What Does 'Asian American' Mean?

June 4, 2009

Part of the reason Hyphen does this is because one of our missions is to provide coverage and a voice for Asians in America who've been underrepresented in mainstream media. J-Pop and things like that get their fair share of coverage in other US-based publications.

But, as Yang points out, trying to define what is Asian American is
like "herding cats, if those cats were randomly mixed in with, say,
dogs, sheep and giraffes."

Often there's a gray area where a story can be both "Asian" and "American." We recently discussed whether or not to do something on champion boxer Manny Pacquiao. He was born and lives in the Philippines, but apparently spends a lot of time in the United States training and many of his title bouts have been here.

Pacquiao has certainly captivated the Filipino American community, but does that make him Asian American? Many Asians living in the United States are immigrants or children of immigrants. Is that the litmus test?

From the days when Asian American was first used during the civil rights era, its definition has been a moving target. I think that Hyphen's coverage will reflect that.

We'd love to hear feedback. How do you define Asian American? Are there things Hyphen is missing or could cover better? Let us know.


Harry Mok

Editor in chief

Editor in Chief Harry Mok wrote about growing up on a Chinese vegetable farm for the second issue of Hyphen and has been a volunteer editor since 2004. As a board member of the San Francisco and New York chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, Harry has recruited and organized events for student members. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was also a graduate student instructor in the Asian American Studies Department.



Good post, Harry. Speaking as a Filipino American, I can tell you that there is indeed a line between Filipino and Filipino American, BUT that Philippine based phenomena not only deeply captivate us, as in the case of Pacquiao, whom you have referenced here, but also greatly affect how we think of, and view ourselves, and think about the way news media and popular media portrays us.So a lot of this is very entry level Ethnic Studies stuff, that "race" is a visual pathology, which is why we're always asked how long we've been in this country and why we speak English so well. So I see why you would think of distancing yourselves from J-pop, anime, etc. Still, I don't think it serves us as Asian Americans to cut ourselves off or disconnect ourselves from Asian popular culture. I think we should articulate how we view Asian popular culture, whether we find connections with these, whether we form our own cultural movements based upon these, and where there are radical disconnects. And why these disconnects.Also, something else to think about would be that even as fully entrenched Americans, many of us Asian Americans still do live functional transnational and multilingual lives, with transnational and multilingual families, and that our being here is a part of that transnationalism.
Quick gripe then on topic, I wish Hyphen would have mentioned something about the Tiananmen Square massacre today. One thing that we can come together on is Asian Countries have some of the most repressive governments.Asian American as a term begs the question of who is included in this term and more importantly do people self identify as this first, before Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, Lao, Desi,Taiwanese, Pacific Islander.Does the API label stick? I believe the identity was being formed as a collective with the filipinos, Japanese and Chinese During the 60's and at the time was the strongest that its ever been. Then it seems to have been reverted back into a mix of new immigrants who formed their own communities and ethnic enclaves due to language barriers and cultural preference. Hence Vietnamese and Cambodians didn't settle in J-town where they formed a community but rather spread into areas that were previously unoccupied by other Asian groups like Long Beach and Westminster.I think the most developed "Asian American Mixed Community" is in Hawaii, but they don't really identify as Asian American Preferring instead Local or Hawaiian.So where are we now? There does seem to be a cross over with the youth, given that they are spending more time with asians outside of their direct communities. I think the youth are coming together to form a New Asian American Identity. I'm not technically a youth anymore (cuz I'm 25) but from what I've heard and seen, asians are reaching out to other asians, we have filipinos in Vietnamese clubs, and Koreans in Chinese culture night. My guess, give us 15 years and our children will all be a mix of different asian cultures and they will truly be the new face of Asian America. United by blood, they will lion dance in the morning do Eskrima in the afternoons and then decompress with Yoga. Least one can only hope.
in casual conversations my immigrant relatives often refer to whites as "american." this rhetoric is subtle -- it took me forever to make the connection, that through their choice of words many of my relatives equated "american" with whiteness. as american citizens we all agree on the ideals of pluralism, but how we define ourselves -- at least through our colloquialisms -- belies an unspoken inability to live up to that pluralism.as far as my relatives are concerned, there is little association made between being "asian" and being "american". for example, to many in my family i am either "korean" or "thai" but not "american." while we struggle with non-asians perceiving asians as foreigners in the country of our own citizenship, we curiously ostracize ourselves, because (i think) many of us feel more closely associated with the country of our parents origin. this creates a kind of polarity, where we are either FOBs or twinkies: for example, some choose friends who are almost entirely korean american, while others choose to define their social circle to include whites, blacks, latinos, etc. some consider the former self-excluding; others consider the latter white-washed. i consider both perceptions problematic.the question here is: to what country do i belong? this is an important question to first-generation asian americans. i will posit that the relevance of this question dissipates with each successive generation and is made more complex as each generation becomes more racially mixed. consider the average caucasian american. can he or she trace their lineage? even if he or she can, three, five, or more countries of origin may be identified. how many of these caucasian americans care to define themselves in terms of these varied countries of origin? also, how deeply does an african american identify with mozambique? what about a fifth-generation chinese american? will that person identify with china in the same way as a person who has chinese immigrant parents?the answer to the above question defines what each asian american considers as "asian american". on one end: "i am asian and i am an american citizen"; on the other: "i am an american of asian descent." the difference in wording is subtle, but the difference in self-perception is huge. of course, there is much gray area between both views. pinning down one definition is far too simplistic.this discussion begs an even more pressing question of broader scope: what does it mean to be "american"? why are white people "american" in my parents eyes? how does this affect the way we define "asian american"?full disclosure: male, 30 years old, born in oregon to a korean-immigrant mother and a thai-immigrant father. occupation: engineer.
Asian pop culture is increasingly an important part of Asian American pop culture. Barbara's comment above is spot-on many Asian Americans live transnational and multilingual lives and the "Asian American establishment" (I use that phrase in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way) needs to recognize this. Many of us grew up in immigrant households and grew up watching movies and dramas for Korea, China, etc. I've been to Asian American college dances where the DJ mixes in J-Pop and K-Pop along with Jay-Z. I know Vietnamese Americans who love watching Korean dramas dubbed in Vietnamese.I think I've commented on this before on this blog, but I feel that the paradigm in the Asian American community is shifting away from the one commonly seen in say the post-WW II era where, for example, many Japanese Americans, as a response to the pain of internment, encouraged there children to just speak English and be as "American" in order to blend into the mainstream, and de-emphasizing their Japanese culture. Today new Asian immigrants, through today's technology (Internet, DVDs, satellite TV, and cheap flights) are much more likely to stay strongly connected to Asia and to pass those strong connections onto their children as well.I think it would do Hyphen well to recognize this. For example, Hyphen might not be able to answer the question of whether or not Manny Pacquiao is Asian American, but he is obviously important to Asian Americans and as such should be covered to some extent on that basis alone.
I agree with Ryan's comment. The Tiananmen Square events were on the mind of many APAs, and we missed an opportunity. Thanks for the feedback.
Lauds to your blogpost which animadverts to the confusing term "asian american"; but the post only describes and not defines the term's confusing nature. Saxon colonists instituted racism both in augmenting their influence and also in restricting rights; thus, Saxons defined races in order to serve their interests to the detriment of other races. Certainly Chinese and Japanese differ greatly in language, history, and institutions; so Saxon racist definitions of Chinese and Japanese necessarily are dissentaneous with Chinese or Japanese definitions of themselves; further, since Saxon racist definitions injure Chinese or Japanese interests, using such a definition necessarily injures Chinese or Japanese. I never define myself as "asian" but rather Japanese; perhaps "nikkei" would define better.