By: Jian Huang
Asian Americans have been part of American history dating as far back as the 17th century with more large-scale migrations starting in the 19th century. Today, there are more than 24 million Asian Americans in the United States encompassing some 19 ethnicities, about 15 different languages, and wide ranging religious beliefs that span from Christian Evangelicals to Hindus.
For a group of people with this much diversity, what does it mean to be “American American?” Authors Pawan Dhingra and Robyn Magalit Rodriguez tackle this complex question of identity in their book Asian America, published by Polity Press.
Although an academic work in nature, Asian America is approachable for lay readers as well. With chapters that discuss race, sexuality, class, and work lives, the book takes a panoramic view of the Asian American experience and some of the tensions that come along with it.
The book takes a sociological approach, drawing the whys and hows of our actions and attitudes from social causes like family, labor market, groups, media, nation, and so on. Social inequalities are also a point of focus of this book with examples of stereotyped portrayals in media when Asian Americans face limited opportunities in upper management (i.e. “bamboo ceiling”), or attacks of being un-American because of one’s Asian roots.
Reading this book gave me an opportunity to reflect about my own journey as an Asian American. To me, being Asian American today means living the American Dream, of earning a college degree, living in a nice suburb and running my own small business. But it was not always like this.
Like many immigrants, my parents and I started from humble beginnings. The three of us lived in a small, rented house in a rough part of the city with high crime. We struggled when we first arrived from China in the early 1990s, knowing little English or the way American life functioned. My mom worked piecemeal jobs at garment factories and my dad worked long shifts as a clerk in a motel. While I was left to figure out my own way through public school, my parents found whatever jobs that would take them through personal contacts, from Chinese newspapers, from the one Chinese-language AM radio station, or from community bulletins outside of the Chinese supermarket. Times were tough, wages were low, but we got by.
My story is a story that many immigrants share; families that come to the United States with little to nothing, and gradually earned their way into the middle class through very hard work. For me, the Asian American experience is also the American experience.
I recall there was a lot of hostility towards me because of the way I looked when I was a kid. I experienced it mostly from classmates because I was 1 of 3 Asian kids in the entire school. They didn’t see many people who looked like me. I was an oddity and an easy target. Hostility came from neighbors, from teachers, and sometimes, it also came from total strangers. I remember several instances where someone pulled the corners of their eyes apart when they saw me walking down the street, or would mock our broken English when they heard us talk to a store clerk. We didn’t live in a section of LA with an Asian enclave and I remember hoping one day we would have enough money to move to somewhere more accepting.
As a child, I often wished that I lived in a raceless world. That one day I could be treated just like everyone else.
As the years went by, however, more and more Asians moved into Los Angeles. With more Asian teachers and more Asian students, I became more accepted and less of an “other.” I saw Monterey Park’s “Little Taipei” grow from just a scattering of Chinese-speaking retail shops in seven square-miles in the 1900s to the better part of the 200 square-mile San Gabriel Valley today.
Today, Asian Americans have carved out a strong economic and cultural footprint. About 1.5 million residents of Asian ancestry live in Los Angeles, making it one of the largest concentrations of Asian Americans in the United States with ethnicities including Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, Malay and Japanese.
There are other Asian American hubs across the country as well, located mainly in urban centers like San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Houston. Traveling to a new city for me nearly always involves looking up whether there is a Chinatown to add to my itinerary, a sure place to get good food.
The “otherness” feeling comes and goes these days. In large cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, there are so many Asians that I take it for granted. But in a rural farm town in Arkansas recently, I was unusually relieved to see two Vietnamese Americans at the local Walmart.
Networks and enclaves are a lifeblood to Asian Americans. It means a place to share information, resources, and advocacy when there are instances of hostility and injustice. But in my case, living in metropolitan LA for so long, I have also noticed the ironic effect it had in making me more self-conscious of my Asianness when I visit a place like a farm town in rural Arkansas.
I feel a strong sense of comradery when visiting these Asian enclaves across the country. The connection comes from a shared understanding that somewhere in our ancestry, our family traveled halfway across the world to pursue the American dream.
The comradery however is not always a given because the Asian American experience is also very complex. Despite the shared geographic ancestry, Asian America very interestingly hints at the absence of a single unifying identity for Asian Americans. For example, Dhingra and Magalit write about socio-economic contradictions like the current demographic overrepresentation on American college campuses, while the group also is likely to be uninsured or rely on welfare.
Being Asian American is a give-and-take experience. As someone who is ethically Chinese, my parents passed along to me a set of cultural traditions and expectations not necessarily shared by other Asians. But growing up as an American these cultural traditions have mixed and assimilated into a fusion of Asian American culture.
Asians are as different as any other group. East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia have distinct cultures, religions, and languages. It also encompasses very different educational backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, religious and political leanings. But being Asian America means a hybrid of all those things.
The journey of being an Asian American has been fascinating and challenging. I remember that as a child in China, I had never encountered any other Asians other than the Chinese. It was only in the United States that I met people who are Korean or Japanese who are now all grouped in the same checkbox on a census form.
Asian American is a reminder that “Asian American” is not a singular identity. It is a multifaceted one and an ever-evolving one. The Asian American experience is the American experience. We are a country where people from all walks of life come together, and learn to live together. To me, that is what being American is all about.
Jian Huang is an arts and culture writer living and working in Los Angeles.