No, Not Anyone Can Be Asian

The problem with white expats attempting to claim Asian identity based on a test of cultural compatibility

Every now and again, a white person who decided to Find Themselves™ in Asia inevitably takes to the Net to complain about a terrible injustice: whether they have been in Asia for one week or twenty years, they are being unfairly singled out because of their race. “I can never feel like I belong here, no matter what I do,” they say.

Or, in the words of the most recent offender in this phenomenon, Dr. Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University:

I feel welcomed and loved in China. My wife is Chinese, and I’ve done my best to integrate since arriving in 2004. But I can’t fully succeed. My Chinese friends sometimes call me a “Chinese son-in-law.” It’s meant as a compliment, but the implication in Chinese is that I’m not fully Chinese.

Despite having lived in China for two full decades, Dr. Bell struggles to be accepted in the way he sees himself: as a Chinese person. (Never mind that he has dragged his feet, for twenty years, to relinquish his Canadian citizenship to become a naturalized Chinese citizen.) The fact that he has been in China for so long, speaks Mandarin so well, and even wears Chinese style clothing to conferences means that surely he should, in some way, be accepted into the fold of Chinese identity, right? Well.

First of all, I have zero sympathy for white people who feel singled out or discriminated against in POC countries, particularly countries that were the subject of vicious colonization by white people. Once, I heard a white woman complain about how poorly she was treated because of her whiteness when she traveled to Zimbabwe. Nice story, white lady, but…you do understand what white people did in Zimbabwe, right? Suspicion of African nations for white people, given recent history, should not really come out of left field for anyone. Meanwhile, US servicemen continue to sexually assault the Japanese women, many of whom are sex workers, who live around the bases where they are stationed, not to mention the countless Western tourists who still hit up Asian countries on a daily basis to solicit sex from Asian children. So you’ll have to forgive me for withholding my outrage for the next time a Japanese shop owner says something unkind to a white tourist, or makes a white man feel other despite having lived in China for twenty years. Suspicion and even hatred of white people in POC spaces is a phenomenon of entirely white creation. Your ancestors made this bed, so you can lay in it. If we still have to suffer the consequences for what they did, then so can you.

But what I really want to speak on today is this notion that Asian identity is something that should be earned, if only so that non-Asian (read: white) people can be included, because I think it gets slung around too damn often with not enough people calling bullshit.

Certainly, it’s orientalist as all fuck. It is based entirely on a stereotypical, narrow view of what being Asian should look like, defined by folks who are not Asian. But the most insidious thing about attempting to compartmentalize Asian identity purely to a test of cultural compatibility is that, by using this metric, we inadvertently invalidate the identities and heritage of folks who actually are Asian. By the standard that our orientalist white friends want to impose, millions of actual Asian people would actually fail the test.

The most obvious target of this invalidation are mixed race Asians. You don’t need to look far to find examples of mixed-race Asians speaking about their experiences of perpetual otherness—othered by their Asian family, othered by their non-Asian family, and othered by the societies in which they live. The truth is that there is a class of Asian people who may never truly feel that they belong, no matter how they try to assimilate to Asian culture. Indeed, Asian culture as a whole has not been very good at making mixed-race Asians feel accepted within the community. Whether it’s because they’re “too whitewashed” or their features don’t perfectly mesh with the common expectation of what an Asian person is supposed to look like, mixed race Asians have always been the target of othering, isolating treatment from all the communities they belong to. According to the version of Asian identity that bases belonging on cultural compatibility, mixed people might as well not exist.

But there are countless other Asians whose identities are constantly questioned through no fault of their own. White expatriates trying to argue that Asian identity can (or should) be earned often point to Asians who grow up in the West and don’t speak their Asian languages, don’t understand Asian cultures, or otherwise are detached from what (they think) it means to be truly Asian. What they are loathe to ask, or even think about, is why this happens. Some of us were not diaspora by choice—adoptees, for instance, are usually committed to orphanages and adopted by Westerners due to circumstances entirely outside of their control. Many adoptees subsequently become estranged from their cultures of origin. Are they somehow less Asian because of this? Certainly, there are plenty of adoptees who are comfortable in their Western upbringing, but there are many others who are not. What about Asians with “ethnic” names that choose more Western ones in order to avoid the constant embarrassment of white people failing (and often not even trying) to pronounce their names? (What about the growing body of research that suggests employers and professors are less likely to respond to resumés and communications from students and applicants with ethnic-sounding names?)

Some of us are also not monolingual English speakers by choice. I was fortunate enough that my parents decided to teach me Chinese straight from the womb, but many of my peers didn’t have that kind of luck. Many Asian diaspora parents believe that teaching their children their mother tongues will put them at a disadvantage, because navigating the language barrier and speaking English with an accent will hinder their efforts at assimilation and further contribute to their otherness. As for cultural alienation—well, not everyone has the funds to fly to Asia, Becky. Again, I was lucky here—I have returned to China frequently since I was born. But I have many, many American-born Asian friends who have never been back to their countries of origin because they couldn’t afford to, or because it was too dangerous.

Never mind the countless pressures that exert themselves on our lives throughout our childhoods and well into adulthood that inexorably tell us that our lives will be easier if we cast off evidence of our Asian heritage. Whether we were mocked for our accents, for wearing traditional clothing, or for speaking our native languages, many of us have felt the sting of Eurocentricity asserting itself in our lives. For some of us, it is enough to give up altogether, and many Western-born Asians I know went through periods of intense self-loathing. For some people this is forever, by the way. Not that it erases their perpetual foreigner status—even if they don’t want to be Asian anymore, the rest of the world doesn’t forget.

Ultimately, this is why Asian identity is something that can only belong to Asian people: for better or for worse, it can never be taken off. Your race is something that you wear for the rest of your life, the beautiful and the ugly all along with it. And so long as we live in a society where race was constructed by and for white people, I simply can’t, in good conscience, say yes to white people asking to be themselves considered Asian. The cultural test version of Asian identity erases giant chunks of the Asian diaspora experience for no other reason than the service of white feelings. But we’re supposed to be open-minded and accept this half-assed, self-serving conjecture?

Well, tough shit. I’m not going to sacrifice generations of painful, lived experience just so a few white people can feel comfortable in Asia. And if you don’t like it, you can go back to where you came from.