and later discovers she has an identical twin sister who was adopted to France.
- For kids who love sushi or teriyaki? “Ponyo,” “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke” — all set in Japan — would make a fun movie pairing until we have a film about the Japanese American experience for kids.
4. Illustrate a map of AANHPI neighborhoods
Follow the directions from Asian Art Museum to complete this illustrated neighborhood map activity and plot your favorite neighborhood AANHPI points of interest, like museums, parks, community center, boba tea shop, sushi restaurant or samosa joint. Include personal landmarks and share!
5. Read more empowering books!
Asian American Pacific Islander is an umbrella term that bundles together so many diverse cultures. As a result, it is impossible to capture all the book recommendations we would like. From empowering picture books about AANHPI identity to historical fiction and nonfiction narrative, there are many great books both new and classic.
“My children and I often read books together that celebrate South Asian characters or culture,” says Alia F. Ahmed, a mom of two from Seattle. “For me, a lot of my South Asian heritage as a Pakistani is tied to being raised as Muslim as well.” Below are some of Ahmed’s recommendations, along with my own favorites and some from Stephanie Vacca, a certified teacher librarian in Phoenix.
- “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” by Joanna Ho (ages 2-7).
- “Like the Moon Loves the Sky” by Hena Khan (ages 3-5).
- “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family” by Ibtihaj Muhammad (ages 3-7).
- “I Am Golden” by Eva Chen (ages 4-6).
- “Meet Yasmin!” series by Saadia Faruqi (ages 4-7).
- “A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India” by Meera Sriram (ages 4-8).
- “A Different Pond” by Bao Phi (ages 4-8).
- “‘Ohana Means Family” by Ilima Loomis (ages 4-8).
- “Watercress” by Andrea Wang (ages 4-10).
- “The Name Jar” by Yangsook Choi (ages 5-9).
- “Troublemaker by John Cho (ages 8-12).
- “Dragonwings” by Laurence Yep (ages 8-12).
- “Lalani of the Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly (ages 8-12).
- “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang (ages 9-11).
- “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei (ages 11+).
- “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang (ages 12-18). This graphic novel has been adapted into a series by Disney+, streaming May 24.
6. Take a field trip to an Asian grocery store
“One of the things I grew up making was paratha for breakfast,” says Ahmed. “My kids love to eat it at home and now you can even find it easily in the freezer section at many local grocers.”
From huge international Korean grocery stores, like H Mart, to small mom-and-pop stores, Asian grocery stores can be so fun for kids and adults alike. The snack options alone are worth a trip, but definitely don’t forget to explore the freezer aisle.
Here are a few of my family’s favorite grocery items, but I’ve definitely wandered into South Asian grocery stores and found the best garlic naan or giant, prized container of white pepper:
- Shin Ramyun, spicy Korean instant ramen, popular all over the world.
- Pepero or Pocky Sticks, these bring me back to my childhood in Korea.
- Barley Tea, this toasty tea is made from barley, so it is naturally caffeine free.
- Ginger Honey Crystals drink, so comforting hot or cold.
- Choco pie, another childhood favorite.
- Kimchi and all the banchan.
- Hot pot ingredients, including shabu shabu sliced meat, cabbage, mushrooms, beef meatball and fish cakes (usually in the freezer section).
- Noodles of all kinds (sweet potato, rice noodles, vermicelli – so many options).
7. Cook together
“Our favorite way to celebrate our heritage is via FOOD!” says Sonia Leung, mother of two in Metro Detroit. “We are blessed to live near my parents and have weekly dinners together, enjoying their homestyle Cantonese food.”
Whatever cuisine you choose, there are plenty of recipes searchable online that include family and food histories, like these simple but yummy recipes for fried rice and soy sauce chicken. Get the kiddos involved with prep work to inspire them to try different foods! There are food bloggers galore whom you can turn to, including:
- Maangchi and Korean Bapsang for Korean food.
- The Woks of Life and Rasa Malaysia for Chinese cuisine and beyond.
- The Foodie Takes Flight shares mouthwatering vegan Asian recipes.
- Veg Recipes of India and Manjula’s Kitchen are two popular blogs for South Asian food.
“Recently, I have added more AAPI cookbooks to our shelves, including cookbooks from third culture authors,” notes Leung. “These books are accessible to my kids; they can leaf through the delicious photos and see what else is out there.”
8. Enjoy a gourmet fortune and learn about this all-American treat
Did you know that the fortune cookie was invented in California in the early 1900s? Oakland Fortune Factory is the oldest fortune cookie maker in the Bay Area. This small, family-run business makes all their cookies by hand and ships their products all over the U.S. While you enjoy the cookies, read the book “Fortune Cookie Fortunes” by Grace Lin, which concludes with a page on the history and origin of this all-American cookie.
9. Experience the joys of AANHPI holidays
Take the opportunity of this AANHPI Heritage Month to learn about Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander holidays year-round.
Here are a few ideas from parents:
- Raksha Bandhan: Nipa Thakkar Eason, mom of one from Tallahassee, Florida, has modified holidays to celebrate with her daughter’s school. For example, Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu festival meaning “knot of protection” is traditionally a holiday for brothers and sisters to show how much they care about each other. Typically, the sister ties a Rakhi (sacred thread) on her brother’s wrist. “My daughter doesn’t have siblings and so we wanted to be able to show her that you can have that sort of close relationship with anyone,” explains Eason. “Each year, we’ve gone to her school and tied Rakhi’s on all her classmates to show them that they’re cared for and loved.”
- Diwali: Eason, who’s also a creative director, designs a Diwali coloring sheet every year for her daughter and friends for the Diwali holiday, a celebration of light overcoming dark. “We also get little LED candles for all her classmates so they can always have a little light whenever they feel like they’re in the dark.”
- Lunar New Year and more! Leung also makes a strong effort to plan holiday celebrations throughout the year. “We celebrate the Lunar New Year, Ching Ming (Tomb-Sweeping Day), Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival.”
- Ramadan and Eid: “AAPI Heritage Month will start with Eid as it is scheduled to be around May 1 this year,” says Ahmed. “A fun craft for families this year could be to make Eid cards celebrating the end of Ramadan for Muslim friends or relatives.”
10. Read ‘See Us Bloom’ and create an affirmation bookmark
After the pandemic is a time of healing for many of us. “See Us Bloom: Poems on Compassion, Acceptance, and Bravery” by Kyunghee Kim (ages 4-9) is a gentle and powerful picture poetry book inspired by the author’s experiences as a child immigrant from Korea and features a protagonist who is multiracial. Kim’s themes help foster a sense of belonging and confidence for kids.
After reading the book, explain to kids that a positive affirmation is a statement you can repeat to yourself to help you feel happy, calm, confident. Come up with one of your own that you want to remember such as “I belong,” “I can try new things,” “I am brave,” “I can speak up for myself and others,” and put it on a bookmark to remember.
How to make an affirmation bookmark:
- Gather thick cardstock paper or construction paper and cut it to desired bookmark size (about 3 inch by 7 inches).
- You may hole punch one of the ends and put a ribbon or twine around it (optional).
- Write your affirmation on the bookmark with marker or crayon.
- Decorate around the affirmation with stickers and/or drawings.
- Your DIY affirmation bookmark is ready to use.
11. Listen and dance to AAPI music
Music gets everyone in a celebratory mood! Check out the “Celebrating Asian American Voices” playlist from Apple Music featuring The Linda Lindas, Japanese Breakfast, Raveena and other talented artists. (Some songs on the list are labeled for explicit lyrics, so please use your discretion.)
12. Reflect on family heritage and culture
You’ve done the activities and read the books, but what does it all mean? Taking a moment to connect the dots with your kids is invaluable. Some ideas and talking points to guide your conversations can include:
- Talk about your favorite family traditions.
- Look at old family photos and videos and share stories.
- Ask your kids what makes them proud about their identity and family history.
- How and why it’s enriching to have friends and loved ones from different cultures.