"For the Chinese, it is the year of the ram and in Japan, the year of the sheep," observed Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.) to the more than 200 guests crowding the Gold Room of the Rayburn Building Saturday night. There were appreciative smiles and murmurings as Mineta paused and then asked rhetorically, "I wonder just what that means?"

Before he could deliver his carefully rehearsed denouement, he was upstaged by half a dozen extras who gleefully stepped on his lines, shouting from various places in the room, "Chauvinism" and "Sexism," to the laughter and applause of the crowd.

Sheep or ram, it is the year 4677 on the lunar calendar observed in many Asian countries and Saturday, the Asian and Pacific American Federal Employes' Council (APAFEC) sponsored a reception to celebrate. Not just incidentally, council members also were celebrating APAFEC's growth from its brown-bag beginnings to a 130-member advocacy group working for the greater visibility of Asian Americans in the federal bureaucracy and the advancement of their Asian communities.

"We are a growing minority, in numbers and in sophistication," said Steve Thom, master of ceremonies as he welcomed fellow Asian Americans whose forebears had come from China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Samoa, Hawaii and the Philip-pines -- to name the most heavily represented of the Asian and Pacific basin countries.

APAFEC started informally in 1974 when a few Asian American employes got together over lunch to discuss common concerns and problems, said Gwen Wong, one of the founders of the organization. "We have since been exploring appropriate roles for us in the federal system and Asian issues in the community."

"Asians in the federal system not only do things -- their jobs -- but they do something for their communities and we are looking for ways to maintain better contact with our communities," echoed Laura Chin, chairman of APAFEC.

What those communities are, who the people are and how many, are all questions APAFEC members believe they should address.

What they are not is easier to answer. They are not "Orientals."

"We don't like 'Oriental,'" says Chin. "What does it mean? It means 'east.' I ask, 'East of what?'"

From Jose Armilla: "The term 'oriental' is associated with Genghis Khan in Western minds -- it is a racist term that has to do with cruelty. And the other side of that image is the subservient coolie mentality."

"We want people to know that we are different from those racist stereotypes implied by the term 'Oriental,'" added Chin, who believes that a change in semantics can be a good place to start. (Young Asian Americans from the Philippines now call themselves "Pilipinos" in rejection of the foreign 'f' sound.)

Asian Americans consider their problems somewhat different from those of other minority groups because census figures do not reflect accurately their numbers in this country.That is where the push for visibility comes in. They also are diverse among themselves. And while Saturday's party emphasized cooperation, the diversity was so evident that its proper theme could have been Beyond the Melting Pot.

"The Melting Pot means that all the ingredients are stirred up together and have lost their individual identity," said Rep. Mineta. "American society is more of a tapestry or quilt with all colors and textures woven together to make the whole."

The threads of the Asian American tapestry assembled on Saturday were rich and vibrant.

Miyuki Yoshikami played traditional Japanese songs on the koto, a harp-like instrument with moveable frets. Timothy Chang played classical Chinese tunes as well as a twanging, rousing version of "Yankee Doodle" on the Eh-hu, or Chinese violin.

Kim Khue, a 21-year-old George Mason student, and her brothers Khanh Nguyen, 31, Tan Nguyen, 27, and Thanh Nguyen, 24, played guitars and sang traditional Vietnamese folk-songs, French love songs and definitely Americanized tunes of their own, in a style that seemed more South American than Southeast Asian to the uninitated listener.

Even Franklin Chow's buffet reflected the diversity of the gathering with Japanese sushi, spicy tiny meat-balls that seemed northern Chinese in inspiration, the more mellow Canto-nese-style chicken with sausage, fried wontons with a sweet nut-like filling and some good old American dip with vegetables.

Said Armilla, "We have a multi-cultural diveristy. Each group should maintain its identity and yet contribute to the whole."