Growing up Asian American, I often questioned my own identity. In technical terms, I am Filipino-American. I was born here, I grew up in the United States and have no deep personal connection to any homeland in Asia besides the exposure from my mom. My mom immigrated from the Philippines to the U.S.
For some reason, there was a distinction between our identities as Asians, and I feel there are others who feel this way too. It didn’t take long before I began to question what it meant to be Asian and American.
Who are Asians?
Asian is an umbrella term for the a large diverse group of people. Similar to people in Central America, Asians are often lumped together into one category. While this started with the Census, this has most prominently been perpetuated in the history of underrepresentation and stereotypical depictions in the media, especially in Hollywood films. Even in light of the release of films such as Drunken Master, Joy Luck Club and the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians, there is still a lot of work to be done in showcasing who Asians truly are.
Southeast Asians, typically Chinese, Korean and Japanese, are given overwhelming representation, but there are other Asian ethnicities out there that are also part of the umbrella. For example, many people wouldn’t associate India as a part of Asia, or Mongolia or Cambodia. The images most often used in representing the group are either Math geniuses, Martial Arts masters, or the typical Fresh off the Boat “FOB” which is hurtful to the image of the community.
Who are Asian Americans?
In simple terms, an Asian American is an American who is of Asian descent. Asian Americans are often the next generation of Asians born from immigrant parents. While they are considered more “Americanized” and accustomed to living in America, they still get the questions and assumptions that come with being of Asian descent.
Being Asian and American
In my experience, growing up, I’ve dealt with inner conflict of accepting my identity as an Asian and an American. I’ve wanted to fit in with my classmates. I have worn two hats when it came to who I was around my friends versus who I was around my family and family friends. It was like code switching. I felt obligated to stay in touch with my roots, but I wanted to branch out and embrace things outside of tradition.
I never really felt like I fit in, in my own Asian culture. I found myself more and more susceptible to abandoning my roots the more I learned and explored. It was rare I merged the identities as one. I didn’t really have anyone to look up to for this identity crisis. Both lives deserved to be equally shown and accepted, but I ended up choosing the route to be more Americanized as I grew older and became more distant from my Asian roots.
Seeing Myself in the Media
I realized later on how important it was to see yourself in the media when I started seeing the media diversifying. It answered so many unanswered questions I had growing up. Struggles I had gone through as a kid were actual things other people have also gone through. The code switching and the inner conflict were unique problems of being first generation.
In the TV series Fresh Off the Boat, protagonist Eddie shares experiences growing up as an Asian American. On several occasions, Eddie is seen trying to shun his identity because of the lack of acceptance and questions he would get from his peers. In one episode, he asks his mom if they could buy “white people food” after his peers sneer at his ethnic food.
This can also be seen in an episode of the new Hulu series Pen15 when protagonist Maya Ishii-Peters becomes the butt of a racist joke and failed bullying demonstration. She is seen attempting to make her home appear less Japanese by covering a shrine. Her brother Shuji calls her out on being ashamed to be Japanese at the dinner table. Was I ashamed like Maya? Like Eddie?
I wasn’t fully Asian, but as much as I felt like everyone else, I was not fully American. And that was okay. It was okay being different and undefined. My identities of Asian and American were not the totality of who I was.
As said by influencer Michael Bow: race is one aspect of a person. While race can lead to some clarity to where you feel you should belong, it doesn’t dictate the fact that we’re all human and can see past a color line.