The only thing that binds Asian Americans is the common fear of disappointing our parents.
Yesterday we took a look at the demographic rise of the Asian American community. And since I took the effort to examine what a Hispanic is a few weeks ago, I thought I’d just touch upon what it means to be Asian American.
I never liked the word Asian. I suppose all racial/ethnic categories are arbitrary and invented, but Asian takes the cake for the silliest. It always seemed absurd to lump together 60% of the world’s population into one group. And as far as geography goes, Europe and Asia are obviously part of the same landmass, so why this arbitrary boundary of the Ural mountains? What do folks from Saudi Arabia and Japan have in common? Malaysia and Mongolia?
While growing up, it was easy to see solidarity and understanding within the Black, White and Hispanic communities (the “big three” as I like to call it) in my neighborhood. There were aspects of language, phenotype, and culture that kept certain kids with “their kind” and not with others. As pretty much the only Indian kid for miles, I took turns emulating and resenting each one of those groups. One day this Vietnamese kid joined our school and I decided right then that this word Asian was bullshit. The boy, I think his name was Phan, served me no purpose – the only thing we had in common was that neither of us were from the big three.
Fast forward a dozen years. At Trinity College, there were many cultural houses that offered students space and resources for cultural activities. There was the Hillel House (for the Jews), La Erarca (for the Latinos) and the Umoja House (for the Blacks) and of course the Asian American Student Association House (for me and Phan). The names alone are revealing. Whereas the other cultural houses had a neat and zippy names, my house had a nice and pleasant acronym so as not to leave anyone out. I don’t even know what Hillel, Erarca or Umoja mean, but at least it was something. The Asian American Student Association House was the sort of mishmash you get had Phan and I been forced to play with one another because of our “common heritage”. Granted, no one forced anyone to play, but the whole thing always felt artificial and tokenistic.
Strangely enough, the US Government has a narrower definition of Asian: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. So all those Arab, Persians and Turks are classified as White by Uncle Sam. Not too long ago, Indians were considered White as well. Here’s one of the strangest charts I’ve ever seen.
It could be worse though. The US Government is not making any claims about the global population, but merely trying to describe an ever evolving demographic situation in its own jurisdiction.
And perhaps the Government is a lot more nuanced than we give it credit for. Instead of paying attention to skin color or language, it categorizes according to the extent to which parents harass their children to become doctors and engineers. And who knows, maybe one day, we’ll see a bunch of Chinese kids winning spelling bees. Or Indian kids playing cello. In the meantime, let the confused solidarity continue (watch it till the end).