Every time I’m overseas in Manila, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and as of the past couple weeks, Jakarta, I always get asked by people “What is Asian American culture? What makes it so distinct from the rest of America?”
Having grown up on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, I’ve always struggled with it, and wondered if carrying a blue passport really was all that was necessary to be Asian American, but then that discounts all the people who are first generation or 1.5 generation folks who may not even have permanent residence, but by and large, call America their home. That’s the thing though: America is their home and their values were shaped by America, whereas I do not have a home as a result of all the traveling (and don’t want one, really), and my experience in America only really began when I came for college.
Fast forward ten years later after taking a few courses and reading a few books on Asian America, and I’ve come to a point where I can appreciate it and understand it theoretically, yet never find myself comfortable enough to say I belong to it (though my friends in the community tell me I’m thinking too much). The reflections on what that culture or identity aren’t just questions I and many of my fellow global nomads ask, and it’s a thought process not typically figured out easily figured out and thought through by people in multicultural environments. In other words, we all at various points of our life have questions about that identity, with some people thinking about it more than others.
In the past two weeks of being back in Southeast Asia, I’ve had a sudden insight from being the only American in my vicinity (surrounded only by Australians and Brits as fellow expats): much of Asian American culture exists online, especially in New Media.
Being a minority group that has recently become the biggest immigrant wave, the question of what Asian American culture (or cultures, rather) and identity is going to be very important I foresee. Reading comments on YouTube channels, various blogs, and Twitter rants, much of the voice of Asian America is there in social media–and surprise: it’s popular and strong.
Sure, everyone else is using new media/social media too, but this is how people become part of the greater Asian American community outside of their hometowns and states: the Internet. When AsianWeek was around, it was a great resource, but it had its limitations–namely, distribution, because–let’s face it–as small as Asian America’s population is, there is an even smaller group of people who participate in the community’s affairs beyond sharing an article or video link, if at all. But the few who do participate have voices that carry a lot of weight: Ryan Higa alone has four million subscribers on his channel, and Michelle Phan has over 1.5 million herself.
Put it simply, new media/social media has become the town hall of Asian America, and is a resource thanks to the the stories of people putting themselves out on the digital frontier.
Hopping around different places in Southeast Asia now for work, I don’t have many opportunities to keep up with Asian America or understand where the community is headed without our online presence. The first seven years I had been gone from the U.S. and living in Southeast Asia, all I had were Farewell to Manzanar and The Joy Luck Club, a couple books given to me that didn’t say much about what country I was stepping into or what the community was all about when I was fresh off the plane in 2002. Needless to say, my (mis)understanding and disconnect made transitioning to being part of the Asian American community difficult.
Going online is the only place I can go to see where Asian America is going while I am away from America and Americans. Given that it’s also where the strongest voices and greatest presence of Asian America is, this is where I’ll keep going to continue to be part of the community. So while I may be geographically separate from America, I’m always connected to Asian America in some way because of our presence online.