May is Asian-Pacific-American Heritage Month, dedicated to celebrating the contributions of the Asian-American community to our great nation. Though Asians have been in America since the time of Ferdinand Magellan, the numbers have always been small, though not for a lack of trying (see Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Indeed, May was chosen to commemorate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a feat that was completed in no small part by the work of Chinese and other immigrants.
I grew up in South Florida, where my father owned and ran an Asian market in Palm Beach County. Much like in many other immigrant communities, the market was really the city center. I remember fondly how people would come from all four corners of the county to not only pick up their baby bok choy, soy sauce and bags of rice, but also to chatter about news from back “in the motherland” and get the latest gossip.
It’s not much different in Orlando, where the Mills 50 District is the heart of our Asian-American community, particularly the Vietnamese-American community, and is the home of many Asian markets to restaurants and businesses. Each Lunar New Year, Chinese lions from Wah Lum Kung Fu Temple dance to the beat of drums and the crackle of red-papered firecrackers along Colonial Drive, blessing the businesses and bringing in good luck for the new year.
As the first generation passes the torch on to the next generation, I wonder sometimes what happens to culture — when customs and traditions begin to fade away? Many came here in search of the American Dream, often not for themselves but for their children’s future. Maybe their children could get an education and become engineers, doctors or attorneys. Maybe they wouldn’t have to work 80-hour weeks at the Chinese takeout restaurant, peeling snowpea tips and folding linens. Yet not all Asian-Americans dream of becoming pharmacists.
Culture, I think, is not something stagnant, but living — kind of a way of life — that changes with each new generation — modified, sculpted, advanced, taking in the good and discarding the bad, ideally. Some, like Sonny Nguyen of the Japanese eatery Domu in Audubon Park, have tread new paths in the culinary world, blending together classic Japanese cooking techniques with modern-day inspiration. Or, like Stephanie Dang Murphy, who came with nothing to America as a baby with her parents, grew up to become a Rollins College professor and is now a member of Congress.
These are all stories unfolding now, like the stories of the Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans who have come before, each subsequent generation making its own history, weaving its people’s stories into the fabric of America.
The dream lives on in each of us.
Ricky Ly is a civil engineer and serves on the board of directors for Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. He’s also a board member of the Asian American Federation of Florida.