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Celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month through cultural and financial literacy

Linda Pham, a Thrivent marketing specialist, grew up eating homecooked Vietnamese meals every week. She and her sister especially loved the special occasions when their mom, Kim, would make sương sa—a creamy coconut jelly dessert. For Kim, cooking and speaking Vietnamese at home were two ways she could keep her daughters connected to their roots as they grew up in the U.S.

But Kim’s story started in the 1980s. Wanting a better future, she left Vietnam and took a boat for five days and six nights to Indonesia, where she spent a year bouncing between three different refugee camps. That’s when a Catholic charity came forward and offered to sponsor a new life for her in the U.S. where she received housing, attended high school and graduated from a technical college that helped her land a 30-year career.

May marks Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month—a month for celebrating the stories of Linda and Kim, and 24 million other Americans with origins in Asia and the Pacific Islands. That includes China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and dozens of other countries—from Armenia to Israel and Kazakhstan to Samoa.

Instilling values and financial life lessons

Linda puts herself in her mom’s shoes the night she boarded that boat from Vietnam to Indonesia. She thinks about what it would’ve been like to leave behind all her belongings. After all, Kim only had packed two outfits—and she had no money saved.

“Since my mom had to start her life all over again when she came to the U.S., she would always stress how difficult it was to build her wealth from scratch,” Linda recalls. “Budgeting and saving were at the forefront of many conversations when we were growing up.”

But those discussions made a difference. Today, Linda is financially independent and confidently lives within her means. “Mom’s careful tendencies to save more and spend less became ingrained in me as I got older,” she says. “I am grateful that my mom taught me the value of hard-earned money at a young age.”

Yeng Yang is also a marketing specialist at Thrivent. She grew up in a Hmong household with immigrant parents from Laos and Thailand. But like Linda, certain financial principles were taught early on. “I think my heritage really shaped how I look at money,” Yeng says. “Hmong people tend to be humble, and often that means putting your needs far before your wants. It’s something I still think about every time I make a purchase.”

On the other hand, Michael Nicholson, a Thrivent recruiter, says the lessons he didn’t receive at home were just as important as those he did. His mother was an immigrant from the Philippines. His stepfather served in the U.S. Army. As a result, Michael and his sister moved frequently from base to base and were often at home with only Mom. She feared openly discussing finances would worry her children. That pushed Michael to seek financial knowledge on his own and work with a financial advisor.

"I come from a very modest background, and financial literacy wasn't a topic of conversation," Michael says. "Fast forward, I am married with two young children, so things like building wealth and leaving a legacy are important to me. I had to ask my own questions. Read and research. Set my own priorities. And I've been fortunate to partner with my Thrivent advisor to get a great plan in place."

Showing hospitality and serving others

Jaison Samuel, a Thrivent engagement leader, was born in the Indian state of Kerala. He grew up in Pune—the second largest city in Maharashtra, India, after Mumbai. After some college, he began serving with a nonprofit called Youth With a Mission. That work enabled him to meet his wife Stacey, with whom he now shares two kids. And it also brought him to the U.S.

But Jaison never forgets where he came from. "Growing up in a lower middle-class family in India, we were not rich," Jaison says. "But one of the biggest values we had in our family is hospitality. So, whenever we had money, or sometimes when we didn't have it, we still didn't shy away from showing hospitality to others.”

Jaison continues to look for ways to live out that hospitality. While sometimes that looks like volunteering in his community, it also includes sharing a meal with friends and family.

“I was fortunate to learn some of my mom’s recipes before her passing,” Jaison says. “Especially the Kerala-style cuisine, which I make in my kitchen on a regular basis.”

In his role as an engagement leader, Jaison helps connect Thrivent clients and financial advisors with their communities through activities and relationship building. It’s at the core of who he is, because of how he was raised.

“From my heritage, hospitality and generosity were always the driving factors for the resources that I have, and I see money from that perspective. As an engagement leader, I get to share that outlook with people every day.”

Ways to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month

Whether you’re personally a member of the AAPI community or know someone who is, now is an ideal opportunity to seek out and amplify AAPI stories and deepen your understanding.

1. Help advance allyship and awareness at your workplace

The Federal Asian Pacific American Council set the 2023 Heritage Month theme as advancing leaders through opportunity. Consider talking with the HR or diversity, equity and inclusion leaders at your organization about promoting education on fair hiring and unconscious bias, and ensuring there are pathways for Asian American and Pacific Islander voices to be heard. Or look to a community group to host workshops, networking events or mentorship opportunities.

2. Shop at an AAPI-owned business

Whether you already make a habit of supporting local establishments or you shop mostly online, take the opportunity to contemplate who you're buying from and why. Why not seek out an Asian-owned business you haven't bought from before? Find one selling something that interests you, then visit their in-person or virtual storefront.

You could go beyond making a purchase by getting to know something about the owner and why they started their business. Then tell your friends and family about your experience. You may inspire them to do the same.

3. Whip up a new recipe

Exploring a culture can be both inspiring and delicious. Maybe you’re curious to try a Vietnamese sương sa recipe similar to what Linda’s mom makes. Or you’re interested in sampling some Kerala-style food like Jaison grew up enjoying. Your family can share bites and traditions at the same time. Start by looking up a country’s national dish or asking an Asian-American neighbor, coworker or friend about one of their favorite tastes of home.

4. Support organizations that uplift AAPI communities

Perhaps you’re looking for a way to give back to a nonprofit that helps Asian refugees like Linda’s mom. Or maybe you’d like to support Youth With a Mission India that teamed up with Jaison. In any case, there are plenty of opportunities to give and volunteer with charities to help Asian communities here and abroad. And the need is great.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the AAPI community saw a devastating lift in racist attacks and hate crimes toward Asian Americans. That number climbed by 339 percent in 2021 alone.1 So how can you raise a hand and support the rights and interests of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders? Take time out to research organizations, speak to friends and colleagues or check out websites like Charity Navigator to find a nonprofit that aligns with your values. If you are a Thrivent client with membership, you could also consider leading a Thrivent Action Team in support of the AAPI community or directing Thrivent Choice Dollars® to a related nonprofit.

Acting on inspiration

Whether you want to support and recognize AAPI heritage with your time, talents or treasure, you can explore these ideas or let them inspire an idea of your own. Don’t shy away from new people, conversations or activities. And with time, you may uncover more opportunities to provide connection and support to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community year-round.


More to explore

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  1. Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. California State University, San Bernardino.