Students Reflect on What it Means to be Asian-American

In commemoration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month at University of the Pacific, several staff members of The Pacifican answer the questions, “Who is an Asian-American?” and “What does it mean to be Asian American?”

News Editor Ash Randhawa

Growing up as an Indian-American, I always had a weird relationship with the term “Asian-American.” I was technically of Asian descent, but it always felt like that word wasn’t meant for me, and that Asian-American was referring to another group of people. To most Americans, when they think of Asians, they would think of someone of Chinese, Japanese or at least somebody of East Asian descent. A friend of mine used to joke that you weren’t Asian unless “you had the eyes.”

Most of American culture reinforces this view too. When news stories talk about Asian representation in media it is always focused on East or Southeast Asian people and not South Asian people. The stereotypes that are aimed at Asian people didn’t seem to apply to me either. Myself and other Indian-American men never felt the stereotype that we are somehow more submissive or less masculine that has been leveled at men of Asian descent.

Admittedly, I can kind of understand why most Americans think of East or Southeast Asians instead of someone like me. East Asians have been in this country longer than Indians have, and when they first came, they came in larger populations. The opposite is true in places like the UK, where “Asian” refers to Indian or Pakistani people.

Growing up post-9/11 further alienated people who look like me from the term Asian-American. I’ve always been lumped into the Middle Eastern or Muslim category because of the way I looked. When people found out I’m Indian, their response was either that Indian or South Asian was its own special category, or that India isn’t different enough from the Middle East to matter. Growing up in an extremely conservative, some would say racist, town didn’t help things much either.

I can’t speak for other ethnic groups, but I feel like “Asian-American” is an overly broad and all together bad term to use. It assumes that the entirety of Asia is somehow similar, whether it be culturally or physically. This lumps together disparate cultures with entirely different histories, religions and languages. It lumps together a person from Israel with a person from Korea, or a person from Uzbekistan with someone from Vietnam. These are cultures and peoples that are so different that we should refrain from putting them in some overarching ethnic group.

Reading that last part, some of you may have thought that Israel and Uzbekistan aren’t Asian countries, but that is exactly the problem with the term. Both countries are on the continent of Asia, so they are Asian. But in one case we consider them Middle Eastern and the other is considered Central Asian if they’re considered Asian at all. Some countries don’t even fit into Asia cleanly. Is Turkey Asian or European or Middle Eastern? Why is Egypt considered Middle Eastern, technically Asian, when it is in Africa? Would we call a person of Egyptian or Moroccan descent an African-American? Why are Filipinos considered Asian/Pacific Islanders and the Japanese are not when Japan is also an island in the Pacific Ocean?

The best we can do is split them into smaller groups: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East possibly even North Africa as well. When I get asked what it means to be an Asian American, I personally want to say it doesn’t mean anything, because the term is itself meaningless.

Copy Editor Ashley Lyn Judilla

I’ve learned the power of words as an Asian-American. I am Filipino-American. Grammatically, I am supposed to use a hyphen when I describe myself as “Asian-American” or “Filipino-American,” but three years ago, I read a memoir, A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream by Eric Liu. A section was dedicated to the use of the hyphen. For Liu, “that hyphen vexes me: it implies an interaction rather than a person…I am not merely an adjectival description of a transaction. I am a noun. I am a person.”

Although seemingly insignificant, I tend to use Filipino American with the same reasoning as Liu: the modified with its modifier. “American” is the noun with “Filipino” being the adjective. What kind of American am I? I am Filipino American. Nothing is in the way between these two words except for the white space in between. The two halves become one. I embrace both halves.

I agree with my colleague that Asian American is a broad term. I am indeed Asian American in regards to the actual definition. But I use Filipino American more often. What does it mean to be Filipino American? Sometimes I think about being near, if not at, the bottom of the often unspoken Asian pyramid. Filipino Americans are not known as the model minorities that East Asian Americans tends to be categorized as more often than not. What are the beauty standards? White or light skin of course.

So where are my people in the history textbooks? Where are the “Little Manila’s,” San Francisco’s I-Hotel and the Philippine-American War? Well, part of being Filipino American means telling the untold stories of my people and eventually creating stories of my own.   

Editor-in-Chief Ray Wong

Being Asian-American to me has played a significant role in my life. Since my freshman year of high school, I would be considered as the “Chinaman” or “that Asian kid” especially going to school that wasn’t part of a multicultural community. I felt insecure that I was being made fun of because of my stereotypical Asian characteristics such as not speaking English well. When I transferred out of that high school, I went to another high school that was more culturally diverse.

As a first generation Chinese-American of my family, I was able to explore different cultures and meet people of different backgrounds. What makes me an Asian-American, is that I can take this exploration as an experience and understand many cultures such as Cambodian, Filipino or Hmong. That is something that makes us who we are.

To this day, we are living in a society where Asian-Americans are being viewed as the stereotypical “kung fu master” or “math genius.” In American media and Hollywood, we are considered a risk for writers and directors because we would not gain the revenue that they expect. When I started to reignite the fire for the Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Committee (APIHMC), I did it because our institution has thirty-eight percent Asian students attending and we haven’t celebrated a collaborative event like this in years. I am happy that the internet exists because we are able to find inspirational Asian-American artists such as Wesley Chan to speak at Pacific. We get to promote an uprising of Asian-American artists because we want them to be our role models for the coming generations of Asian-Americans.

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Zach Withrow

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