The Term ‘Asian American’ Has an Impossible Duty
In a moment of pain, the descriptor has become a galvanizing force. But what happens when you lump together a group of people whose lives differ so vastly?
I’m not Asian American. I’m a German citizen, born to Vietnamese immigrants. You could say I’m an Asian in America, though I most often feel like an untethered foreigner who’s just gotten really good at nesting.
When I first immigrated to the United States, though, I was often assumed to be Asian American. And with that, I was assigned a culture that I didn’t recognize from my upbringing in Germany or even from having lived in Hong Kong and traveled across Asia for work. It’s a culture that America itself seems to have trouble figuring out.
The concept of “Asian American” was always a little foreign to me. This phrase was assigned the impossible duty of encapsulating the experience of people who once hailed from a continent that contains so many multitudes.
Though the term has largely become affiliated with largely a subset of that population, excluding countries like Russia and often centering around East Asians, it’s worth noting that about two-thirds of the world’s population, or roughly 4.16 billion individuals, live in Asia across nine time zones. There are climates in the region that range from monsoon-drenched tropical to arid deserts. Hundreds of languages are spoken in the region and a multitude of cultures practiced every day.
Even after folks from that continent arrive in America and settle down, their experience remains fractured at best. An estimated 23 million people are considered Asian American and their lives differ vastly. For instance, you will find massive income gaps between people who are grouped under the term Asian American: According to CNN, your typical Burmese family may live off $46,000 a year, while their Indian counterparts have an annual budget of $127,000. 1.5 million Asians in America are undocumented, living in the shadows, while others are well-paid professionals in some of the country’s richest industries, like the technology sector.
And yet their essence and stories are supposed to be captured in two small words: Asian American.
The hyphenated identity is an American specialty, but just like the country itself, the idea of Asian Americans is still relatively young, unformed, and, due to that, ever-so malleable.
As Cathy Hong Park, poet and author, wrote in the essay collection Minor Feelings:
The paint on the Asian American label has not dried. The term is unwieldy, cumbersome, perched awkwardly upon my being. Since the late sixties, when Asian American activists protested with the Black Panthers, there hasn’t been a mass movement we can call our own. Will “we,” a pronoun I use cautiously, solidify into a common collective, or will we remain splintered, so that some of us remain “foreign” or “brown” while others, through wealth or intermarriage, “pass” into whiteness?
I had mostly encountered the term as a clinical one: at conferences, when poring over census data, or when examining government policies. It is political in nature — an instrument used to slice and dice a nation, and assign policies. But it’s a term that assigns narratives, too.
And in the U.S., Asians in America exist within this racial institution, however vague or defined it may be and whether they opt into it or not.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, and acutely so in the past several weeks, the term — or at least the idea that there’s a commonality in living in America as an Asian — has morphed into a galvanizing force. To some degree, it seems to have become more of flesh and blood, even if it’s largely originating in a moment of discrimination.
On social media, the term began to pound itself into my consciousness — first quietly as a little pitter-patter of social media posts that decried individual acts of violence against older adults, like when they set 奶奶 nǎinai on fire and then louder when they shoved คุณปู่ Khuṇ pū̀ on the ground so hard, he later died in the hospital.
Then a chorus formed — a cacophony grew louder, more rhythmic, like a crowd at a concert finding a common beat to clap to. A sort of pride revealed itself, amidst a lot of rage, as I saw the term uttered more and more by the very people who embodied it.
But it’s maybe even more felt than uttered. The “aunties” at my local Vietnamese store, long-term Chinatown residents I spoke to, and the woman operating two hair salons downtown all sensed that something was happening to bring folks together who’d previously been living in their own little enclaves, especially with the second generation of immigrants reaching out to the first. Behind the scenes, the idea that there is some kind of experience they share in common has become a source of familial warmth as younger generations are connecting with elders out of worry but also a desire to help and to learn.
“Among Asian Americans, there’s a lot of different different backgrounds,” said a man named KW, a long-term Chinatown resident who moved to Brooklyn in recent years. He noted that people of different Asian backgrounds were always a bit separate but that “the new generation has the common knowledge” to bring people together in this crucial moment.
As these two words repeated themselves, they did so perhaps enough to take on new meaning. Maybe through some social-media-fueled version of semantic satiation — the act of repeating a term so much it loses its meaning and is a jumble of letters strung together — they learned to scrap some of the meanings the term was assigned, like that of the model minority myth, and are rewriting the term by adding new entries to its potential meaning.
Inadequacies in understanding race have been a theme in 2020, if not even throughout this country’s history. And if the shortcomings of the term “Asian American” have become ever more abundant as the term circulated more broadly across the U.S., then perhaps our time, our collective ways in which we are talking about our identity is an opportunity to redraw a vocabulary that allows us to hold multiple truths in our head around the idea what of the lived experiences of Asians in America.
As E. Alex Jung wrote in Vulture in 2018:
America operates on a black-white paradigm, leaving Asian Americans caught in another in-between space where they can either be charged for being “white adjacent” or appropriating black culture. There’s a fog of invisibility, of never quite feeling full ownership over “American” culture. The creation of Asian American identity is itself a response to that myopia — the yoking of vast continents of people, languages, and cultures is only possible in a country that’s unable to contain nuance. But even as Asian American identity was created as a political tool in response to white supremacy, there’s a generative aspect to it, too. The forced grouping produces empathic ways of looking outward, broadening horizons, and connecting the lines of history and geography.
Maybe we can push the fringes of our vocabulary and meanings of the term. Maybe, as the conversation around the term’s inadequacy becomes more ubiquitous, we can find ways to understand that there’s a disproportionate amount of attention on some groups while others like Burmese or Pakistani Asians in America are often not heard. Maybe we can finally look at class within a term that squashes all kinds of economic data into meaningless averages.
In other words, maybe we can learn to disaggregate the term while also holding its cohesion as a source of power.
“Is this the beginning of a true civil rights movement for Asian Americans?” Joanne Kwong, president of the iconic New York City store Pearl River Mart and Chinatown organizer, asked me in a recent conversation. “I don’t see what happened in Atlanta as a culmination of anything, but it’s a start of a struggle. It’s going to be our own struggle and our own story.”