Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: How does traveling affect our understanding of our cultural identity?

Written by Georgia Bloo Nicolaou

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we share personal stories from across our global Remote Year community.

The term ‘Asian-American Pacific Islanders’ represents people who trace their ancestry to Asian countries such as China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, or from the Pacific Islands like Polynesia, Fiji, and Hawaii.

Our countries of origin have their own rich heritage that has informed our personal history and identity but has also shaped the history of the world. At Remote Year, we have been fortunate enough to learn more about these cultures by fostering travel for thousands of Remotes to countries in Asia including Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam since our founding in 2015.

While we travel around these exciting destinations we also meet inspiring people and learn about cultures that expand our world view. The places we go change us but they also change the way we see ‘Home’. We ask people from our community to share their own experiences on how traveling has transformed their relationship with their cultural identity. 

Tommy Lee

Tommy Lee

Ethnicity: Korean American

Current Location: Los Angeles, California

Profession: Media Analyst at Warner Bros. Pictures

Multiple Remote Year Programs How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

While in Colombia, I was asked the question of where I was from to which I answered, Los Angeles. The person asking had the most genuine confusion on their face and it was then I realized that I have also been sheltered by assuming that the entire country, and by extension the rest of the world, would have similar demographics to Los Angeles. These encounters throughout my travels helped me better understand that I am a blend of collective cultures, backgrounds, and experiences; that I needed to extend my comfort zone and reevaluate what I’ve been taught; that I definitely needed to travel more! Now, every time I travel to Latin America and I’m asked that question, I reply with ‘Coreano Gringo’ and everyone seems to get a kick out of hearing it!

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

While traveling to Mexico City with Remote Year last October, I learned about Día de Muertos which is celebrated throughout the month. I learned that death and passing didn’t have to be only about mourning. It can also be filled with love, colors, memories; a celebration of your loved one’s life and life after death. The holiday is very similar to what I’ve known in my Korean culture as Jesa, a ceremony held on the anniversary of the ancestor’s passing. The first anniversary of my grandmother’s passing happened to be around Día de Muertos, and instead of spending the day with only sadness, I was able to connect the two cultures together and channel my focus on celebrating my grandmother’s life with her own ofrenda. Even though I spent the day in private, I was able to share the story later with my Remote Year crew and I will never forget the love, support, and connections that I made that day. 

What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

Just do it. Yes, you will get the ‘Where are you really from?’ questions and the occasional nihao-s and chino-s, but what I’ve learned through traveling with Remote Year is that traveling is about celebrating diversity, embracing the culture, and understanding the people - not about criticizing, judging, or condemning. You may be challenged and stretched, but you will also learn and grow. You will gain brand-new perspectives that you’ve never expected throughout this journey. And most importantly, you will walk away with lifelong friends that love to travel as much as you do. What more do we need in life?  

Dominick Cabal

Dominick Cabal

Ethnicity: Filipino American

Current Location: Chicago, IL, USA

Profession: Digital Media Maniac | Media Director | Professor

12-month Journey, World

How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

Traveling helped me realize how perception, race, and language play into the equation. In the US, I'm treated as a model minority. In Europe, I'm just another tourist. In Asia, I'm a local. And in Latin America, I'm local upon first glance, and then ‘gringo’ when I open my mouth. “¡Qué interesante!”

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

A small moment that made me go hmmm was a place called Zona Rosa in Mexico City. The main demographics of that neighborhood are: young, LGBTQI, artsy, hipster, and... Korean!? I overheard a Mexican-Korean couple say to each other, "Oí que el kimchi en esa taquería fuera bien" (I heard the kimchi at that taco joint was good). It was inspiring to see the meld of Asia and Latino cultures.

Are there any elements of your culture/heritage that you have come to appreciate more through your travels?

In a bit of a hot take, I feel less connected to my identity as an Asian after traveling and more connected to my identity as an Immigrant. Dropping everything you know for the chance at a better life is an echoing story that I hear everywhere I travel.

What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

"Wow, your English is really good!" is not a thing when you're outside the US. It's more like, "Wow, your [insert local language], honestly, needs some work." It's refreshing in an ego-death sort of way.

Orawan Suwanchaiya (Miao)

Orawan Suwanchaiya (Miao)

Ethnicity: Thai

CurrentLocation: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Profession: Chiang Mai City Manager, Remote Year

How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

Traveling and getting to know the history of different cultures through traveling, makes you look at things through their origins.  This helps broaden your perspective on life. You start to understand your own culture on a deeper level and you may see things you never noticed before.

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

I had an opportunity to learn a traditional crafting skill, here in Chiang Mai, which only a handful of Thai people know. It was such an honor and I was grateful that they built this course to prevent such an ancient skill from disappearing. It felt amazing to help preserve this national piece of knowledge. I love to show my culture to people from all around the world through things like these - our traditional crafts and art forms as well as food of course.

Are there any elements of your culture/heritage that you have come to appreciate more through your travels?

I’ve learnt that the things we see may have a deeper story, which we can only discover by seeing them through the eyes of the locals. That way we can appreciate our experiences 100 or 1000 times more.

What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

Do not even hesitate! What you will experience will totally change your life and how you see everything.Traveling will help you to understand more things about the world and change you for the better. 

Vita Ayu Anggraeni

Vita Ayu Anggraeni

Ethnicity: Javanese and Banjarese Indonesian

Current Location: Bali, Indonesia

Profession: Bali City Manager, Remote Year

How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

One thing that I obviously feel is how I see my skin color. My mom has darker skin color because she is from Java and in Banjarmasin where I grew up, most of the people have fairly light skin. I often felt insecure about my skin color, which I inherited from my mom. When I was 18 I went to Kuala Lumpur for an exchange program. That experience allowed me to see a much more diverse environment where no one actually really cares about how one looks. Since then, I've never felt more proud to have my mom's skin color.

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

Me and my friends, none of which shared the same cultural background with me, went to Hanoi for a mid semester break. I got offered pork by one of our friend's moms. I come from a Muslim background where pork isn't allowed to be eaten. Even before I was able to open my mouth to reject the offer, all my other friends raced to save me not to eat the pork. It was hilarious but also wholesome. I felt that, no matter what our beliefs were, we were able to create such a strong bond of friendships through mutual understanding.

Are there any elements of your culture/heritage that you have come to appreciate more through your travels?

How beautiful Indonesia is! I grew up thinking that I want to live in another country. But, on one occasion a visiting friend of mine told me how much she enjoyed traveling in Indonesia because of how diverse its nature is and how warm the people are. Then I began to appreciate my country more. What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

I would remind them that people who travel tend to appreciate diversity more. When I joined the Remote Year Team, I was very happy to see that its people are very welcoming of diversity and of people’s differences and I felt comfortable and pleased to be part of such a team.

Mariann Do

Mariann Do

Ethnicity: Vietnamese and African American

CurrentLocation: Pittsburgh, PA

Profession: Graphic Designer, Remote Year

How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

I haven't traveled outside of the country but I often would take road trips with my parents across state lines in search of our "mini Saigon" - where we could buy fresh produce, meat, and seafood that isn't available here. We’d then go to a bakery or cafe with traditional pastries and boba smoothies, or sit down at a restaurant where the menu looked familiar. Food is an important part of my culture and since my parents immigrated here, it is the one thing they miss the most. So traveling to areas where there is a bigger Vietnamese population, we are able to find the tastes and smells that remind us of our que huong (hometown).

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

The Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia is always the first place that pops in my head. I've been going there since I was a child and stepping into that enormous Plaza always felt like home. I got to be around people who spoke my language and appreciated the same things as I did. And more recently, I have been learning more and more about Cuban history and culture through my boyfriend. He was born in Miami and as a kid spent more time down there with his dad and grandparents who immigrated from Cuba. We talk and connect a lot on the spiritual and religious aspects of our cultures and how we aren't so different in that sense. Now, we pray and perform our spiritual practices together.

Are there any elements of your culture/heritage that you have come to appreciate more through your travels?

I've come to appreciate a lot more the work and effort that goes into keeping up with traditions and rituals when celebrating holidays. Everything holds some sort of symbolism or spiritual meaning. An example is the Lunar New Year, which in Vietnam is called “Tet” and The Autumn Moon Festival. For Tet especially, there is symbolism in the colors worn during the 3 day celebration. You should only wear bright and warm colors such as red and yellow. No cleaning, cursing, cooking, or speaking negatively is allowed as words hold weight. We also have to honor the kitchen god and our dead loved ones. So there is praying the night before. And Tet isn't just about a new year but it is also welcoming Spring and change.

What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

Share your culture and talk about your experiences, you may find that you aren't so different from other people after all.

Chenda Ngak

Chenda Ngak

Ethnicity: Cambodian-American

Current Location: Sierra Nevada Foothills (In a cabin near Yosemite)

Profession: Head of Communications at WordPress.com | Automattic

Multiple Remote Year Programs

How has traveling allowed you to better understand your cultural identity?

Traveling as an Asian woman, U.S citizen, and refugee has given me several lenses through which to see the world. Trading stories with a Nicaraguan refugee living in Costa Rica has a different meaning for someone like me. And meeting people abroad gives me so much respect for migrants who leave behind their rich culture and beautiful countries in search of economic opportunity for their families.

Was there anything you found to be a connecting link between you, your culture, and people from other cultures?

Learning how Communa 13 in Medellin turned around from a violent place to a home for creatives and an essential part of Colombian culture left an impact on me. It reminded me of the explosive growth that Cambodia is experiencing decades after the war.

Are there any elements of your culture/heritage that you have come to appreciate more through your travels?

I've learned to appreciate anyone who picks up and travels to a foreign place to change the direction of their life. The journeys of refugees and immigrants are mirrored all around the world in places with similar upheaval in their histories. We're all connected by our adversity and determination to grow.

What would you tell other AAPI travelers considering joining a Remote Year program?

Whatever your background, we all have a story to tell that may have an impact on a local person or fellow traveler. Being open and vulnerable, as well as actively listening, will spark a connection that will be part of you forever.

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Everything we do is about community. We embrace and celebrate diversity and the different perspectives every one brings to the table. We become more connected to the world by connecting with one another and that is a priceless experience that helps us grow. We can’t wait to meet you on the road! Learn more about joining our community here

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