What’s an Asian (American)?

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).


4 thoughts on “What’s an Asian (American)?

  1. Reblogged this on iLook China and commented:
    As a public school teacher in California (1975 – 2005), we had an annual form we had to fill out that counted the girls, boys, and ethnicities in each of our classes. In fact, the annual school report card that was posted online identifies the ethnic, racial demographics of each school so we know how many Caucasians, Latinos, Asians, Philippians, African Americans, etc. attend each school.
    In America, we are supposed to be color blind but our government makes that impossible.
    Many colleges and universities in the US have ethnic/racial quotas to make sure everyone is represented on campus. To achieve this, even when it may be illegal, universities lower the entrance requirements for African-Americans and Latinos while Asian-Americans have to score higher than even Caucasians to be accepted.
    I always felt this was wrong and that everyone no matter what his or her ethnic, racial, or sexual orientation or sex should compete on an equal playing field for entry into college. You know, merit.
    I Reblogged this post from MRCYRIAC.com because it makes a point.

  2. “I always felt this was wrong and that everyone no matter what his or her ethnic, racial, or sexual orientation or sex should compete on an equal playing field for entry into college. You know, merit.”
    I got a doctorate based on, you know, merit. I then married a black, Harlem-born woman twice as smart as me who couldn’t get into college–based on, you know, the long history of her family’s suppression, dispossession, humiliation, financial disadvantage, and more. I got to live in Harlem long enough to learn what institutionalized racism is and does. I’d say there’s more to college admissions than the kind of merit you’re implying.

    1. “I then married a black, Harlem-born woman twice as smart as me who couldn’t get into college…”

      Do you mean, your wife could not get into “any college” in the US? I find that hard to believe, because it is possible to start at a two-year community college and transfer to a four-year college later for the third year, which is what I did and the community college that accepted me put me on probation from the start. I had to work my way off probation, which I did and eventually went on to earn an Associate of Science Degree, a BA in journalism, a life-teaching credential and an MFA in literature and writing.

      In fact, my Chinese born wife applied to a large number of US colleges from China in the 1980s and was turned down by all of them but one, The Chicago Art Institute, and that was all she needed to get a student Visa and come to the US. She arrived not speaking English and had to learn in six months or face deportation (she lied about her English to be accepted by a US college and gain the Visa). Six months later, she understood enough English to stay in the US and continue her education here. Today she has a BA, an MFA, seven published books and US citizenship. It wasn’t easy. Her first book, Red Azalea, a memoir, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.

      I know this much. If someone is determined to go to college and earn a degree n the US, he or she has an excellent chance of doing so, which is why I believe there is more to your wife’s story than you know or are unwilling to share.

      Race based quota systems for college admissions are a form of racism known as reverse descrimination. When I was still teaching, I knew of African American students that were accepted into state universities in California and they were less qualified than Asian Americans that were rejected by the same colleges.

      In addition, Inside Higher Ed.com reported May 30, 2012, ” A brief filed Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court seeks to shake up the legal and political calculus of a case that could determine the constitutionality of programs in which colleges consider the race or ethnicity of applicants. In the brief, four Asian-American organizations call on the justices to bar all race-conscious admissions decisions, arguing that race-neutral policies are the only way for Asian-American applicants to get a fair shake.

      Source: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/05/30/asian-american-group-urges-supreme-court-bar-race-conscious-admissions#ixzz1yZ8EU9xy


      Then the Free Republic reported, “The New Jews: They’re Asian Americans.”

      Asian Americans routinely outperform all other groups, including Caucasians, in academic achievement, a pattern that has been observed since at least the mid-1980s. By eighth grade, “the percentage of Asian American students scoring in the upper echelons on math exams was 17 points higher than the percentage of white students,” reports the Washington Post. When it’s time to apply for college, the gap continues: In 2010, the last year for which data were available, the average SAT score for Asian Americans was 1636, versus 1580 for Caucasian students, 1369 for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and 1277 for African Americans.

      But as Asian Americans have risen through the academic ranks, some claim that they’ve become the “new Jews”—a group considered to be “overrepresented” in elite academia.

      Data bear this out. A Center for Equal Opportunity study, cited on the Manhattan Institute’s website in the wake of the Harvard complaint, found that Asian applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 had a median SAT score that was “50 points higher than the median score of white students who were accepted, 140 points higher than that of Hispanics and 240 points higher than that of blacks.” The center also found that “among applicants with a 1240 SAT score and 3.2 grade point average in 2005, the university admitted 10 percent of Asian Americans, 14 percent of whites, 88 percent of Hispanics and 92 percent of blacks.” As further evidence, consider that “after the state of California abolished racial preferences, the percentage of Asian Americans accepted at Berkeley increased from 34.6 percent in 1997, the last year of legal affirmative action, to 42 percent entering in fall 2006,” clear evidence that the group had been unfairly penalized under the previous regime

      Source: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2893539/posts

  3. I still remembered filling out the Census form during college in 2000. There was only one category for Asians, although there was one for South Pacific Islanders, as well. But based on how American TV defined Asian Americans, South Asians did not seem to fit in the category. I ended up choosing Other, and writing South Asian on the side.

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