More than five years ago, Lanlan Xu began advocating for Howard County to dedicate a community space to serve and celebrate the culture of the fast-growing Asian communities in the area.

The former vice chair of the board of directors for Howard County Chinese School saw a need for a center that could host cultural showcases, help new immigrants settle, and build connections with the wider community.

Xu and other Asian residents held a series of meetings and pitched the idea as a community impact project to Howard County leadership. Their efforts are paying off. Local officials are now in the initial stages of planning what Howard County’s first Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Cultural Center could look like.

“This is hugely important for the AAPI community, especially given where we were in the past few years. We have seen such an increase of anti-Asian hate both nationally and locally,” said Xu, referencing several Asian-owned restaurants that were burglarized in Howard County on the same night in February 2021.

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A xenophobic backlash to the pandemic that blamed China for the coronavirus fueled anti-Asian racism across the country. In 2021, one in six Asian American adults experienced a hate crime or hate incident, up from one in eight in 2020, according to the online 2022 American Experiences with Discrimination Survey from AAPI Data. Between March 2020 and March 2022, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center received more than 11,400 hate incidents, including harassment, physical assaults and avoidance or shunning.

“That has a chilling effect on the AAPI community,” Xu said. “The announcement to establish an AAPI Cultural Center, that is such a positive signal to the community that we are really valued as an integral part of the society here in Howard County.”

At this point, the cultural center proposal is just an idea, without a tentative timeline or estimated total budget. The state has allocated $1.25 million over three years to support planning efforts for the project, according to Del. Courtney Watson, who represents Howard County.

“The county is making an effort to celebrate and recognize the diversity we have in our population in Howard County and provide opportunities for building a community among many different cultural backgrounds,” Watson said.

Watson said the Asian American Pacific Islander population has grown considerably over the last decade, with Asian residents now making up 20% of the county. The largest segments of Howard County’s Asian population identify as Indian, Korean and Chinese, according to a 2020 county report, with Filipinos, Vietnamese, Japanese and other ethnicities also represented.

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In recent years, local leadership has done other things to promote Asian culture and heritage, Watson said. The county held its inaugural Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Festival in April. In August, Lake Elkhorn Middle School saw the opening of the county’s sixth cricket pitch, designated for the popular sport that has a major fan base in South Asia. Officials are assembling a commission of Asian and Pacific Islander American representatives to advise the county executive and County Council on policies, programs and issues that are important to their communities.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said residents came together last fall and this summer for stakeholder meetings to talk about what they would like to see from the cultural center and what is important to them.

The county is considering a variety of properties where the center could be built, Ball said. “We’re going to look earnestly in the start of the new year and evaluate our options and opportunities.”

“I’m really looking forward to, of course, building upon this foundation, taking the feedback from our community about what they’d like to see and then creating a world-class AAPI Cultural Center,” he said.

Pravin Ponnuri, founder of the Indian Origin Network of Howard County, said he attended a community input meeting in June with 70 or 80 others about the proposed cultural center.

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Ponnuri hopes the can venue host a museum with rotating exhibits. In his vision, it could showcase displays such as textiles from India, silks farmed in China and outstanding scientists of Asian heritage.

Ideally, the cultural center would also feature a working farm that produces fresh vegetables for the community and host workshops for residents that want to learn skills like repairing drywall, he said.

“I want to make sure the place doesn’t end up being just for the AAPI community,” Ponnuri said. “And we don’t end up seeing just the AAPI community out there. I want the non-AAPI community to be there and come there to learn.”

In a county survey of Asian residents, the majority of respondents said they wanted to see the proposed center to be used for cultural programs, educational programs, social spaces and cultural exhibits. Others advocated for alternative uses, such as sports facilities, immigration help or programming for seniors.

Out of the locations being considered, 67% of respondents said they would like for it to be located in Ellicott City and 33% said they preferred Columbia.

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Xu, one of the original proponents of the project, wants the cultural center to be a place for exhibits, dancing, food and art, she said. She pictures it as a hub where Asian Americans can form coalitions, help people apply for citizenship and encourage them to register to vote in a state where Asian Americans are becoming a force in elections. She also wants it to serve as a one-stop referral center for Asian residents — many of whom are new immigrants — who are seeking access to social programs and other resources.

An Asian American woman in a red traditional Chinese dress smiles while holding a microphone. A crowd of adults and children watch behind her.
Lanlan Xu (right), emcees a Lunar New Year celebration at Columbia Mall in 2019. (Xiaoyan Zhang/Courtesy of Lanlan Xu)

Asian Americans are not a monolith, whether in terms of language and culture, but also socioeconomic status, she said.

“Often the AAPI community is often misperceived as the well-to-do community … But if you look at different segments of the community, we have a lot of underserved and at-risk segments of the population who need the help, who need service but don’t know how to get services. Because of the misconception, often the population is overlooked,” she said.

Though the Asian population has a high percentage of people with college, graduate and professional degrees, Xu said, there is also a larger percentage of Asian residents who have less than a high school education, compared with white and Black residents. Additionally, 23% of Asian households in Howard County have incomes above the federal poverty level but still struggle to afford basic household necessities, she said.

Currently in Howard County, there are gathering spaces used by different ethnicities, Xu said. Korean Americans congregate at churches. Chinese Americans have Chinese School, which rents classroom space from the public school system and a community college. The Indian American community has their own nonprofit organizations, she said.

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“Because there is no place for AAPI community members to gather to exchange ideas and to call it home, there is a lack of understanding of each other and also a lack of understanding from the bigger society on this population,” Xu said.

Under the roof of the Asian American Cultural Center, people from all backgrounds can come together, Xu said.

“If we have everything together, it will create something more beautiful than individual parts can afford to do,” she said.

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