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(Enlarge) This figurine was one of many on display during the annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month observance held May 29 at Potomac Place Neighborhood Center.

When Lily Qi immigrated to the United States in 1989 from her native China to pursue an advanced degree, she was surprised to learn of her new designation as "Asian," a catchall designation for diverse ethnic subgroups.

"I was Chinese my whole life," she said. "Having to adjust to this new cultural minority status and learning to deal with people's perceptions of me as an Asian was perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of my American experience."

Qi, the Montgomery County Executive liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern Americans, spoke about the struggles of Asian Americans during her keynote speech at the installation's annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month observance May 29 at Potomac Place Neighborhood Center.

"Asian Pacific Americans are part of the American story and part of the military story," Deputy Installation Commander John Moeller said. "Celebrations like these remind us of our diverse history and diverse heritage. When we come to events like these, all of us learn something."

About 70 service members and civilian employees attended the 90-minute event sponsored by the installation Employment Opportunity and Equal Employment Opportunity offices.

"I think it is really important people know about Asian Americans and what they go through," said Pfc. Bao Huynh of 55th Signal Company Combat Camera, who was born in France, where his parents fled during the Vietnam War. "If [Asians] were born here, they consider themselves American and the only language they know is English."

Among those who attended were 14 employees from the 902nd Military Intelligence Group. "It's something different -- to come to and get an idea of different perspectives of another culture," said Denise Maddox, trainer coordinator.

The event was particularly meaningful for Paula Burkhart, a security manager at the 902nd MI, whose 7-year-old granddaughter was adopted as an infant from Korea. "The guest speaker was excellent. She related to everything -- how we look at them and how they look at us. I wanted to hear that side."

The program also featured an elaborate cultural display and a catered Chinese buffet. Arriving audience members were greeted by colorful posters of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Display tables were adorned with artwork, figurines, paper fans and umbrellas, painted screens and traditional silk dresses, shoes and hats.

Several participants were of Asian Pacific heritage as well. The master of ceremonies, Sgt. William Gabbard of the U.S. Army Field Band's Soldiers Chorus, was born in American Samoa. Staff Sgt. Samuel Chung, whose rendition of the National Anthem drew loud applause, is a vocalist with the Soldiers Chorus and a former opera singer at the Washington Opera. He was born in Seoul, Korea.

After complimenting Cheng on an "outstanding job," Moeller spoke briefly about the history of the annual observance. In 1977, two U.S. representatives and two Senators -- including Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye -- introduced bills to designate the first week of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush expanded the observance to an entire month.

Moeller connected the observance with the military. "Do you know what the most decorated combat unit in the entire history of the United States Army is?" he asked. "The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of second-generation Japanese."

The 442nd, which served in Italy and Germany, was awarded 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Star Medals and 9,486 Purple Heart Medals. "A lot of those were multiple awards," Moeller said. "Soldiers were killed in action, missing in action, wounded in action, and they had replacements come in."

The unit suffered the highest rate of casualties -- 93 percent -- in Army history. "What's the connection to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?" Moeller asked. "You could ask former World War II Soldiers like Senator Inyoue, who was one of the 21 Medal of Honor winners."

Qi, a volunteer commissioner of the Maryland Governor's Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, is also president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, Greater D.C. Chapter, and a commissioner for the Montgomery Commission for Women.

In her speech, Qi said Americans don't fully appreciate their country. "We have a stable government and a peaceful society," said Qi, who resides in Montgomery County with her husband, Phil Peng, and their son, Andrew, 16. "All the social institutions, your family, your school, your church and your government don't change on you.

"This consistency and stability is extremely important in shaping the person you are. Because of this, you can afford to believe. You can afford to lay down your life for something bigger than yourself because you know in your heart that you will not be betrayed by your own country and your own people. É This is an American privilege worth fighting for and dying for."

Qi, who was born in 1963 in Shanghai, said she is amazed at how Americans of different backgrounds "co-exist in relative harmony." But unlike other ethnic designations, she said Asian is too broad of a category. "Asians don't have a unifying language or culture or a dominant religion."

Immigrant Asians have a stronger identity than native-born Americans of Asian descent, for whom "the line between ethnicity and race is blurred" because they've always been perceived as Asian, Qi said. "So this is a constant struggle for our community because, on one hand, we have a strong sense of who we are as a people, and on the other hand, we want to be accepted as Americans and respected as such."

Regardless of how the Asian Pacific community regards itself, Qi said, the community is often perceived as homogenous and unwilling to assimilate. "That perception comes with some serious consequences in how we are accepted and treated as Americans," Qi said. "It doesn't take much for us to be reminded, whether we're immigrants or native born, that we're still considered others. With our foreign-sounding names and foreign-looking features, there is virtually no hiding."

But Qi said that their concern is not baseless. "Although America is more tolerant of differences and appreciative of diversity, this country does have a history of singling out Asians as targets of legal discrimination at times of crisis or conflicts."

Resentment could be brewing, she said, over new threats from China. "In the 21st century, the new yellow peril is China again. How do we know for sure that government-sanctioned discrimination will not happen again? What if China and the United States go to war with each other tomorrow? Will Chinese Americans' loyalty be questioned?"

Battling bigotry requires changing hearts and minds, Qi said. "Fighting prejudices is fighting against human nature. É If we love our country, we should help her live to her highest ideals."

While institutional celebrations are important to a country, how a people treats each other day to day is even more crucial, Qi said. "The day when we no longer need an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is the day when we have truly arrived as Americans."

Several audience members discussed the program over a lunch of egg rolls, sushi, beef with broccoli, and crab Rangoon.

"I like to come because I am interested in the different Asian cultures," said Fort Meade Fire Department Capt. Mike Doll, who attends every year. "The speaker brought up a lot of points we don't event think about. Coming to events like this, people will recognize the contributions of different groups."

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