The Layers Of Asian American Identity

Culture, Community, And Heritage

Josephine Chiba

Chestnut Hill College, Junior

Political Science and Journalism Major

How would you define your ethnicity? What factors have led you to identify as that?

When people ask I tell them I am Japanese American. My dad is Japanese and my mother is white. Although I love my dad’s culture and wish that I had more opportunities to experience it, I am culturally very American, which I felt very strongly when I visited my dad’s family last year. However, people always perceive me as Asian which, I think, is why I say “half Japanese” instead of “half-white” or “mixed.”

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

Usually no. People usually think I speak Japanese or was born in Japan and are disappointed when they find out neither are true. I don’t adhere to many Asian stereotypes, I’m loud and direct and flirty. I do try to challenge myself academically and I skipped two grades in elementary school and when people hear that I can almost always hear them in their heads saying “figures.” But I’ve never had many Asian friends and I’ve been told by many white people that “I’m not really that Asian.” I work at a sushi place with a lot of other Asian-Americans and they think the same thing.

However, it can be frustrating because even though “I’m not really Asian,” whenever I meet someone new, the second or third question is almost always about my ethnicity. And for some reason, the nickname “little Asian” has followed me to college from high school.

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

I most definitely define myself as American first. Although I look Japanese and have a large Japanese family, I have lived in the United States for my entire life and it is really all I know. But I don’t think that by defining myself as American, I am disrespecting my father or my heritage. Being an American should have nothing to do with ethnicity or culture or where you were born. I think it is all encompassing in a way.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

Since coming to college, I have been thinking about my Japanese-American identity a lot more. At times it is incredibly confusing and inconsistent and even sad. When I was in Japan, I kind of realized for the first time what it meant to Japanese and how biologically connected I was to my family but how entirely disconnected I felt to the culture. I came back to the United States and really understood how American I was.

However, it has been hard to figure out how much of a right I have to Japanese things. Can I use chopsticks and hang up a Japanese flag without looking like I am trying too hard to be something I’m not? Can I run for political office and not address that I am an Asian-American woman? Can I be offended when someone makes a joke about me eating cats or when they playfully call my a chink? Can I identify and sympathize with other Asian Americans? Can I personally talk about what it feels like to be a minority in America? I constantly feel like I need to analyze and reanalyze what I am allowed to do. It all feels just a little artificial, a little uncomfortable. Talking about it helps.

Lauren Lau

Chestnut Hill College, Sophomore

Communications, Journalism Major

How would you define your ethnicity? What factors have led you to identify as that?

Chinese-American; Both of my parents were born in Hong Kong before moving to the United States.

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

I think that people’s assumptions tend to be inaccurate. Even with something as surface as what nationality I am, people do tend to assume the incorrect one. I also feel that people’s assumptions about my personality are often wrong because my ethnicity is associated with formal mannerisms and more reserved personality traits. Assumptions do have some truth to them since they are common mistakes, but I think that more often than not, they are inaccurate.

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

I would probably say American based on my mannerisms and cultural thinking; however, I think that most people do have trouble seeing past my physical appearance so it is difficult for me to choose between. I have lived in the United States my entire life and have not travelled anywhere in Asia, so I feel that as far as my self-aware identity goes, I would be considered American.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

I have definitely struggled with my identity in my life. We live in an environment where different ethnicities are common, but a specific culture and lifestyle seems to be the usual trend. I deal with it by being educated with both cultures. My parents and family all still speak Chinese regularly so that will always be a part of who I am and my identity, but also growing up in the U.S. has Americanized my family’s entire lifestyle. I keep both of these parts present in my life.

Joseph George Basile III

Temple University, Junior

Political Science Major

How would you define your ethnicity? What factors have led you to identify as that?

I would say I’m a Filipino-American; I’ve come to embrace my Filipino heritage more, as opposed to my Italian, because my mother’s side has always had such a strong emphasis on family and ancestry.

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

Most of the time, no. I’m usually perceived as caucasian or Puerto Rican. Upon learning that I’m Filipino, and also of Chinese decent, many ask why I haven’t embraced aspects of my Chinese heritage as well or learned Tagalog (A common Filipino language).

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

I will always define myself as an American first, but I’m never afraid to show pride in my Asian roots. I have a firm belief that representation is important to the development of young people of backgrounds that differ from their caucasian peers.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

When I first began to show interest in pursuing law as a career, I found that Asian-American and Pacific Islander representation in the field was quite low. Statistics show that AAPI’s are still vastly underrepresented in top legal positions at most firms and in most courts. My parents told me to “keep my head down, get your work done, and forge your own path.” However, when I got to the position I’m currently at, the City’s Law Department, I immediately began working with a native-Chinese attorney and the chair of the AAPI Bar Association of Philadelphia.

Jenna-Kim Lewis

Chestnut Hill College, Junior

Political Science Major

How would you define your ethnicity? What type of factors have led you to identify as that?

I identify as Asian when considering ethnicity. Specific factors which have led me to this identification is the fact that I was born in South Korea. Culturally though, I was raised in America so I know little of my original culture as I have been raised and live very Western.

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

Not necessarily. Most people immediately think I am Chinese or Japanese, and that isn’t a bad thing, but people often seem to forget the sheer number of Asian countries in the world. Not to mention most people think I was raised by an Asian family- fair assumption- and naturally must speak an Asian language. I see myself, ethnically Asian, but culturally western American, so most assumptions of my ethnicity, I do not believe, are all that accurate to who I really am and what I know.

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

I almost feel as if I am more American than Asian, not to say that I can’t be both because that’s how this country is typically viewed — as a melting pot of multiple cultures and diverse peoples. However I don’t know much about the culture and lifestyles in Korea. I really only know typical American culture.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

I have struggled at times. Often times I’ll find myself confronted with what someone might pass off as a joke relaying to Asian stereotypes and I’ll always try to laugh it off. More often than not if I try and defend myself and state that it’s offensive people will say I’m just being overly sensitive and they didn’t mean it to be “racist.” Lately though I’ve been trying to confront these issues as I am faced with them so I don’t have to keep pretending it’s funny when someone makes offensive jokes towards people who look like me or have similar ethnic backgrounds as me.

Though I may not know all about my heritage or my culture, I still feel connected with it and I feel a need to protect my identity, as many Americans feel the need to do when confronted with threats against American identity.

Jeffrey Carroll, Ph.D.

Chestnut Hill College, Associate Professor of Political Science,

How would you define your ethnicity? What factors have led you to identify as that?

I define my ethnicity as Filipino American. And the primary factor that goes into that is the understanding of who my biologic parents are. And both of my biological parents are Filipino. And so I understand that I have the long lineage and identify as Filipino first but I’m first generation American. And so thats it. If someone were to ask me what my ethnicity is, I would tell them I’m Filipino-American.

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

Thats such a loaded question because I guess that means that they would be making assumptions based on the observation that I’m Filipino-American, and that there would be some characteristics that they would align to me. And what I can say about that, in some way, is that it does fit. But I can say that a lot of those assumptions are wrong though because I didn’t grow up in a quote unquote traditional Filipino household. My mother remarried and I grew up with Filipino and African American families. So the stereotypes that can probably be attributable to being a Filipino in America — some apply and some don’t. If that makes sense.

If I can tell a quick anecdote — my best friend is also Filipino-American and we grew up in Greenspoint together in Houston and we, more or less, walk alike, talk alike, his children are my God children and vice versa, same age, we actually didn’t go to the same school because he lived on the other side of the tracks so we went to different schools. But, I’ve got to tell you how, even thought we are alike, and both Filipino-American, we had very different upbringings because of who our parents were. So I can say that when you look at him and his story, his name is Ray, he has a more traditional Filipino upbringing. So, with me, some of those elements may apply but many don’t.

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

If I could only pick one? I kind of, sometimes want — I’ve been asked this question before — and want to pull a Mos Def and say I’m a person of the world. Which is sometimes not reasonable. It’s hard because if you were to pick one you don’t want to insult your heritage but it’s absolutely clear that I identify myself as American. Because I think that a part of this discussion too about ethnicity relates to some cultural intersections that are very interesting… My mother is, of course, a Filipina lady, I am a Filipino man, my son is half-Filipino. And thinking about the differences in culture, and you’re pretty much asking in what ways and traits do we presume to identify. I would say American and, believe it or not, my mother — she’s spent more time in the United States, and is married to an American, relative to her time in the Philippines, even though she speaks three dialects of the Filipino language. So that’s a very interesting question, that you made choose. And I guess I would say that I’m an American first.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

Oh, all the time. This is something that I’ve sometimes worn on my sleeve. Because I think that, in my upbringing, I’ve never really cleanly fit into a… if there was this ethnicity box or if I fit cleanly into the Census… its never been that way for me. So that would mean then, that to the Filipino community, I’m not Filipino enough. I’ve never gotten that from the African American community whom I’ve actually felt very accepted by. But in a way, in some cases more recently, it’s not like I’m African American enough. I don’t self-identify as African American anyway. But you are talking about the communities in which I’ve navigated. So I don’t know if that makes sense. The term American though I completely understand how I fit into that because it’s just a very amorphous term. I understand that I’m very American and I fit in culturally very well.

Thai Lam

Sushi Chef at Osaka Restaurant

How would you define your ethnicity? What factors have led you to identify as that?

I don’t know. I’m Cambodian and Vietnamese. It’s like the indigenous people from South Vietnam. [My parents] were like Cambodian people but raised in Vietnam. Like they were born in Vietnam, they had to adapt to the language in Vietnam.

Do you think that people’s assumptions about you and your ethnicity are accurate to who you are?

No. They think I’m Mexican. A lot of people think I’m Mexican. Because of my skin tone and then I guess the tattoos.

If you could define yourself as Asian or American, which would you choose?

Asian, because I have a green card. I was born in Vietnam actually.

Have you struggled with your identity at any time in your life? How do you deal with those situations?

No I have not. I’m sure of who I am.

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