How to be (and not be) Asian American

Since my last article about the rise of Asian America, I wanted to get more personal about what it means to be Asian American today and attempt to characterize this group of people better. I talked to fifteen different varieties of Asian Americans and I wrote this in a way that tries to capture that variety. I used the first-person voice for this. Other than the parts where you might tell is my true voice, the other voices are amalgamations of the voices I heard. I hope you like it.

“Oh sh*t, I’m Asian”

Some of us have always known ourselves to be Asian since we were little, but many of us got to live into our teens and twenties without ever getting the rude awakening that we are different from everyone else. That’s a privilege other minorities don’t get because they are more likely to live in constant reminder that they are different.

How we come to realize that we are Asian typically has to do with being made to feel like an “other.” Popular stories like bringing smelly lunches to school or being told that your eyes look funny are common triggers, but we can also be “other-ed” by Asians who look like us but don’t quite accept us because we are not Asian enough.

Once we realize we’re Asian in America, how do we feel?

Should I feel proud to be Asian because my immigrant parents have a healthy relationship with where they came from and still visit regularly? Should I feel ashamed because my parents resented their country for driving them away? What if I feel an overwhelming desire to overcome being the “other” by rejecting everything Asian about myself? What if I want to start hanging out exclusively with other people who look like me because it’s more comfortable? What if I want to but I am the only Asian kid?

I might feel like I am “the wrong type of Asian,” of the “jungle” variety, but still choose to join the pan-Asian American crew because there’s enough that’s shared like how our parents really care about our education. But maybe being brown is so different that Asian American things like boba milk tea don’t speak to me at all. Maybe my parents are white, partially white or act very “white.” Maybe my parents do not value or know how to help me with my education. It feels like I can opt in or out of this Asian American label, but can I really opt out if people keep asking me what I am and my name is difficult to pronounce?

At some point, maybe I go from “oh sh*t, I’m Asian” to “I’ll be Asian when it’s convenient.” Maybe I’m in college and I want to get funding for the Korean Students Association, so I go to the Asian American Community Center even though I don’t care that much about other Asians. Maybe if people assume I’m smart and good with numbers at work, I don’t have to dispel them of their assumption. I’ll opt-in to be Asian American.

But can I not be Asian when it’s inconvenient? What if I’m trying to flirt with a girl and I don’t want to be an emasculated Asian man? What if I want to be paid what I’m worth at work? What if I don’t appreciate the extra work I’m always assigned because people think Asian women will just take it? What if I feel really strongly about being an American, but people refuse to believe me? What if I identify way more as a Third Culture Kid? What if I just don’t want any kind of label being applied to me? Can I not participate?

What does being Asian American give me anyway beyond the model minority stereotypes? What if I don’t benefit because I’m too dark or moved here too recently that I can’t get rid of my FOB accent? I want to be Asian American, but when I do get included as Asian American, I feel like it’s pretty mute and says barely anything about me. Why do I even care?

Are Asians considered white? Obviously not, but I think I paused a little too long there…and now I feel a ton of guilt.

“We are not just glad to be here”

Like it or not, our parents play a huge role in our lives. And because they’re Asian, they will make sure we really knew that. We love our parents, but we are not like our parents. We are not just glad to be here.

Being Asian American feels like being two separate things with the Asian being represented by our parents and the American as something that only we understand. These two identities constantly fight, and it’s a lot of what we fight with our parents about.

Our parents like to encroach on our business. Not always, and sometimes we can communicate boundaries, but it’s typical for them to intrude. Our lives are forever intertwined in ways that we don’t really know how to handle. We do care about what they think of our significant others, but we don’t want them just show up at the house without first calling. We want to take full advantage of free child care so we don’t have to sacrifice our careers, but we know we will have to reciprocate and move them in at some point. We feel guilty when we move too far away from our parents, we feel guilty when we pursue careers that don’t give them comfort, we feel guilty dating outside of our race, we feel guilty when we don’t pick up a call or make up an excuse to no-show a meal. Our individualistic American tendencies are always guilt-tripping our collectivist Asian values.

We feel guilty when we are reminded how much they left behind for us, but we get frustrated when they refuse to change their ways because they live in a time capsule and never fully assimilated. We feel guilty when speaking up because our parents taught us to stay low, and then we feel angry because, unlike them, we are striving for more than just survival. We feel guilty when we realize we don’t know the language, history and the traditions of our parents, but we despise them for instilling in us values that we have to unlearn because they don’t serve us in our reality.

Contending with the dual identity but not really feeling like either one captures us well enough is unique to being Asian American.

“I finally understand what it means to be white in America”

Our understanding of our identity grows whenever we visit Asia because Asia helps us understand what it means to be white in America, yet we feel extremely foreign at the same time. Asia is where no one looks at us funny. As long as we don’t speak for too long for them to notice our American accent, they will assume nothing else. Simply walking around Asia gives us a sense of belonging that we’ve never felt before, and with that comes a sense of confidence that we are not always familiar with living in America. However, any suggestion that we should consider moving to Asia is quickly met with a hard no. Our values, working styles communication patterns, etc. are still too American. America is our home, and while we may not always feel completely at home, we feel more at home in America than we do in Asia.

In Asia, we realize the reason why our parents value education, why they are racist, why they hate themselves. We also learn that the younger generation in Asia feel similarly about their parents. They are eager to re-define what is “authentic” to give their culture a more global appeal. They want to be proud of their country as opposed to living in the shadow of their parents and the postwar narrative. They want to be creative and complex in all the same ways that we do.

But we also notice that in so many ways, the young generation in Asia is already ahead of us. They already have media representation. They already work in creative industries. They are already iterating on more modern versions of their own cultural narrative. Depending on the Asian country, they might have already experienced more wealth and prosperity than we have. As American-born Asians, there was a time when we could’ve claimed the “American premium” in Asia, but the door is quickly closing. It’s more important than ever for us to focus on Asian America. We are way behind.

“Do I have too many Asian friends?”

Making friends is harder when we get older because we get lazier and we are less willing to open ourselves up. We don’t have shared experiences like school to bind us together with people who don’t look like us, and if we don’t put in the effort, it’s hard to find commonalities. Instead of trying, we fall back to what’s easy, like eating cultural comfort food with people who want the same, hanging out with friends who understand our inside jokes, who will be respectful of our things and know to take off their shoes when they enter the house. It’s just easier that way.

Maybe we should go on adult friend dates and the rule has to be that if a person we are meeting is of a different culture, we have to withhold judgment until we’ve hung out five times. Ideally, we would’ve done some activity together to create more of a shared experience.

I feel guilty that I have too many Asian friends. Shouldn’t I be setting an example of what I want to see in America? I was the only Asian person in my town growing up and now everyone I hang out with is Asian. I didn’t even realize this was happening.

“I think I am the number two cool Asian guy”

On the flipside, some of us can easily point out the rare Asian daywalkers who feel extremely comfortable in both Asian and American activities. We can spot the token Asian, and for those of us who are tokens, we can spot ourselves.

There are ways to look at this level of comfort. Some may call it “learned Westernness” or playing “whiteface,” but that feels vaguely judgmental. We don’t always have to other ourselves and fixate on the differences. The presumption of equality could lead to a positive feedback loop that make us feel more united as Americans.

I’ve always hung out with non-Asians. I’m usually the token Asian in my group. I don’t even think about it. I definitely don’t feel any less than. I guess it depends on your vantage point. I don’t think it’s that different to be Asian. I feel like as Asians we are already privileged. We don’t encounter as much adversity. In fact, maybe we should worry more about not being good allies to the other minorities. Do I ever get jerked into an alternate reality and I am disadvantaged? Maybe in the dating scene. I do feel that sometimes as a token Asian guy, I have to be on good behavior. Subconsciously I feel like the token that is representing my people. In my town, there’s this other Asian guy. I think he’s cooler. I think I am the number two cool Asian guy.

“My partner doesn’t assume the world is malicious”

Dating interracially helps us build empathy towards ourselves and our partners. We realize that we are all works-in-progress when it comes to interacting with different kinds of people.

The biggest difference between my white partner and I is that he doesn’t assume the world is malicious. He just walks straight through and draws a source of power from it. I have to pay attention to how I look and know what signals I’m sending. I get annoyed when I notice people treat me in a condescending way. Is it because I’m Asian? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m Muslim or because I look young? Is it because of my personality or something I said or my accent? Is it because I needed to be more prepared? Or is it that they don’t know how to interact with me just like I sometimes don’t know how to interact with my white partner’s parents?

But I come home and I complain to my partner about it, and he doesn’t understand why it’s a big deal. I have all these doubts already and his response just makes me feel completely invalidated. He doesn’t even realize it. Even though I’m always patiently explaining everything, he still never understand. This is why media representation matters because even though Fresh Off The Boat is not that good, I can sit him down in front of that show or an Ali Wong Netflix special and use the stories on screen to better communicate how I feel. Words are just not good enough sometimes. We need stories and visuals.

“I don’t understand why Crazy Rich Asians was a big deal”

Are we experiencing a rise in Asian America? We all felt the effects of Crazy Rich Asians—that alone should say something—but how much should we support it?

It was another one of those “exotic” stories that fascinate white people. It’s closer to kung fu than a breakthrough. Constance Wu was the only Asian American character, but the rest of the movie is about Singapore and the rich people who live there. I will only think it’s a big deal when Asian actors can get roles that can be played by anyone. 

I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians because it was a good romantic comedy. I don’t think of it as very Asian American. I do care about our representation in media, but I’d prefer for the Asian actors to be good first. There just aren’t that many Asians in entertainment because we don’t value creative careers. That’s the problem.

Even though the only brown people in Crazy Rich Asians are the guards at the mansion, I still felt pride and supported the movie because I understand the struggle. There are lots of bastardized versions of Asian food products in the U.S. that don’t taste quite right to me but I still support because that feels more important to me than “getting it right.” It’s important for me to go out of my way to support Asian Americans. My boyfriend thinks that’s weird and kind of a reverse racism.

“What does it mean to be authentic?”

What does “getting it right” mean anyway? Why are we holding on to the traditional way of cooking a dish when innovation, fusion, and remixing is already happening back in the motherland? Why can’t we just mess around and add our own “Asian American” flavor to it? Asian Americans are always too critical anyway. Even if they like what I make, they won’t rate it highly, and they definitely won’t pay more for it.

What I’m making is authentic to me, and I’m Asian American. Isn’t that enough?

“I think I am American”

It’s easier to attach ourselves to an identity when we can find a way to be proud of it, but how do we make people proud to be American? How do we do that while helping minorities feel seen and that there’s significance in the differences that they bring? While assimilation continues, how do we incorporate the differences and constantly evolve what it means to be American? Isn’t it better to think that America is also a work-in-progress?

It’s not easy to be American, so I just say I’m Sri Lankan. I can be more proud of that. Our reputation around the world is not that good right now. When do I feel proud to be American? Maybe only during the Olympics?

Maybe it’s easier to be Indian American when there are enough Indians around you and you can do your own things. The tradition is strong and the association is largely positive, so being Indian American then is a positive thing and I don’t really think much about being Asian American. That feels more secondary.

I think I am American first. My parents have always told us that we are American. I know some other parents are constantly reminding their children that they are immigrants in someone else’s country, but my parents have always said we are American and that they much prefer American values to Chinese values. I can see that this affects whether or not you tend to believe you are more different from the others or more of the same. I can also see the possibility that some parents are very proud to be Chinese, so their kids will probably turn out to think they’re better than Americans even though they were born here. It all depends.

The military culture and institution is strong. For all of us that went through the military and have that shared experience, we believe we are all equal. Why is the military so egalitarian? During wartime you just need bodies to fight, right? It’s also a proud institution that has been around for a long time. Being ex-military is valued above everything else.

I failed at trying to better define Asian America

I went into this exercise thinking I was going to be able to better define the character of Asian America, but it resisted any reductive narrative. The fact that I couldn’t reduce it is exactly where the privilege lies. You can’t reduce white people into a neat narrative because you assume variety by default. It’s hard to believe that we ever used reductive narratives in the first place for any group of people.

I was watching the most recent Apple keynote and Kumail Nanjiani’s new show feels like a step in the right direction. I’ll leave you with a quote from him at the Apple event because what he said about immigrants apply to everyone else as well.

We wanted to focus on immigrants doing everyday life stuff…Here’s the thing, it’s not about telling immigrant stories. These are human stories that feature immigrants. When you get to know someone and start to know your struggles and their struggles, your passions and theirs, your problems and theirs, they stop being the other.

Kumail Nanjiani

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Please leave me your feedback in the comments section or tell me on Twitter.

This is the third post in the series where I deep-dive into topics that I’m interested in by talking to users. Check out the last essay on how we work on our mental health.

This is also a follow-up to The Future is Asian American.


8 thoughts on “How to be (and not be) Asian American

  1. I think you had a lot of great content here but writing all those different narratives as first person was confusing. And I didn’t get a sense of the Asian-Americans whose stories you incorporated. We aren’t monolithic as you have discovered. I will read the rest of the essays in this series but if you’re looking to give voice to the Asian American experience then I want to hear their individual voices and not some weird amalgam. Thank you for your efforts here though! Overall, a thought provoking essay.

      1. You can always rewrite/revisit this topic. I’m glad you still wrote it though! Some things just need to be put out there!

  2. You made some very good points that I could relate to in this post. Especially, the tug of war of being “asian enough,” or not is something I definitely could relate to as an Asian American when I was growing up. Thanks for sharing

  3. I really really related to this post so much. Growing up in a predominantly white town but within a very tight-knit Pakistani community, I never thought my race would matter or how much I would crave it till I was literally one of FOUR Asian people in my college. For the first time, I started second-guessing whether I was too Asian or not Asian enough, and started to try to figure out where I fit – ding ding ding! Neither place. I ended up marrying a white person, as well, which adds to the confusion I feel about where my exact place should be. He is very willing to learn about my culture and religion, but the fact that he will never feel this way does cause problems for us at times.

    I actually write about this on my blog, and inspired my blog name. I hope with more people like you being honest about your own struggles we can all find a place to fit in. Instead of listening to the world that wants to label us as one or the other. We deserve our own.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I grew up as a third generation Asian American on the East Coast. Really struggled with my identity during the middle school and high school years. Problem was, so many Asian stereotypes fit me. I was a quiet, shy kid who was good at and enjoyed math and science. Yet I grew up doused in American culture and I embraced a lot of it. I tried so hard fitting in during those years. By the time I got to college, I made the decision to screw it and just try to be me. Yet, 10 years or so later, I still find myself struggling with my identity. It’s great to see articles like this that I can at least connect with.

  5. So glad to have read this. As an Asian guy who just turned 30 and is just having a major breakthrough realization of the fact that im the token Asian in every race’s groups, (even in the Asian ones as the Asian-american), I feel much more comfortable with myself 💯

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