As we celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA & NH/PI) Heritage Month this May, we’re excited to introduce you to some amazing AA & NH/PI icons who can serve as role models and sources of inspiration for your teens. You may notice that, in addition to being world-renowned chefs, scientists, politicians, and performers, many of these figures are activists — we at Private Prep are grateful for how these fantastic humans are working hard each day to ensure a more colorful, more connected, and more just world.
Taiwanese American filmmaker Ang Lee — the first non-white director to win an Oscar for directing! — is the iconic director of a series of massively influential films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; and Life of Pi. Those three films should give you a good sense of what a stylistic chameleon Lee is — he’s masterful in a huge range of styles, from American Westerns to bittersweet family dramas to high-octane action films. Lee lived in Taiwan until he was 23, at which point he moved to the US to study film. For that reason, Lee often says that, while the US shaped his technical skill, Taiwan powerfully shaped his emotional center and his point of view. Perhaps that’s why he demonstrates such an original and acute perspective on Anglo-American culture!
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN
Dr. Sanjay Gupta is the associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, the multiple Emmy-award winning chief medical correspondent for CNN, and the host of the podcast Chasing Life. As a correspondent for CNN, Dr. Gupta has broken and covered some of the most important health-related news from around the world. In 2001-2022, he covered anthrax attacks; in 2003, he provided live coverage of the first battlefield operation performed during the war, and performed life-saving brain surgery five times in a desert operating room; in 2010, he reported on the devastating earthquake in Haiti; in 2014, he was the first western reporter who traveled to investigate the deadly Ebola outbreak that would soon find its way to the US; and throughout 2020 and 2021, Dr. Gupta served as a trusted guide to viewers worldwide on navigating between facts and fiction surrounding Covid-19 and the pandemic.
Hong Kong American Civil Rights Activist
Cecilia Chung is an internationally recognized civil rights leader and social justice advocate. A trans woman living openly with HIV, Chung is a groundbreaking advocate for both the transgender community and those living with HIV/AIDS, working on the local, state, and national levels for decades to end the discrimination and violence that those communities face. Chung’s advocacy work rose to the national level in 2013 when President Barack Obama appointed her to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. She currently serves as Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Evaluation of Transgender Law Center. Through her advocacy and philanthropic work, Chung has established herself as one of the country’s most important voices in anti-discrimination, transgender rights, and HIV/AIDS education and awareness.
NYTimes Food Reporter & Cookbook Author
Priya Krishna is a viral food journalist with a devoted following, as well as a champion of diverse storytelling in food media and beyond. She’s written for all sorts of buzzy publications, including Bon Appetit, Eater, The New Yorker, and now, The New York Times. She’s also a YouTube star and the author of Indian-ish, a cookbook helping readers understand basics of South Asian cooking, from how to match spices to oils and ghee to homemade yogurt and chhonk. Priya has been named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list, and has been nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals award for her journalism.
Thai American Army Veteran and U.S. Senator
Tammy Duckworth is the first Thai American woman elected to U.S. Congress, the first person born in Thailand to be elected to U.S. Congress, the first woman with a disability elected to U.S. Congress, the first female double amputee in the Senate, and the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. (Phew!) A veteran of the Iraq War, Duckworth lost both of her legs and some mobility in her right arm after her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents, causing severe combat wounds. Despite her injuries, she sought and obtained a medical waiver that allowed her to continue serving in the Illinois Army National Guard until she retired in 2014.
Native Hawaiian Model, Activist, and Legendary Drag Performer
Sasha Kekauoha, best known by the stage name Sasha Colby, is an iconic American drag performer and activist. In 2020, Sasha Colby represented Hawaii in GLAAD’s video, which sought to mobilize voters in the 2020 U.S. presidential election; she also walked the runway before Jennifer Lopez’s performance in the iHeart Radio Music Awards. In 2023, Sasha became the first Native Hawaiian to be cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Japanese American Actor and Civil Rights Activist
Best known for his iconic role as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek series, George Takei is a groundbreaking actor and civil rights activist who blazed a trail for subsequent generations of Asian Americans in the performing arts.. Like many people of Japanese descent at the time, and despite being American citizens, Takei and his family were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II. Since coming out as gay in 2005, Takei has become a prominent LGBT rights advocate and political activist. He also has won awards and accolades for his work on human rights and Japan–U.S. relations, including his work with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Filipina Pop Sensation & Actor
After winning over America’s heart as the lead in Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Filipina star Olivia Rodrigo signed with Geffen Records and released the melancholic pop hit Driver’s License, which became one of the best-selling songs of 2021 and catapulted Rodrigo to mainstream fame. Then, in 2021, she released her debut solo album, Sour, which won three Grammys. Also an accomplished pianist and guitar player, Rodrigo’s music has proved magnetic for listeners, in part because of how compellingly she writes about the way in which people — young people, especially, but by no means exclusively — continually contort themselves into new selves to please an ever-changing crowd.
Japanese Tennis Pro
Four-time Grand Slam champion and first Asian player to hold the No. 1 ranking, with her massive serve and fearless determination, Naomi Osaka is quickly becoming one of tennis’s all-time greats. Born in Japan to a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother, Osaka has lived and trained in the United States since age three. Osaka has also gained significant recognition as an activist, having showcased support for the Black Lives Matter movement in conjunction with her matches. In 2021, Osaka — the highest-paid female athlete in the world! — was widely praised for her vulnerability when she withdrew from the French Open, explaining that she was choosing to prioritize her mental health in the midst of long bouts of anxiety and depression. Osaka serves as a potent example of a new movement among elite athletes to challenge the harmful, age-old notion that athletes must be as peerless in mind as they are in body, untroubled by the scourge of mental illness.
Want to learn about more inspirational AA & NH/PI figures? Check out our blog post on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander literary heroes.