Checking the ‘Asian American’ Box With Pride

Race In America Is Not Just Where You Come From or What You Look Like

If you really want to know what it means to be Asian American, or any other person of color in this country, don’t just look—listen.

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Editor’s note: The following essay was written on the occasion of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

I often hesitate when I am asked to check the box on a form that best describes my racial background: “Asian American.” I hesitate to do so because of the laughable broadness of that term, skeptical that the continental landmass from which my parents emigrated can describe me and my experiences with any accuracy. But it doesn’t take long before I inevitably bring pencil to paper and mark that I am “Asian-American,” and I even choose to identify myself as such outside of the form-filling context. I do this because race is not just about what you look like or where your family is from. It’s about what you have to endure.

Let’s talk about what people usually mean when they use the term “Asian American.” The term itself is a geographical one which lumps together any person who currently lives in America but whose family at some point emigrated from the enormous continent of Asia. Never mind that Asia is no less than 30 percent of the world’s landmass and home to a vast number of cultures, languages and national histories, many of which span back several millennia. But in reality, when people use the term “Asian American,” they are most likely referring to a particular set of facial features, like almond-shaped eyes and black hair. For most people, that is the entirety of what it means to be “Asian American”—it means you possess a particular set of physical characteristics and that your family came from the continent of Asia, little more.

Of course, such arbitrary and superficial standards hardly make us a people group. In itself, “Asian American” does not really define a distinct people group but acts as a convenient means to funnel a large and diverse population of people into a more manageable and generic grouping based on little more than few shared physical features—which, in essence, is the whole idea behind race as a modern invention.

In reality, there is little that ties Asians in America into a cohesive whole. In fact, one might be surprised to hear that globally, many Asians don’t get along with one another, or at least not until very recently. For example, China and Korea historically have harbored deep resentment against Japan because of Japan’s aggressive colonialism in the early 20th century, a resentment which has largely subsided but still flares up on occasion. Growing up, my parents refused to buy a Japanese car because of their own personal memories of living under Japanese occupation in Korea. They have since eased their stance and own a Nissan Sentra. Many Americans would likewise be shocked to hear that in Vietnam, many locals have a more positive attitude toward America than they do toward China, despite the brutality of the Vietnam Conflict. There is no intrinsic reason that when Asians come to this country, they should identify with one another. And yet, we do.

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