LANGUAGE OF ASIAN AMERICAN IDENTITY
At maslansky + partners, we believe language is powerful. This holds especially true when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, where language is critical to how we see and relate to each other. But when it comes to identity, language is also personal. As part of our language of identity series, we’re highlighting voices speaking about the role of language in their lives — and in the ways they articulate their own identities. This is the fourth post in the series, The Language of Asian American Identity. Please join us in learning, listening, and sharing.
As a term, “Asian American” has its roots in politics. Activists and academics trace its origins back to 1968 and University of California, Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who “founded the Asian American Political Alliance as way to unite Japanese, Chinese and Filipino American students on campus.” Today, it’s an identifier that encompasses nearly 21 million Americans who trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East, Southeast, and Southern Asia, each carrying their own unique histories, cultures, languages and traditions.
The 2020 Presidential Election arguably put more of a spotlight on Asian Americans than any election before it. In the primaries, Andrew Yang was vocal about his Asian-American identity, and the media frequently reported on him as “one of the first and most recognizable East Asian-Americans in history to run for president.” As a multiracial woman, Vice-President Kamala Harris became both the first woman and Asian-American to be part of a winning presidential ticket. But when breaking the news about Harris’s nomination, many news outlets led with Harris’s Black identity over her South Indian heritage, rather than upholding both of her racial identities together. And through it all, both parties campaigned hard to win the Asian American vote – with pollsters and the media discussing if there were even issues that united this diverse group into a block.
This has raised a number of important questions: What does it mean to be Asian-American in America today? Given the sheer number of identities that term contains, and the differences with which each may be seen, is that term more harmful than helpful? And more broadly, how do people who identify as biracial talk about the different pieces of their heritage? How does that change across generations, from the parents and grandparents who may have immigrated to America, to their children who may identify as first- or second-generation?
In this part of our Language of Identities series, we share the perspectives of our Asian American colleagues, friends, and family members about the language they use to articulate their identity – and why it matters. We present these perspectives in their unedited format to allow their voices to speak for themselves, but have bolded parts we found particularly powerful.
“Watch it, Jap!” His shoulder drives into my chest and knocks me backwards. I stumble with my words attempting to apologize as the stranger and his friends walk away, laughing at my cowardly display. I stand there alone in an arcade in Nevada, far from my home in Hawaii. For the longest time, I never really considered what it meant to be “Asian-American.” Growing up in Hawaii, where being Asian means you’re in the majority, the values and customs that make Asian culture so vibrant and unique were part of a shared experience that I, along with the people around me, became accustomed to as the standard way of life. But I’ll never forget when it was so obvious to others that I was different. Not because of my beliefs, my voice, or even the clothes on my body. But because my black hair and facial characteristics resembled most people living in East Asia. And it’s scary to know that accidentally bumping into a stranger could elicit such a visceral, hateful response. However, through my studies of Asian-American history as well as the experience of my own family, I’ve learned that being Asian-American means remaining resilient and pushing forward even in the face of hardship. It’s the mentality my ancestors harnessed when they moved to America to pursue greater opportunity not just for themselves, but for those to come. It’s the mentality my ancestors carried with them when they fought in World War II to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans, even after being wrongfully displaced in internment camps. And it’s the mentality I will continue to carry with me through the adversities of my time.
Being Asian-American today means not just being proud and protective of my own heritage. I must demonstrate solidarity with all those in America who are disenfranchised, dismissed and discriminated against—particularly people of color. If I’m not for others, what good am I?
– Jordan Lee, Language Strategist at m+p
“Growing up in a small town in Indiana, I was trained early by my parents to respond to questions about where I’m from. “I’m American, but my parents are from India,” I’d say. It was the answer most acceptable to all parties: I thought of myself as American, full stop, but even at a young age I could tell anyone who asked that question was looking for something more.
As I grew into my own identity, and articulating that I was Indian became more important to me, I started using “Indian American”. In a context where I’m with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi American friend, I might use “desi” or “brown” to refer to ourselves. Our families may originate from different countries within the South Asian subcontinent, but at the very least because we have a similar skin color, our experiences as Americans are also similar (not to mention many cultural commonalities as well). But I’ll echo another responder here, to agree that I wouldn’t use this language externally – “brown” isn’t unique to the South Asian community.
More recently “South Asian” seems to be the most common language used in cultural and political contexts, internally and externally. And it’s helpful language to be inclusive of all the different nationalities within the South Asian subcontinent. It helps ease tensions that exist mostly in our parents’ generation – that in my experience don’t exist as much in our South Asian American experience (the actual politics of South Asia are overshadowed by the common experiences of being brown in America).
While I’m comfortable identifying as “South Asian” externally, and would certainly describe myself as a part of the “South Asian community”, I wonder if this term too (like “Asian American” is called out for doing) does some erasing…
I’ll say the term “Asian American” is not much more to me than the box I checked on the SATs or college apps. And while I felt connected in many ways to Asian American friends growing up (thinking in particular of my mostly white school), I can’t recall a single time I’ve actually described myself as Asian American.”
– Neha Ramani, Senior Language Strategist at m+p
“I identify as both Japanese American and Asian Pacific American (APA). Though I consider both ways of identifying as equally important, my APA identity is at the forefront. To me, being APA means being a part of something bigger – and committing to it. The term, “Asian American,” as well as other renditions such as “APA” or “APIDA,” (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American), has political roots and doesn’t necessarily have a basis in phenotypes, language, religion, culture, or food (except perhaps, the arbitrary similarity of having ancestral roots in the geographic location of Asia). It is a concept that encompasses so many people, with so many different histories and experiences. Theoretically, being a part of a larger community should give a person the sense of belonging and sharing. But in reality, many experiences within this umbrella get erased because of the East Asian hegemony within the community. When people hear “Asian,” most think of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean nationalities, rather than the more than 20 other Asian nationalities and ethnicities. Therefore, the challenges of underrepresented minorities within the APA umbrella are not learned about, talked about, or advocated for – from issues regarding access to education and opportunities, to immigration, to poverty, to higher rates of incarceration due to discrimination. So, when I claim my APA identity, I remind myself to de-center my East Asian experience and keep working to learn, spread awareness, and advocate for marginalized communities within this umbrella.
Being Japanese American and APA also means connecting with others through political experiences – not only with other APAs, but with other people of color. Once we get past the physical appearance of being “Asian,” it becomes clear that APA histories and experiences share some similarities with those of other minorities in America,though by no means are they the same or equal. Pulling from my knowledge of Japanese American history, there are numerous similarities in political experiences. For example, the same government that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War 2 is continuously imprisoning Black and Latinx Americans today. The same language that some American politicians used towards Chinese Americans around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and Japanese Americans during World War 2 has been repeated against people immigrating from Central America, the global south and the Middle East. The same military that have invaded and set up bases on numerous locations in the world have used the people, the land, and the water as test labs to research medicine and develop warfare, as they did in the Asia-Pacific.
Once these similarities are recognized, we can build kinship not just based on how we look, but based on the political experiences we face. It will compel us to stand up and identify with all others, not just those who look like ourselves.”
– Mai Fukata, Associate Language Strategist at m+p
“I identify as Indian American. I grew up in a predominantly white part of the country, and I distinctly remember grouping my friends into school friends or ‘brown’ friends. My brown friends were those who were also Indian, usually from family friend relationships that revolved mostly around religion, at the Hindu temple. Using the word brown in the Asian community is very different compared to how it’s used or interpreted externally. Brown can mean a lot of different things. People from Latin America are brown, people from the Middle East are brown. When we use it internally in the community, it feels intimate. But it can be insulting when used by people not in the community, and it can also be insulting for people of other backgrounds. When we say black and brown bodies matter, Indian Americans are not part of that. It has a different colloquial meaning.
Growing up, I don’t remember using the words Indian American, and I didn’t learn a lot about other Asian American populations until I got to college. There can be a sense of belonging in the term Asian American in that we share the immigrant story, but there’s not always much shared culturally beyond that. I appreciate the ability to distinguish myself a little more separately. And from the perspective of a medical student, grouping such a large population into that Asian box under demographics can have very real, clinical implications even beyond the fact that it doesn’t fully explain your cultural identity.
But there’s also a big generational gap in how we self-identify. I would say that using terminology like the “South Asian diaspora” is newer and somewhat unique to first and second generation immigrants who grew up here. It’s very different for my parents or grandparents, who grew up in India, so using terminology that combines, for example, India and Pakistan, can feel strange to them. But for me growing up, I felt like an outsider both here and in India. Seeing other people who are South Asian here, no matter where they’re from, can be comforting as they’ve been through the same experience of being grouped together by the majority. I share that with them. So, I’m comfortable using South Asian to describe myself, as it represents a shared experience of being brown in America. But when I’m in India, the way I ask about someone’s background is very different . I’ll be far more specific about the state that my family is from or the language that we speak. It’s a very different way of identifying myself. It’s contextual.”
– Pratyusha, friend of m+p
“Growing up, I came into awareness of my racial identity as a target of bullying and stereotyping from classmates, and noticing a mismatch between the portrayal of “American” families in media vs my own family’s experiences, habits, cultural practices. I didn’t get to learn anything explicit about Asian-American history or political identity until after college, so pride I found in being Asian-American when I was younger was really based in celebrating culture, finding community among other Chinese-Americans (and other East Asian immigrants). Pressures and the promises of assimilation were super high though, so I also definitely lost a lot too in trying to assert that me and my family were indeed American aka as white as we could possibly be.
When I joined Asian Americans United after college, finally was in a space where “Asian-American” was used and practiced as a progressive political identity (as originally established during the student movements in the 1960’s). This opened up a lot of learning for me too in the racialization of Asian people in the United States and how stereotypes of Asian-Americans have been weaponized against Asian immigrants (ex. Chinese lynchings, Japanese internment, post-911 anti-Muslim violence, etc) and also against African-Americans (ex. model minority myth created after wins of the Civil Rights Movement to discredit Black and Brown people and struggles under the guise of praising Asian-Americans). I think Asian-American as an identity can push Asian immigrants and their descendants to understand this history and its implications today for where politically we can/should go. Do we act in solidarity with other people of color to keep fighting for justice and freedom? Or do we fall into the conservative trap of trying to bring Asian-Americans closer and closer to the false promise of whiteness?
Obviously “Asian-American” as an identity can tend to erase the hundreds of ethnic groups, languages, countries of origin that the term attempts to cover, and East Asian immigrants tend to be centered in the portrayal/discussion of Asian-American issues. But there have also been calls within the Asian-American community for things like data disaggregation (reporting based on countries of origin/ethnic group vs “Asian-Americans” as a whole) and for Asian-American solidarity when specific groups are targeted (ex. “We are all Chinese” in response to pandemic-related racism).”
– Jenny Chen, friend of m+p
“Being Asian-American is something that has been pointed out to me since I was a child. Friends would always point out differences between us whether that be appearance or culture. Thus, as a kid, I remember trying to hide a lot of my Chinese heritage as I wanted to be seen as “normal” by friends and schoolmates. I remember asking my mom to speak less Chinese in public or changing the foods she would make for me for lunch. Obviously a lot has changed since then. Now, I am much more proud of my Chinese background and crave my mother’s cooking no matter what it is. I can’t speak for all Chinese people, but I am incredibly proud of the work ethic and persistence of my family. I know my parents faced many obstacles in life, especially in moving to America at a young age to provide a better life for my family, and for that I will always be grateful.
I think due to the under-representation of Asians in media in the past, Asian culture has remained a mystery for many in America. You are often thrown into a stereotype right off the bat. In truth, there are billions of Asians around the world and they are all different. This is a reason why, clumping Asian-Americans into a group can be dangerous. Besides from the fact that the numerous Asian countries all have different cultures, all Asian- Americans are individuals and should be treated as such instead of automatically stereotyped.”
– Daniel Wang, Financial Analyst at m+p
“I identify more as South Asian than Asian American. I feel like that is a commonly accepted term for Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis (and many more groups) and does a bit better job describing what is otherwise a broad group within “Asian” populations. And there are differences even within being South Asian. For instance, in Tamilnadu, the state within India that my family is from, culture runs particularly strong. There are foundational values, morals, and principles from this background that guide me through key decision points in my life.
Growing up, there was a clear difference between how I spent my nights and weekends, in religious and cultural environments, compared to my predominantly white classmates. Naturally, it led to a sense of separation in worlds and communities, but this has changed as I’ve become an adult. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of the movement towards diversity being something to celebrate. Now, instead of hiding that cultural background, I take comfort in being able to share with other South Asians who have had common experiences, being able to share those cultures and identities with people externally. It’s also been really helpful to see successful South Asians in the world, doing things that are incredible, breaking barriers in their own right. It inspires me to do the same. That said, this also comes with a recognition and understanding that the group I identify with is privileged in certain ways.
Ultimately, I recognize the practicalities of simplification, but I do think the word Asian American is broad and may not do justice to unique cultural differences. Even if we commonly had a “Indian” category rather than Asian American, that would still be a catch-all for 1.3B+ individuals in India and its immense diaspora. India is complex, it’s like if each of the fifty states in the U.S. had its own customs, language, and history. Personally, I’m comfortable and proud to represent my own community the way I feel appropriate, even if external terms don’t capture it all.”
– Vibav, friend of m+p
“I’d start off with saying that I view myself as neither traditionally Asian nor traditionally American – but I’ve always identified as Asian-American, proudly. What being Asian-American means to me is that I get to experience and appreciate the different varieties and nuances in cuisine, language, and history from both cultures that create a much bigger world for me to see myself in.
It means getting to have noodles for my birthday, which is symbolic for a long life, followed by a red velvet cake coated with cream cheese icing, which could arguably shave off a few years. It means having the option to say a phrase in a different language other than English because it just seems to “make more sense.” It means learning from people who came before me, such as those closest to me, like my first-generation parents, and those I have no relation with, like the trailblazers, both present and past.
Having grown up in Georgia with familial roots in Wuhan, my appreciation for my multicultural identity stems from a balanced exposure and understanding of two sides of a coin that have been formative in shaping my own personal philosophies and outlooks on life.”
-Rachel Dai, friend of m+p