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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“Race in America is not just where you came from and what you look like, as if coming from Asia and having almond-shaped eyes makes you Asian American. Being Asian American is the daily, persistent and shared experience of living in a country that views such characteristics as profoundly exotic and ‘other.'”

I, and many other Asians in America, have not only come to accept the term “Asian American,” but embrace it as a means to identify ourselves. We see other Asian people in America as OUR people, never mind that the very idea would have been unimaginable a few generations ago. And the reason that we can do so is not because we are all the same, but because our experiences in this country are the same. Whether someone is from Korea or Japan, Cambodia or Vietnam, as disparate as these nations and cultures are, our experiences as immigrants in America are largely identical. With virtually no knowledge of the English language or American culture, our families struggled to communicate and navigate the intricacies of American institutions and society. We all wrestled with the weirdness of where we came from juxtaposed with the weirdness of where we found ourselves. We physically looked different from the majority of people in this country, and so were seen as perpetual foreigners, no matter how hard we tried to fit in, no matter what names we took, and no matter how much of ourselves we tried to shed. And we were all ashamed to bring our lunches to school, petrified at how our classmates would respond to kimchi, dried seaweed and rice (even though you can buy all of these items from Costco now).

And we have heard all the same slurs.

Chink. Gook. Nip. Despite the fact that each of these insults is supposed to refer to unique people groups (for example the term “gook,” a slur invented by American soldiers during the Korean War, comes from the Korean name for our country, “Hangook”), Asian Americans have heard them all thrown our way. I have been called a “chink” on numerous occasions, and don’t bother to inform the rude person that I am not, in fact, Chinese.

It is these shared experiences, and this shared pain, that has forged an otherwise diverse and fragmented group of people into a new whole: “Asian American.” We may hail from dozens of different countries and a hundred different cultures, but we share very similar experiences and have suffered in similar ways, and so also share some sense of common identity. Race in America is not just where you came from and what you look like, as if coming from Asia and having almond-shaped eyes makes you Asian American. Being Asian American is the daily, persistent and shared experience of living in a country that views such characteristics as profoundly exotic and “other.” Race is how this nation’s culture and perceptions press down upon our bodies and mold us, a function not so much of how we were born but as how we are treated every moment thereafter.

As odd as it might seem, a fitting illustration of this overlooked aspect of race is the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Many of my White friends were perplexed by the outcry against Ms. Dolezal and her decision to identify as a Black woman even though she is in fact White. After all, she clearly identifies with African-American people and black culture, and has worked hard for issues that affect the African-American community, even to the point of becoming head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. So what’s the big deal if she self-identifies as Black and even physically presents herself to resemble a Black woman?

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