Is the Term “Asian-American” Not What it Used to Be?

“So what kind of activities did you do in college?” asked my Vietnamese-American interviewee.  I do alumni admissions interviewing for my undergraduate college.  The time for my questions was over – now it was her turn to ask and for me to answer.

“I did some volunteer work as a big brother, and I also was active in the Asian-American club.”

“You’re kidding – different Asian-Americans getting together?” she said, laughing.  “Why would they ever want to do that?”

I can understand why she would think that.  My niece and nephew went to the same high school that she did, and they told me that their mostly minority high school was so balkanized between different ethnic groups, including the different Asian and Pacific Islander groups, that during a day of ethnic performances, students were required to clap for every ethnic group in order to keep reduce frictions.

“Asian-American” is not an odd notion only to my interviewee.  This article from the Sacramento Bee says that the use of term “Asian-American” seems to be waning.  The term “Asian-American originated in the 1960’s as a way to build solidarity with other minority groups fighting for civil rights and as “Oriental” fell out of favor because of its link with imperialism and stereotypes.  Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who arrived when she was 4, calls herself Asian-American. “We all have a shared background of coming to find freedom,” she said.

Others point out differences and even hostilities between the different groups under the umbrella of “Asian-American.”  In another aspect of the “Are Filipinos Asian?question, Pascual Fidel of the Filipino American National Historical Society notes that Filipinos sometimes feel excluded by Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and other East Asians.  He recalls when he taught at a high school in the 1970s, a Filipina won the title of Asian Club Queen “and other Asian students wanted to have another vote. They said, ‘You really aren’t Asian.’ ”  The different categories in the available in the census plus written in options also encourages picking terms other than Asian-American to describe oneself.

What do you think?  Do you think that the term “Asian-American” will fade into history like the term “Oriental?”  Will it be used only by activists trying to rally a set of diverse and divided communities?  Or will it continue to have vitality as “Asian-American” groups find commonalities and reasons for solidarity?

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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