May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – a time to commemorate the contributions of the Asian American community as a whole.

While this sense of unity is deeply important, the APA label lumps together people with origins from countries as diverse as China, Vietnam, and India. If we hold each of these countries under a microscope, we see a whole new level of diversity – a variety of languages, dialects, and cultures that exist within each of these nation’s borders. When people from these countries migrate to the U.S., the language and cultural differences from home don’t just go away. They take on a new dimension.

Alaric Bien is Executive Director of the Chinese Information and Services Center (CISC). The Center offers ESL classes, employment training, senior programs, and a variety of other services to the Chinese community and under-served immigrant populations in the Seattle area. During his tenure, Bien has seen the reality of language dynamics manifest itself in his own community.

“When CISC first started in the 1970s, we primarily served a Cantonese-speaking, lower-income community in Seattle. Today, we also offer services to the more Mandarin-speaking, higher income community that lives on the Eastside … We’ve had to offer new services to match the changing reality of immigration patterns,” he said.

Similarly, “there’s a regional difference [from India and South Asia] that plays itself out in the Seattle area,” said Amy Bhatt, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington and an oral historian for the South Asian Oral Histories Project.

Bhatt notes that South King County is home to a well-established, working-class South Asian community where north Indian languages like Hindi and Punjabi are primarily spoken. This stands in contrast to the South Asian community on the Eastside, which is high-income and has recently built up with the rise of the tech industry. There, south Indian languages like Tamil or Telugu are more prevalent. As a result, South Asian organizations offer different types of programs in Kent than they do in Bellevue.

But not every community has an organization with the scope and training to handle increasing linguistic diversity. According to Bien, offering language-specific services is more important than ever. “One-third of Bellevue’s population is foreign-born, but one-third of the services aren’t focused on them,” he said. “There are a lot of mainstream organizations doing great work, but they don’t reflect these changing demographics.”

Part of why these types of organizations are so important is that they don’t just offer language services. They also offer cultural training to help immigrants – who may already know English – learn the “language” of assimilation. Above all, they help build community amongst people who might not have much more in common than a country of origin.

Kathy Ho is Program Director for Community Action Research and Empowerment (CARE) at Seattle’s Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). Her project aims to overcome linguistic and generational divisions within the Seattle Vietnamese population to create a sense of community. In particular, she wants to improve communication between the younger and older generations and teach better civic participation.

“We had a forum about a month ago to talk about the future of the Vietnamese community [in Seattle], and a group of elders were there,” said Ho. “They were very happy to see younger people doing something positive for the community. “The event was also bilingual. We translated everything so from English to Vietnamese and vice versa, so it created a real sense of community … This was a big success, since our community has been so fractured.”

This success shows that while language can be divisive, it also can bridge gaps and create a sense of unity across generations. CISC offers cultural counseling for parents in addition to ESL classes and after-school programs for kids. One of their programs guides first generation parents – who might be less familiar with English and the American school system – help their children achieve social and academic success.

As first generation parents learn to adapt to a new country and cultural context for survival, children are increasingly learning their parents’ mother tongues as a preservation of identity. Alaric Bien observes, “For earlier second and third-generation kids in America, they didn’t become interested in learning Chinese until they were much older because they didn’t want to stand out as being different … Nowadays, being bilingual is cool.”

Amy Bhatt is seeing the same shift within the South Asian community.

“There was a greater compulsion to fit in for previous generations, and they weren’t as interested in holding onto their language because they needed to assimilate to survive … People in the U.S. know a lot more about countries like India now than they did 40 years ago,” said Bhatt. “Today, the community is much more diverse and you see a lot more effort in retaining the language and culture.”

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