The title of this piece could be the story of the Asian part of my Asian American identity. I’m mostly Filipino, was born in Manila but I was raised in Hong Kong and I have Chinese blood from my paternal grandmother, who was half Manchurian. I call myself Filipino but, in many ways, I associate more with Chinese culture than I do Filipino culture. I speak neither Tagalog nor Cantonese fluently and my understanding of Tagalog is better than my Cantonese but the sound of Cantonese pulls at my heartstrings harder and with more affection than Tagalog does.
This article, however, is not about my Asian American identity. Instead, it is about some observations I’ve made, after living in America for almost thirty years, about how Asians deal with one another and how non-Asians regard us – at least here in America, anyway. Bear in mind, as you read, that this piece is purely anecdotal based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what’s been said and done to me. There was no formal survey or research study done from which I’ve come to any conclusions based on experiences I discuss below. Before we continue, however, I should also point out that I am going to be discussing, primarily, East Asia and the Asians I encountered growing up. I am not necessarily going to be discussing Central Asia or The Middle East or Asia Minor.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed, discovered and experienced is the myopic, narrow-minded and, largely, ignorant view of who and what are Asian. The worst part of this is that it’s not just non-Asians who possess this lack of knowledge (as you might expect and, perhaps, even excuse of non-Asians) but Asians are also guilty of disregarding other Asians.
There are of course, accounts throughout history of Asians mistreating other Asians. These incidents have, unfortunately, developed distrust and animosity between the groups involved and, sadly, such feelings are often passed from one generation to the next. There have been – and is - animosities between Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos, Filipinos and Malaysians, to name a few. These conflicts have come from one nation conquering or invading another and mistreating those who were conquered (e.g. Japanese invasions during World War II). In some cases, the conflict was over territory resulting in bad blood between the nations and their people (Malaysia and The Philippines arguing over sovereignty over the island of Sabah). In some cases, the conflict has derived from territory and religion – the battle of Kashmir, for example, between India and Pakistan. The feelings borne from these conflicts are often legitimate – after all, who wants to be or deserves to be conquered and oppressed, anyway? – however, that they should last from generation to generation, I feel, is a tragedy and a lost opportunity for healing and strengthening of the Asian ideal.
Since moving to the United States, though, I’ve noticed there almost appears to be a hierarchy of ‘Asianness.’ It’s almost a status symbol and something that is determined by what kind of Asian you are and how well your country or type of Asian is known by non-Asians. I have many Caucasian friends and students who have never heard of Malaysia or Indonesia, for example. To these same friends, their idea of Asian is Chinese or Japanese and, recently, Korean. There’s nothing to be said about Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians. And let’s not forget the Vietnamese, Tibetans, Thais and Hmong. In fact, when I people find out I’m Filipino, I’m often remarked by comments like “The Philippines isn’t Asian. You’re Pacific Islanders.” Yes, The Philippines are islands – the largest archipelago, actually – in The Pacific Ocean but those islands are located in South East ASIA. I’m sorry if it messes with your mind that Filipino can be both Asian and, by definition, Pacific Islanders. India is also referred to as the ‘Asian sub-continent’ and Indians referred to as ‘South Asians.’ Do these groups not count then as Asians?
One fantastic example of intra-Asian ignorance is an interaction I had with the Korean mother of one of my son’s kindergarten classmates. My wife ‘looks’ Asian. I put looks in quotes because, really, what does Asian look like? Speaking in generalizations and typical (or stereotypical) viewpoints, my wife has sharp eyes, a yellow-mocha complexion, and a flat nose. I, on the hand, have brown eyes that are slightly rounder, freckles, a sharper more Roman nose and a lighter brown skin tone. When people meet me for the first time, I am greeted with confused looks and I still get the questions “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” So, when we met my son’s classmate's mother, she regarded my wife, who is three quarters Filipina and a quarter Spanish, with instant Asian familiarity. In fact, she thought my wife was Chinese. They chitchatted, laughed. One may even have touched the other on the arm in mid banter. There was that Asian thang, sisters from another mother and all that. When she learnt that my wife is Filipina, there was a muted “Oh” that accompanied the revelation. Being mixed (I have Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and German blood), I can accept that she didn’t think me to be Asian. So, you can imagine her surprise and disbelief when she found out that I'm Asian too.
After both discoveries, though, the most intriguing statement came out of her mouth. I’m sure she didn’t mean any offense by it but I was definitely taken aback when she said, about us being Filipino, “Philippines is not really Asian, though.” What does one do with that? I was torn between getting into a heated discussion of what that meant and correcting her ignorance, calling her an idiot and walking away, saying something in the little Korean that I know (which I’ve been told by other Korean friends is quite good in pronunciation but, admittedly, is limited to basic greetings, food items, and, of course, Taekwondo commands), or just smiling and letting this faux pas go by and wait for a better time to correct her. She is after all, since our sons are in the same grade, class and school district, someone I could be interacting with for the next thirteen years. And, lo and behold, my son and hers have come to form a friendship at school.
This isn’t the only slight Asian versus Asian slight I've experienced. On Facebook a few years back, I took one of those quizzes that pop up now and again. This one, naturally, was called How Asian Are You? Well, I took it and answered honestly (which I was later told I shouldn’t have since those Facebook quizzes are largely satirical and tongue-in-cheek) and I got a rating like ‘Not That Asian.’ The quiz items may or may not have been made by Asians. If they were, though, they were very centric to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. There were questions like “How often do you use chopsticks?” and “Do you put sugar in your tea?” and “Do you read anime?”
In other things I’ve noticed, you never hear of Asians being cited as a demographic in consumer spending. I was told, not directly but at a Q&A, by director Justin Lin, after a screening of his movie Finishing The Game, that this is because Asian spending habits tend to mimic Caucasian spending habits so the two sets of numbers are often lumped together. I guess, in this regard, Asians just don’t even exist in America. This, of course, is far from the truth. A 2012 US Census Bureau report showed that Asians are the fastest growing minority in the United States, rising 2.9% (530,000 more than the previous census bringing the total number of Asians in America to 18.9 million). In the same year, the Pew Research Center identified Filipino Americans and Indian Americans as the second and third largest growing Asian American populations, respectively, in the United States ahead of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans. Chinese Americans were first. I don’t mention this to rank Filipinos and Indians above Japanese and Koreans but to further illustrate that Asians in America are not only represented by Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.
So, what is it about Asians in America? We’re regarded as the ‘model minority’ yet our say doesn’t count and, even within our own Asian collective, there seems to be a rank among which groups are more Asian and which groups are not. Moreover, there is, from what I’ve seen, a distinction between mixed Asians and pure Asians and between immigrants and Asians who were born in the United States. And, don’t even get me started on Asians living outside the United States and how they often look at Asians in America, regardless of whether they are mixed Asian or immigrants or both (like me).
With the Internet, satellite television, immigration and easier air travel, globalization has happened and is here to stay. This has brought people together but, in a weird way, it has also heightened the awareness of our differences and, perhaps, pulled people apart. Differences can be good if we’re celebrating them but not if we’re recognizing them in ways that raise one culture while putting down another. For Asians to strive in this country, we need to celebrate each other’s differences and unify those differences in a total Asian identity and, when one of us succeeds, cheer it as not only a Chinese American or Vietnamese American or Korean American or Whatever American triumph but as Asian American triumph.