The ABC and FOB Divide


When was the first time you became aware of a distinction between Asians born and raised in the States and Asians who are recent immigrants from Asia? Or, per the terminology I learned, when did you first realize you were either an ABC or a FOB?

Where I grew up, there weren’t enough Asians to make distinctions between Asians. We were all in it together, so even when we may have noted differences, we did not have the mindset or vocabulary to separate ourselves into different categories. Then in high school, my parents sent me to a Chinese language summer camp, at which time I first heard the term FOB, or fresh off the boat. Kids– Chinese American kids– were using the term in a derogatory way to refer to the camp counselors who spoke broken English. I later learned that these counselors were graduate students from China and Taiwan.

The kids would taunt the counselors with, “Go back to China!” I remembered thinking, I’ve heard that sputtered at me before, from white kids when my only tie with China was hearsay. It seemed doubly derisive for ABCs who have experienced bigotry firsthand to now be inflicting it upon fellow brethren.

The ABC | FOB divide dates back beyond my generation. My father, who I guess would be one of the FOBs, immigrated to the U.S. for school and recounted to me the bitter distinctions Asians made for themselves between those born here and those immigrating here in their young adulthood. It happened then. It happened when I was in school. And you would think that at some point, one single issue would become so trite that it would be retired from old age, but no. It turns out that it persists to be an issue today.

I came across Steven Lim‘s short film, “Labels – The Asian | American Divide” posted last month, which then inspired this post. The film touches on the stereotypes that Chinese Americans hold of the Chinese and vice versa and how that divide plays out in a school setting. What Lim’s film reveals to me is, in spite of the progressing decades, not much has changed on this ABC | FOB front.

In my first year of college, a student association I was a member of reached a point of near dissolution due to internal conflicts between members who were born and raised here and members who are new to the States and are here primarily for college.

Oh for pete’s sake let me just use ABCs versus FOBs. ABCs* = American-born Chinese, people who consider English to be their native tongue, who have assimilated into the American subculture. FOBs = “Fresh off the boat,” a term used to denote recently arrived Asians who may not speak English proficiently and who have not yet assimilated into American subculture.

Historically, the officer positions of that student association had long been held by FOBs. In the years immediately preceding my entrance to college, the demographics of officer positions became about 50/50, ABCs and FOBs, which was tolerated. Then the ABCs decided they didn’t much like the FOBs in charge, recruited all of their ABC friends, and the first elections I experienced with that association elected all ABCs to officer positions. The FOBs were effectively ousted.

I next recall a huge mediation held in the student union. When I entered the room, all of the ABCs sat to one side and all of the FOBs sat at the opposing end. I initially joined the association because friends who identified as FOBs had introduced me to it and those I was closest to were considered FOBs. However, I identified as ABC, drank and partied with the ABCs rather than the FOBs, and sympathized strongly with the ABC officers’ point of view. Thus, as silly as it may sound, I had no idea where to sit.

The story ends in happily ever after, I’m pleased to say. Though most were resistant to express their sentiments at first, soon there was an outpouring of emotions. Both sides got their angers and frustrations out. Both sides didn’t feel like they belonged with or were even welcomed by the other. Lim’s video does a great job covering the labels that each side pegged against the other. Those labels were prevalent back then and I’m sad to hear are still prevalent today. What happened at that mediation echoed the message of Lim’s film: people left as individuals finally, and not just either ABC or FOB.

What compelled us to draw the line in the first place? The divide is so artificial and subjective that it can’t even be defined. I mean, where is the bright line between ABC and FOB drawn? Is it defined by your proficiency of the English language, your lack of a detectable foreign accent? Is it by the years of residency? After a certain number of years of living here, with the caveat that you eliminate any trace of an accent and agree to dress in styles more amenable to American fashion trends, you’re finally awarded your ABC card by the ABC Nominating Committee? Is it by the music you listen to and the way you dress? Or is it a distinction between those born here and those not, and there is basically nothing you can do about it, like race?

So I am curious how each one of us came to identify ourselves as either ABC/American or FOB. Like skin color and realizing for the first time that we are part of a racial minority in America, when did we first notice the differences? More significantly, when, as individuals, did we first assign labels to those differences? If you walked into that mediation room in the student union today, where would you sit?


*ABC: The divide between those raised in the U.S. versus new immigrants is one that extends to most Asians, irrespective of country of origin. The purpose of denoting ABCs, American-born Chinese, and the Chinese/Chinese American experience with the divide is to narrow the particularized experience of the author only, and to avoid lumping all Asian/Asian American experiences with the divide together.

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About akrypti

small town roots. enthusiast of many trades. oh, and yeah, high-maintenance like you wouldn't believe. tweet with me @akrypti.
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