How Memphis' Asian and Pacific Islander communities are celebrating heritage on their own terms

Memphis in May is typically known for its BBQ competition and Music Festival, but thanks to the efforts of one area scholar, the area’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities have been celebrating their various heritages through a series of events highlighting different aspects of their cultures.

“Asian American & Pacific Islander Month has been a…nationally-designated heritage month since 1992. Before then, it was celebrated as a week-long celebration since 1978,” says Dr. SunAh Laybourn.

Employed with the University of Memphis Sociology Department, the Korean-born educator marshaled assorted representatives of the area’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities – including museums, business owners, and artists – to donate their time, space, and works for the ongoing commemoration. 

The lineup featured the recent Asian American in the South art exhibition held on May 18. Presented by Google, visitors to the Museum of Science and History were provided an opportunity to view works across various mediums by local artists.

Dr. SunAh Laybourn takes in LiLi Nacht's "Vulnerability" at the Asian American in the South art exhibition at the Museum of Science and History on Thursday, May 18. (Photo by Ziggy Mack / Courtesy of Dr. SunAh Laybourn)

“It was just a matter of what type of events would I like to see, what type of events really highlight the Asian American and the Pacific Islander community here in our city. What would I like other Memphians to know about our Asian American presence here and just organizing events that I think really showcase that, events that I think people would be interested in,” Laybourn says.

Several restaurants have joined Edible Memphis in presenting the Hungry Tiger Food Tour, too. During a series of lunches, patrons at select establishments have been treated to dishes from various Asian and Pacific Island cultures.

The final stop on the Hungry Tiger Food Tour is scheduled for Wednesday, May 31, at 12:30 p.m. at Mosa Asian Bistro.

Dr. SunAh Laybourn (right) celebrates at the kickoff happy hour event at Good Fortune on Tuesday, May 9. (Photo by Ziggy Mack / Courtesy of Dr. SunAh Laybourn)

Memphis-raised, local roots and drive have left Laybourn well-connected for the task. Her area of study and tastes also helped direct the schedule.

“We’ve had happy hours and art shows and movie screenings, things that people might just generally be interested in, right? But when they come, they are learning more about the Asian American communities and cultures that we have here in Memphis.”

It’s a knowledge of what’s to offer in Memphis that is typically accrued by an insider. 

After high school, Laybourn stayed put in Memphis and pursued a sociology degree at its namesake university. Following post-graduate studies at the University of Maryland, she left the D.C. area and accepted a position at her alma-mater.

“It’s super-fun to be back…like, total full-circle moment…to be back here at home, to be back at the University of Memphis and to now be a professor in the Sociology Department,” says Laybourn. “I teach classes about racial and ethnic inequality and social justice.” 

Her expertise also extends to the Asian American experience. 

It’s a perspective shared by numerous ethnicities and cultures – after all, over half of the world’s population resides in Asia. Several well-populated island nations and sprawling archipelagos in the Pacific also share similar traits with the continent. 

Councilman Martavius Jones, who sponsored the resolution acknowledging AAPI Heritage Month, congratulates Dr. SunAh Laybourn on Tuesday, May 2, at City Hall. (Photo by Ziggy Mack / Courtesy of Dr. SunAh Laybourn)

“In the U.S., we’re talking about over 23 million people representing over 20 countries, or ancestral ties or ethnic heritage ties…in East Asia, but also Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Pacific Islands…” 

Yet, stateside, members of these aggregate groups often go unnoticed – unless something tragic happens. Then, they can become easy targets for scapegoating. A historic example is the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. 

A more recent one is the treatment of fellow Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our neighbors of Asian or Pacific descent were abused with racist epithets or, worse, physical violence. And then, when the crisis has passed, these acts of inhumanity eventually recede into footnotes of history. 

Normalcy returns.

“A very common feeling of being Asian American is feeling both visible and invisible. Often times, we’re very invisible where we’re not part of the national conversation about race, for example. But then, something like COVID-19 happens…all of the sudden we’re hyper-visible, but seen through a very negative lens. Now, that we’re officially out of the pandemic…it’s like Asian Americans are again invisible,” says Laybourn. “For me, having this month-long celebration…is part of saying, ‘we’re here, we’ve been here.’ But, also, we get to be seen on our own terms.”

With May drawing to an end, there are still a few more opportunities to enjoy the area’s AAPI Heritage Month offerings. Asian American book displays and curated recommendations can be found throughout the month at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library (4th floor) and the novel. bookstore.

The final stop on the Hungry Tiger Food Tour is scheduled for Wednesday, May 31, at 12:30 p.m. at Mosa Asian Bistro
A closing celebration and happy hour, which is open to all, is scheduled on Wednesday, May 31, beginning at 5 p.m. at Inkwell.

Visit AAPI Heritage Month Memphis online to learn more.

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Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.