May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. In Champaign-Urbana, we have many ways to celebrate and honor Asian and AAPI communities. Asian Americans make up about 6% of the state’s population, and comprise the fastest growing demographic. In fact, Illinois is the first state in the nation to require the teaching of Asian American history in public schools. At the University of Illinois, nearly 40% of students are of Asian descent. It’s because of this large campus community that we are able to take advantage of so many delicious, interesting, and exciting cuisines, customs, and celebrations.
But first: It seems silly but necessary to point out that Asia is not a monolith, and Asia does not only mean East Asia. Asia, the continent and region, is home to dozens of countries. That sometimes seems hard to conceptualize because so much of our time is spent here in the United States, which despite its vast size only shares a land border with two other nations. The geographical region of Asia includes China, Japan, and Korea, of course, but also India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Maldives. Pacific Islands have their own distinct geography and cultures, and countries include Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, and Fiji. All of these cultures are meant to be included in AAPI Heritage Month.
The easiest way to celebrate and engage with AAPI Heritage Month is to dine at one of our many, many Asian restaurants. As an editorial board, we’re fans of Golden Harbor, of course, but also Lanxang and Thara Thai for Thai / Lao food, Kohinoor and Himalayan Chimney for Indian food, Masijta Grill and Star BBQ for Korean food, and 83 Vietnamese. Smile Politely has reviewed most of these establishments, and you can search the site for our writers’ thoughts on those places. These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to delicious Asian food in C-U and we welcome you to share your favorites we didn’t mention here in the comments on socials.
If you’re compelled to cook your own meals, why not head to one of the specialty grocers in town? You’ll find ingredients for East Asian cuisines at Far East Grocery, Fresh International Market, Green Onion, and AM-KO. Bombay Market and Annapoorna are perfect for ingredients for Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cuisine. H Mart will open soon, too.
Perhaps one of the more well-known and celebrated establishments in C-U is the U of I’s Japan House. Japan House is an incredible campus and community resource. The generosity of spirit within the staff is what continues to facilitate robust programming and opportunities. Take, for instance, the massive Matsuri celebration two weeks ago. After being on hiatus since 2019, the festival returned and brought together a massive sampling of Asian and Pacific Islander cultures and organizations. At the event you were able to sample sushi and curry and kimchi. U of I student groups like UIUC Fataaka and the Philippine Student Organization performed alongside Japanese drum group Ho Etsu Taiko. Japan House does more than Matsuri, of course. The tea ceremonies always sell out quickly. U of I students can minor in Japanese Arts and Aesthetics, and community members and students alike can take ikebana and calligraphy classes.
The greater U of I community celebrates all sorts of festivals and ceremonies from across Asia and the Pacific, like Eid, Diwali, and Lunar New Year. There are also special local festivals like the Tagore Festival that honor the many achievements of poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter Rabindranath Tagore whose first public address in the United States took place in Urbana in 1912.
While the U of I campus prompts much of the cultural programming celebrating AAPI communities, the campus community is not the only source of engagement.
Sushi would be a popular food option even without the U of I campus. Anime, K-Pop, and Bolly- and Tolly-wood films are massively popular outside of university communities. Urbana Dance Company teaches a weekly K-Pop dance class; you can watch Indian films at the AMC movie theater in Champaign. The manga sections in our libraries are always picked over because people are seeking out that content. (To that end, the U of I has a massive collection of South Asian comics; check it out online.)
We are lucky to have access to such a rich diversity of cultures afforded to us by living in a university town — these things are not guaranteed. Asian and Asian American people continue to be the targets of hate crimes and harassment at alarming rates. We are not immune to those expressions here in C-U. So beyond celebrating our neighbors and friends in the AAPI community, honoring their stories, and supporting their businesses this month, commit to supporting our AAPI community for all twelve months of the year. You can do this through your shopping and dining, all year. During the academic year, check the U of I’s Asian American Cultural Center for event programming.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.