Staff Writer Emily Yi attended CU Asian Pacific American Heritage Month’s opening ceremony on Friday, April 14, featuring Jayani (Max Patel) and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Raja Gemini. 

For Asians and Asian Americans across the country, a month-long celebration of our community and our heritage will start in a few weeks on May 1, but at Columbia, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) is already here. 

Every year, CU APAHM “celebrates Columbia’s APIA Heritage Month during April by focusing on programming that celebrates the culture, investigates the issues, and showcases the talents of Asian Pacific Islander Americans,” according to the event program.

On Friday night, a slate of APAHM events kicked off with the 2023 Opening Ceremony, featuring performances from Max Patel, also known as Jayani (CC ’23), and drag performer Raja Gemini, who lent her storytelling and insights to a panel discussion and Q&A. The night also featured an impressive slate of brand and restaurant sponsorships, which of course meant… freebies!

Co-presidents Grace Lee (BC ’24) and Scarlet Au (CC ’23) gave brief opening statements and then passed the mic to APAHM’s Opening Ceremony Chair to introduce the theme of this year’s celebrations: Inheritance. Inheritance aims to “[honor] to the dynamic generational experiences that have brought us to this moment, while also beginning the work of looking towards a future brimming with possibility and community.” 

The night’s two performers certainly embodied this spirit. Jayani, a senior at Columbia College studying music and marketing who is “half Indian, half American, born and raised in Hong Kong,” began the night’s festivities by performing two original songs. First up was “Cyclone,” from his EP Songs of the Storm, then a brand-new song inspired by advice from Jayani’s father about how to face challenges and disappointed hopes: “Flow with the water and let it roll down your shoulders.”

While Jayani definitely earned some new fans, cheers were loudest for the ceremony’s headliner, drag performer and makeup artist Raja Gemini. Raja shot to fame when she became the first Asian American to win RuPaul’s Drag Race during season three, and her dramatic entrance in a showstopping pink sequins-and-neoprene getup didn’t disappoint.

Not letting a lack of stage space in the Roone Arledge Cinema crimp her flair, Raja lip-synced her rendition of Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life,” performed against a sparkly video backdrop that took the audience through her childhood, a process of exploring her queerness, and finally some of her iconic looks from recent years. 

The mood was relaxed and good-humored during a panel discussion featuring Raja and APAHM Senior Advisor Sanjana Pothagunta (BC ‘24). The conversation encompassed everything from Raja’s favorite makeup product (makeup wipes, because there’s nothing like the feeling of getting to destroy something you’ve put a lot of work into) to her childhood celeb crushes (Erik Estrada in CHiPs, Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I., and Christopher Atkins in Blue Lagoon). 

Nor did the discussion shy away from more serious topics. Raja, an Indonesian-American,  moved to Bali with her Indonesian parents when she was three, and the “spiritual, colorful place” that was Bali in the mid-’70s influenced Raja’s identity and eventual style. 

When she began exploring her queer identity in the ’90s, however, Raja recounted feeling out of place within the queer community. “We were not pretty people in the ’90s,” she said of being Asian in a community where white men set the beauty standards. “Especially being mixed Asian, people didn’t understand what I was.” 

Drag was where Raja found her place in the community. “Drag was my ability of being neutral… of floating through all the cultures I grew up around.” Despite this complex intersection, however, Raja made clear that she was never apologetic about her ethnic identity: “I knew there was something special in my Asianness”—a sense which influenced her decades-long stage name, which means “king” in Indonesian. 

Throughout the night, speakers and hosts emphasized that APA Heritage Month is a celebration of many overlapping and distinct identities. Among these many nuances is the gap that can manifest between hyphenated Asian-American identities and our sans-hyphen communities overseas. 

Raja shared the experience of a recent trip to Indonesia, during which she and her sister gathered twenty-five Indonesian queer leaders for a dinner in Jakarta and heard about experiences of the pressures on queerness in an oft-conservative society. For example, since changing gender markers is not allowed on Indonesian IDs, trans-Indonesians often struggle during travel, and some haven’t lived with any kind of ID for decades. 

Despite sharing a joint heritage, these stories mark an experience that can diverge from those of queer Asians in America. As Raja put it: “I feel like I got to this place through privilege—being an American, and having more freedom in that way.” 

This was perhaps one of the night’s most striking reflections on what Inheritance could mean to Asians and Asian-Americans alike. In addition to being deeply personal, it is also intertwined with our connections to global Asian communities. 

“How do we break free of legacies of pain or trauma and begin cycles of healing instead?” When this question was first posed in the ceremony’s opening speeches, I immediately thought of personal inheritances—the “traditions, expectations, joys, and fears” passed down to us from our family members. I ended the night thinking that our inheritances must also involve grappling with the challenges facing diverse Asian communities worldwide. 

APAHM continues this Friday, April 21, with a slate of events featuring AAPI artists of all kinds—a fashion bazaar, film screenings, an art gallery, and a chapbook writing workshop. Find out more @cuapahm on Instagram. A very happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to all those in our community and beyond!

Raja (ft young Raja) via Emily Yi