FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (May 24, 2012) -- An oversized lion dances up the long aisle to a steady, pounding drumbeat, alternately rolling on the floor and standing tall as it roars silently.

A barefoot Polynesian dancer in native costume is joined in a Haka warrior dance by three service members instructed to squat and grunt.

The leader of an Asian American empowerment organization discusses the pitfalls of painting an entire people as a "model minority."

Not your typical morning at McGill Training Center. But this was the installation's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month observance, when provocative speakers and dazzling cultural performances took center stage.

The annual event was hosted May 17 by Navy Information Operations Command Maryland. This year's theme is "Striving For Excellence in Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion."

The keynote speaker was Rosetta Lai, executive director of Asian American Leadership, Empowerment and Development for Youth and Families, which provides services to help immigrants from low-income Asian families in Washington, D.C., Montgomery County and Fairfax County, Va.

The 90-minute event featured three dance troupes, cultural displays, samples of Asian and Filipino foods, and the singing of the National Anthem by five members of the NIOC choir.

"It was just fabulous," said Persephonie Powell of Severn who attended with her husband, retired Lt. Col. Isadore Powell. "It was very informative and the food was excellent. All the celebrations this year were outstanding."

The event was the latest cultural observance sponsored by the garrison and Equal Opportunity Office. "I learn something new every time," NIOC Petty Officer 1st Class Kim Hanscom said.

Attendees were greeted with calypso music and a display featuring posters of Thailand and the Great Wall of China, Japanese umbrellas, figurines, silk cloth and colorful traditional clothing.

Asian Pacific Heritage Month celebrates the culture, traditions and history of Asian Americans and Pacific islanders of the United States.

"We commemorate their struggles, celebrate centuries of progress and reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the achievements and contributions of Asian Pacific Americans to America and around the world," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Kevin Tyson, senior enlisted leader for the Center for Language and Area Studies attached to NIOC Maryland, who emceed.

At the start of her talk, Lai took the mic in hand and walked toward the audience. "This is a great country, where we would do whatever we can to contribute," said Lai, who immigrated in 1965 as a student.

The former educator served as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, Chicago chapter in the 1980s and was the national president of the Organization of Chinese American Women from 2003 to 2008.

Lai spoke about the discrimination faced by Asian Americans including the forced relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II.

She also highlighted the achievements of Asian Americans in politics, the sciences, medicine and the arts, citing such notables as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, author Amy Tan, architects I.M. Pie and Maya Lin, Olympian skater Michelle Kwan, former Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, California Rep. Judy Chu and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

But "racial scapegoating," said Lai, led to the death of Vincent Chen in 1982 by two Detroit auto workers who thought he was Japanese and took away their jobs.

"That made me think, 'What is my role here?' " Lai said. "We are painted as the 'model minority,' a myth that could lead to a policy of benign neglect of programs and services for Asian American students who do not fit this stereotype."

In his remarks, Navy Capt. T. J. White, commander of NIOC, spoke of the unity among the diverse members of the military. "I look out into the audience and I see uniformed people who have taken an oath. ...," he said. "The best feature of the Department of Defense is that we do it together, we do it as one. That is a great leveler and the foundation of our opportunities for success. ... Our challenge is to make our nation better today than yesterday."

Entertainment was provided by the Wong People, who performed the lion dance, Hawaiian Entertainment of Baltimore and the Maryland Bayanihan/Kaibigan Community and Friends.

After greeting the audience with a boisterous "Aloha!" Hawaiian Entertainment owner Paki Allen explained the origins of Hawaiian dress and dance as performers in island clothing began to dance.

"We had no cotton, gold, silver," Allen said. "We had to supply our resources for our clothing and our jewelry -- dried strips of wood, mother-of-pearl shells, feathers from sea birds, flowers and coconuts."

Allen said that in ancient Hawaiian culture, men performed the dances -- specifically for kings. "All of our history was taught, through hands, in sign language," he said.

After the warrior dance, women in tea-leaf skirts danced the hula as a ukulele softly played on the loudspeaker.

The final performance by the Maryland Bayanihan/Kaibigan featured two women in Polynesian costume who danced intricate steps over wooden poles.

After the presentation, audience members lined up alongside tables decorated with colorful fans and baskets of fortune cookies to sample chicken satay, samosa and crab meat-cheese wontons catered by Burma Road Restaurant in Gaithersburg.

1st Sgt. Tanisha Aiken, branch chief of the NCO Academy, dined with Command Sgt. Maj. Tyronne Smoot, who was visiting from Fort Gordon, Ga.

"I wanted to show him how Fort Meade does it," Aiken said. "I had fun and I learned some things. It was very entertaining."