During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We are publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
From simple meals that remind us of childhood to elaborate celebrations of religious holidays, TODAY.com staff who belong to the Asian American Pacific Islander community shared their favorite family traditions that make them extra proud of their heritage.
"My family and I LOVE to celebrate the holiday Diwali. Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” Diwali is a traditional Hindu holiday that symbolizes the power of light over darkness. The date it is celebrated on varies year to year; it is celebrated on the new moon of the first lunar month (so usually the end of October or early November). My family and I would light several candles that are called “diyas.” We would place them all over the house, from the basement to the top floor, to illuminate our home. Some years, we would see fireworks go off from neighbors who are also Hindu. We always look forward to this holiday as it just brings good energy to our home!" — Alvin Seenauth, associate video editor
Grandma was an OG
"Almost every summer, my grandmother would fly in from California to stay with my family just outside Chicago. Despite tropes in the media about cold and unfeeling Asian elders, my Japanese grandma was the opposite. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the backyard with her, rolling what I called the 'smelly ball' back and forth in the sunshine. (It was the 1990s, and someone thought it would be fun to make a strawberry scented ball for kids.) As the years went on, I realized she used that time with us to bond and pass on some of what she knew — sometimes encouraging me to eat traditional Japanese dishes or teaching me to hula. (We are also Hawaiian, allegedly.) I even remember thinking the way she folded clothes was special, a memory that entirely slipped my mind until Marie Kondo appeared in my Netflix feed doing the same thing. Who knew that my grandma was such an OG! In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time with her, asking her about her life, her history, her time in the internment camps… but each summer of my early childhood was such a gift." — Samantha Kubota, reporter and editor
Korean new year
"Growing up as a first generation Korean-Canadian, my parents made it a priority for us to fit in, so we grew up pretty Americanized. One tradition that we did always end up celebrating as a family was Korean new year. I'd look forward to my mom's cooking, starting with Tteokguk (rice cake soup) in the morning followed up with lots of rice cakes, japchae (noodle stir fry) and pajeon (pancakes). My grandparents lived with us, so sebae was also a big part. It involved bowing to your elders for their blessing in exchange for money, which seemed too good to be true as a kid. I always felt my family wasn't overly big on holidays but I loved this tradition so much. I often felt disconnected to my Korean roots, but dressing up in my hanbok, eating good food and spending time together helped me reconnect to my culture and that meant and always will mean so much to me." — Jenny Chang-Rodriquez, associate art director
"Shraadh is a Hindu tradition that my family followed. Shraadh means 'devotion' in Sanskrit. In this tradition, when a family member passes away we pay our respect and tribute to that family member by preparing a dish in their name. After making their favorite food, our family would go outside and leave the food on the open ground. We would pray together, remembering the family member and honoring them. The belief is that by feeding the birds the food, the food would reach the family members wherever they may be. By performing the 'shraadh' for the family member, we are paying homage and worshipping them. It is a practice of gratefulness to not only honor them but also thank them for being there for us. The offerings are made to three generations — father/mother, grandparents, and great-grandparents. By remembering and honoring them, we are remembering their blessings and love. The family then feasts together, remembering those ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be where we are today. It is said that those who cannot remember their forefathers or who don’t know their parents could perform the 'shraadh' for all the women in their life who had deeply impacted them but had passed away. This custom reminds me to be grateful for my ancestors and the humanity in me. Having lost my grandmother to COVID recently, the shraadh tradition gives me the opportunity to show my gratitude for her and also honor her as the trailblazer that she truly was." — Keshav Pandya, associate multimedia producer
Filipino breakfast for dinner
"My mom, who emigrated from the Philippines, prepared family dinner when I was growing up, and rice was almost always a given. (I ate it so much as a kid that my own rice cooker sits in the back of a cabinet and collects dust.) Some nights, which felt extra special to me but probably just followed days my mom was exhausted from everything raising three kids entails, she’d fry up leftover rice with garlic in a pan, soft-scramble a few eggs and cook a package or two of Filipino-style chorizo, which she always had in the freezer. We called the final product 'breakfast for dinner,' and as my brothers and I fought over the last of the sausage, she’d tell us how the ingredients reminded her of childhood in Manila. Now, whenever I don’t eat all my takeout rice, I know exactly what to do with it. Living with roommates and now my partner, I’ve made Filipino breakfast for lots of people over the years, sometimes replacing the chorizo with Spam or another Filipino sausage, longganisa. Only a handful of ingredients comprise the dish, but to me, none are as important as sharing it with someone I love." — Maura Hohman, weekend editor
Many of my friends are getting married right now, so I’ve been thinking a lot about weddings and the brouhaha that comes with them. My parents are from Cambodia, and I’ve attended traditional Khmer weddings since my childhood in Texas. A Khmer wedding has four parts: a gift-giving ceremony, a tea ceremony that can be led by Buddhist monks, a hair cutting ceremony (my favorite part symbolizing new life) and a pairing ceremony (the funniest part involving the bride and groom feeding each other fruit). The most fun part is the reception, which might be considered a hybrid of American and Cambodian weddings. They’re usually at a Chinese restaurant, and the guest count is often a minimum of 300 guests — my parents had 500. Each table has at least one bottle of a dark liquor — usually Hennessy, maybe Jameson, maybe Crown. Instead of gifts such as kitchen appliances, guests come bearing envelopes of money. As a DJ plays a mix of American hits and Khmer music, the bride and groom visit each table at the reception to thank the guests and receive their gifts. But before they do that, the guests have to give them a task to complete: Take two shots of Hennessy, have the bride roll an egg up the groom’s pants without crushing it, kiss each other, etc. Each time I attend a Cambodian wedding, it’s another chance for me to get closer to my culture, learn a few new traditions and hope no one makes fun of me when I attempt a Khmer line dance. It’s not until I tell someone unfamiliar with Cambodian wedding customs about it that I really feel a sense of pride for being able to witness such a beautiful tradition. And in an era in my life when I’m attending millions of weddings, the part I enjoy the most is witnessing the ways people stick to or modify their family’s traditions and rituals to celebrate two people in love. — Alicia Tan, associate commerce editor
Family dinner... no matter what
"My family is a close-knit bunch. Growing up, my parents emphasized the importance of family. This meant at home, we spoke Taiwanese (my and my parents' first language) and family dinners were nonnegotiable. No matter what, every night we had to sit down together for dinner (often cooked from scratch by my mother). Now, as an adult and a first-generation American raised by immigrants, I cherish our simple tradition of sharing a meal together because it also means we end up bonding over the histories of our family and keeping our culture alive over a feast of roasted duck or a simple meal of rice rolls and soy milk, asking each other, 'Remember that time?'" — Yi-Jin Yu, weekend editor