Asian America: Confusion from Within, Abroad, and Why


The Economist article asking, “Do Asian Americans still exist?” is likely to rouse some sentiments. As usual, Asian America, with all its ethnicities, don’t just indicate a diversity of cultural groups under the large label of “Asian” but a striking variety of opinions and attitudes towards just what “Asian America” is exactly. For that very reason, it’s one of the fragile threads that manages to still keep people bound together, but tends to often confuse those outside the community, from other Americans to non-Americans, and even Asian Americans themselves.

I’ve met a number of Asian Americans who like to say “this is Asian, that is not” and say “Indians aren’t Asian, they aren’t a rice-eating culture and they aren’t anything like China” [author’s note 1: yes, people this ignorant actually exist], or “Filipinos aren’t Asian, they aren’t connected to the mainland” [author’s note 2: neither is Japan, Taiwan, or Sri Lanka and a host of other Asian countries]. Technically speaking, Asian American refers to peoples from a broad constituency of people everywhere including South, Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. While in Asia, people will say, “I’m Chinese, I’m Korean, I’m Filipino, I’m Indian”. However, again with the divisions in Asian America, I’ve run across people who would still fall under the categorization of “Asian American” but say, “I’m not Asian, I’m Pakistani” not because they want to be more specific to their ethnicity, but because they either don’t recognize as being part of the greater category of Asian American, or they don’t think they are considered Asian at all.

But this divide doesn’t just limit itself to applying labels and having a complete ignorance of the categories that fall under those labels. Asian America is too sharply divided with opinion (when it isn’t complacent), even with the one issue that seems to get everyone talking: racism. In the 1970s, there were protests over the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, about actors wearing yellowface prosthetics, with one group advocating Asians to play Asian roles, and at the same time, there were arguments from another Asian American group protesting that the show should be outright banned because they saw it as promoting the “dragon lady” stereotype and exoticizing Asian women. The legacy of such responses are still present today, when Asian America will have a dozen reactions (including apathy) to issues of race, such as with the two very different situations of the films Red Dawn (its remake specifically) and Cloud Atlas: people can decry racism for Red Dawn, and it definitely has stronger overtones of xenophobia and bigotry, but Cloud Atlas, people automatically think that any use of yellow face is wrong and should have Asian actors (it does) instead, without thinking critically and realizing that that was part of the movie’s themes of reincarnation across multiple cultures, and was advocating for diversity.

So is it any surprise that much of the rest of the world thinks that America is petty?

Here’s the thing: it is “petty” to the outside world, but it is a very sensitive subject in America, which is difficult to understand without context, a context most people are unwilling to look at America with. Without that context, it’s dismissed as petty, which is unfair to Americans of all subculture groups, even if at times fighting for equality and recognition does include the occasional bouts of pettiness. Trust me: after living in eleven countries (eight of them Asian), I’m pretty sure I’ve got an idea of context.

American diversity for many monocultural groups in Asia especially simply dismiss Asian Americans as being Asians who have forsaken their mother culture, that being born or growing up in America does not make one American (it does). But at the same time, no matter how much you speak a language, how long you live in a country, or how well you understand the culture; you will almost never be an honorary member of their culture groups.

What is hard for people to understand outside of America is that 1) Americans are shaped by their ideals and the multicultural model, one part melting pot (people mixing and being one homogenous group), one part tossed salad (distinct parts/flavors retaining their own identities in the same bowl/country), 2) Americans have this funny idea that just because “the world comes to America”, that they understand other cultures (even if Indian and Chinese immigrants are predominant in a community, it does NOT give one a good understanding of those cultures since they exist in an American context, not their own), 3) many Americans and their “I don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks” attitude does not motivate outsiders to give the sensitivity that Americans demand, 4) people attend some classes, read a few books and take a framework of definitions, then superimpose it (example: post-colonial mentality), and then even if they do go to those countries, will suffer from confirmation bias for the theses they studied instead of seeing things as they are, pissing off locals,, and 5) America and its peoples are all vastly different from coast to coast.

What’s hard for Americans to understand with the world outside is 1) they don’t understand American diversity, 2) America itself is ambivalent and ignorant about its own definitions often, 3) some countries like France emphasize being French without a hyphen–you can be Moroccan, Ivorian, Cambodian, but you would never be (race)-French, you would just be French, so those diversity models are vastly different from America’s, 4) some bad elements of Asian America can’t decide who “legitimately belongs” (refer to paragraph 2), 5) most of the time people in America and Asian America only care about Asia when it involves scandals, attractive girls, “WTF Asia” memes, and disasters, and 6) Asian America is hypersensitive to even ask the simple questions that challenge paradigms, heavily restricted by political correctness (which is more political than it is correct).

What we can do is stop making assumptions about the rest of the world because we saw a few episodes on National Geographic or took a couple ethnic studies courses in university. The rest of the world does this about America as well, and I tell them the same thing: quit making asinine assumptions and start asking more questions before you start judging America. There’s a big world out there, and America is a tough corner of the world to understand, even for Americans themselves.

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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