When asked about my intersectionality, my immediate response is that I’m an Asian American woman. End of discussion. No one prods further because, after all, isn’t the label “Asian American” a sufficient descriptor of my holistic racial and cultural identity?
To a certain extent, yes, because the “Asian American experience” has evolved into an umbrella term for the sprawling gray area between the two extreme poles of traditional Asian culture and modern Western culture. I use the term “gray area” because the Asian American population is just that: a muddled mix of vastly different cultures and experiences that are thrown into a mass blob of generalization.
I am a third-generation Korean, Japanese and Chinese American woman. But, in a white-dominant culture in America, my identity stops at Asian.
Yes, there’s a sense of community among the Asian American population, especially since we’re so often thrown into the same category by our non-Asian peers. But this is a far cry from assuming that Asian Americans are identical in our cultural backgrounds and identities. I’ve noticed a stark lack of awareness in the cultural divisions that are deeply ingrained in our identities, far more complex than can be explained by the stand-alone term, “Asian.”
The stereotypical Asian image crafted by the mainstream media is someone of East Asian descent (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, et cetera) with lighter skin and small eyes. Even among these dominant East Asian cultures, the American public puts little effort or emphasis on recognizing the differences between these unique nations and heritages. Few non-Asians care about the differences between Korean and Japanese culture, because the presiding attitude is that the distinctions are largely irrelevant.
Additionally, Southeast and South Asian cultures (Filipino, Indian, et cetera) are typically overlooked when speaking about Asian American experiences because their ethnic characteristics differ from that of the mainstream East Asian image. Jokes about how “all Asians look the same” are seemingly harmless, but this attitude has severe implications in America’s two-dimensional perception of what it means to be an Asian American.
Asians also are often forgotten when speaking about racial oppression because we are deemed the “model minority.” Because we have achieved high socioeconomic success relative to other minority groups, we’re seen as models of productive assimilation in pursuit of the American dream. Because of this perceived success, our struggles with identity are often minimized or silenced.
Western generalization of Asian culture can be seen everywhere. I love Disney’s “Mulan,” but the assumption that having a single Chinese princess means a checkmark in the Asian representation category exemplifies America’s warped perspective of the Asian demographic.
This attitude of homogenization affects every Asian American on a daily basis in interactions with our peers. When people perceive someone as Asian, there’s an automatic imposition of the “foreigner” identity. For example, if you’re Japanese American, people will expect you to automatically know about your ancestors’ culture.
But there is an endless spectrum of Asian American experiences regarding their relationships to their traditional culture.
Even Chapman’s Asian American population is comprised of students that are mixed race, international students, students with immigrant parents and students that have little connection to their traditional culture (commonly referred to as “white-washed”).
It’s unrealistic to assume that all of these groups are influenced by their Asian identity in the same way. But misguided public perception creates a discrepancy when you don’t fit the “one size fits all” label for Asian American cultural identity.
When discussing identity with my Asian American peers, I’ve found an almost universal sentiment of feeling too American to be Asian and too Asian to be American. This is the internal conflict that Asian Americans face daily in balancing the responsibility toward maintaining cultural roots with the pressure of conforming to the expectations of American society.
When faced with the imposition of Asian identity, Asian Americans are pushed into two paths. We can conform to the “Asian” label, surrounding ourselves with Asian American peers and insulating ourselves within Asian circles, or reject our Asian identity and aggressively assimilate to white culture to attempt to prove our American belonging and become “white washed.”
Overlooking the variations within Asian culture and assuming a universal experience is to be willfully ignorant and passive in the erasure of cultural individuality. Neglecting the importance of these distinctions threatens to generalize and subjugate the Asian American population as a whole.