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.
“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?
Part of the answer lies in this hidden dimension of race. Yes, Ms. Dolezal may identify with black culture and issues, and may even present herself convincingly as a Black person (I will now raise my hand to admit that I am no expert in that regard). But what she can never truly claim is to have lived her entire life as a Black woman, and to have experienced everything that comes with that reality. Without that experience, how can she truly lay claim to that identity?
Some might argue that she did experience some level of what it’s like to be a Black woman when she was presenting herself as such to the world. But even in that case, that reality is recent and reversible for her, rather than an inescapable one that has shaped her since birth. To be able to shapeshift at will is a privilege that no person of color can ever enjoy. We cannot choose to discard our skin or eyes or hair like costuming and so even for a moment escape that reality. Ours is a persistent and daily state, one that shapes all that we do from the start of our very lives: how we speak and whom we speak to, how we look at ourselves in the mirror and what we see therein.
If there is anything that I would like people to learn during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is this: race shouldn’t be viewed solely through the myopic lenses of physical attributes and global geography. If race is to be understood at all, it is best understood through personal story, through narrative. Being Asian American isn’t just about having a uniquely beautiful eye shape. It’s about the second time someone mockingly slants their eyes at you, because it’s only then that it dawns on you that the first time was no accident. Being Asian American isn’t about eating incredible delicious and decidedly non-Western food. It is at one stage of your life hanging your head in shame because of what you eat at home, and later, hearing a 20-year old White guy explain that you have been eating it the wrong way your entire life. This is what it means to be a person of color in this country—it is not skin and eyes and hair, but stories: stories of confusion and laughter, rejection and acceptance, rage and resignation, our love for ourselves lost and rediscovered, again and again.
So 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. Take some time to listen to the stories of the Asian-American experience, and I don’t mean the white-washed Asian stories that Hollywood insists on peddling (yes, we’re looking at you, shoddy Ghost In The Shell remake). Because you won’t know we’re Asian American just by looking at our eyes, but by hearing our stories. Only then can you understand why we check that box off with such pride.
Peter W. Chin is a pastor and writer in Seattle whose ministry has been profiled in the Washington Post, CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Tell Me More. Peter’s first book is called Blindsided By God, a memoir of his wife’s fight against breast cancer while pregnant with their third child.