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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The culture of giving in AAPI communities

AAPI Heritage Month

Asian American and Pacific Islander philanthropy has a long history spanning back to a multitude of cultures. From the Filipino tradition of pasalubong to the Chamorro tradition of chenchule’, giving in AAPI cultures goes back for generations. The culture of giving that originates in these cultures informs the philanthropy and generosity that Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities demonstrate throughout their entire lives. Whether it be between people or between organizations, the origins of giving and philanthropy in AAPI cultures must be acknowledged and celebrated today. 

This AAPI Heritage Month, the ASU Lodestar Center will be exploring a few of these cultural roots in connection to modern-day philanthropy.

Chinese Americans

Giving starts early in the life of Chinese Americans. Around 1 month into the life of a newborn, the Red Egg and Ginger Party is held to officially welcome the new family member. At the event, the baby of honor is presented with many gifts: a new set of clothes, gold jewelry, and, most notably, a traditional red envelope filled with money. This form of giving sets a tone of generosity between friends and family among Chinese Americans for the rest of their lives. 

The red envelope, known in Chinese as hongbao, is a ubiquitous symbol in Chinese and Chinese American culture. They are often shared among friends and family on holidays, at festivals, and during important life events. The envelope’s deep scarlet hue and occasional gold engraving both act as a representation of good luck to its receiver.

The tradition of giving among Chinese Americans does not just extend to individuals, but also institutions. In a 2017 Los Angeles Times article, philanthropy among Chinese Americans was found to have soared, amounting to nearly $500 million. The majority of large gifts were directed towards “higher education, followed by international affairs/development, health, and the environment,” according to The China Project.

Chinese philanthropists, and Asians as a group, have been pretty low profile about their giving. We’ve been brought up to let our actions speak louder than our words, and even today my preference is to not be upfront.

John Long, Chinese-American philanthropist in The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Indian Americans

According to Sharada Sugirtharajah of Alliance Magazine, in Hindu families, wealth is to be used for the good of the family instead of the individual. In Hindu texts, dharma (religious duty) includes being generous with no expectation of a reward as a form of dana (giving). 

In Hindu mythology, the story of King Raja Rantideva shares a lesson about the benefits of generosity and making sacrifices for others. The king, having inherited property from his ancestors, would frequently give his earnings away to others. While he would constantly give to others he and his family lived in extreme poverty, relying on the generosity of others to survive. As a reward for his continuing generosity, Rantideva is blessed by the Hindu god Lord Brahma with a never-ending store of wealth. 

The morals of King Rantideva’s story ring true in the giving culture of Indian Americans today. According to The Conversation, Indian Americans are responsible for $1 billion donated to charity every year. The ranks of Indian-American philanthropists are joined by household names such as actress Mindy Kaling, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and many more.

While Indian Americans continue to donate time and money towards causes in India, our community also believes that charity begins at home…

MR Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, The American Bazaar

Native Hawaiian

For Native Hawaiians, giving is about more than sharing the wealth. They strive to share everything with close friends and family, including patience, unity and compassion. According to the University of Hawai’i - West O'ahu Center for Labor Education & Research, “Aloha Spirit'' promotes thinking and spreading good feelings to others. Aloha is the shared self that exists in all people, and loosely translates to the other terms akahai ( kindness), lōkahi (unity), ʻoluʻolu (agreeableness), haʻahaʻa (humility), and ahonui (patience). 

The most common sharing of Aloha spirit in Native Hawaiian culture is through the traditional lei. While flower leis have been adopted in the broader U.S. for various celebrations, the original lei had very different origins. According to Hawaii Flower Lei, the first leis were made of more than just flowers. They could be made of a variety of materials including shells, seeds, nuts, and feathers. But, while the materials have changed over time, the meaning of sharing a lei has persisted throughout the years. They are often shared as a celebration of the Aloha spirit, or just to commemorate a special occasion.

When you see lei, it's such a beautiful thing and you can’t wait to wear it… But when you do wear lei, you're not only wearing these flowers, but you're wearing all of the mana (spirit) that came from that lei-maker.

Britney Texeira, Native Hawaiian, USA Today

Despite historical economic discrimination barring many Native Hawaiians from participating in formal philanthropy, there is still a grassroots movement on the Hawaiian Islands and across the U.S. for Native Hawaiians to support their communities through philanthropy. Numerous Hawaii-based nonprofit organizations such as the Hawai’i People’s Fund, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and the Hawaii Justice Foundation are working to provide grants that contribute to good works done in the community.

While these are just a few examples, it is doubtless that the roots of giving exist in all AAPI communities from the smallest to the largest. As we seek to appreciate and celebrate their contributions this AAPI Heritage Month, it is essential that we acknowledge these roots and memorialize them with equal importance as giving in the modern day.

Illustration by Lillian Finley / ASU Lodestar Center

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Illustration by Lillian Finley, ASU Lodestar Center.

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