I am Asian-American and there’s no way to hide that fact. I was born in Taiwan with Chinese parents, and came to the USA at age 8. Growing up, it natural to identify more closely with Chinese-Americans than Asian-Americans or other Americans. Of course my parents did their best to instill Chinese cultural values through their parenting. But my sense of affinity changed as I left my family of origin and life experiences expanded. And last time I looked, the Asian American population is well over 18 million; but does this significant portion of the American population get seen and heard through mainstream media, pop culture, the online chatter, or everyday life?
Over the years, I find myself growing to embrace this label and categorization more than I used to. I find myself having more similarities with Asian Americans than other Americans who aren’t of Asian descent. I know there are all sorts of problems and issues about the label. The term “Asian American” itself seems to be a lightning rod and magnetic force — repelling some while attracting some. Some say that it doesn’t matter at all what ancestry we have, we’re all Americans, and that’s all that matters.
In the Christian subculture, some say that our identity is only spiritual, only grounded “in Christ,” which I agree is true and ultimate. Yet, when this theological conviction is held to the exclusion to the reality of who we are on earth and our innate social and genetic context, it sounds an awful like Gnosticism, the first heresy of church history, a belief that our body doesn’t matter and only the spiritual matters.
Back to the topic at hand—why we need Asian Americans to be Asian Americans.
To say that we need this is not to say that every Asian American must be Asian American’ish. There is a whole spectrum of people in the Asian American mix. A growing percentage are bi-racial, with Asian and non-Asian ancestry. There are some that are politically very pro-Asian. There are some that are very assimilated into “mainstream America” and don’t have any interaction with an Asian American context. And that’s okay.
Being Asian American as an Asian American isn’t everything. To say that we need this is not to say that an Asian American is only Asian American. We are more than our ancestry, and in a multicultural society and global world, we do well to learn & grow in cross-cultural appreciation for the others.
Being Asian American doesn’t mean being only with Asian Americans. There’s a social dynamic connoted by phrases like “birds of a feather flock together.” Cliques stunt our personal development and limit our ultimate contribution to society and the world. Yet, to have no connection with Asian Americans, something is definitely lost there too.
Being Asian American doesn’t mean nothing. There seems to be a social pressure or default consciousness that to be American is to fit in with the majority. That’s where the institutional structures and power dynamics is to be found. To be a part of the system, you have to work within the system. To change the system would (most likely) take revolution. We’ve already had several of those in American history.
Being Asian American doesn’t mean representing all Asian Americans. To be Asian American doesn’t mean one has to be well-versed and represent all kinds of Asian Americans. It’d be a good first step to have some semblance of understanding of one’s roots. For me, that’s being Chinese American.
All to say that our American society need more Asian Americans to be Asian American. It is to say that at this state of the union, we have too few. We certainly don’t have too many. We’d do well to have a few more to stand up and represent. We’d do well to think through and have more robust conversations about what it means to be Asian Americans. We’d do well to allow the richness of our Asian American’ness to overflow and not hide it under a bushel.
Adapted from something published at djchuang.com on November 26, 2010.