Not Just Another Statistic: ‘Asian American’ not a monolithic term

Jacob Chin May 21, 2014 0
Photos by Angelo Salgado

Photos by Angelo Salgado

To be an Asian American or Pacific Islander at the University of Washington Seattle Campus is to be a statistic. Asians make up over a quarter of the population of the UW student body—27.44 percent as of Fall enrollment. This means that one in four students at the UW will identify as having some kind of Asian ancestry, a large number to be sure. Just by looking at this number alone, one can argue that Asians are no longer underrepresented at UW’s Seattle Campus. This would be true if not for the fact that the category “Asian” encompasses an extremely large range of students.

In disaggregating the data, the largest representation of Asians in this category were “Other Asians” sitting at 9.12 percent, followed by Chinese at 5.43 percent, Koreans at 4.39 percent, Vietnamese at 3.05 percent, Filipinos at 2.57 percent, and then followed by a host of other Asian ethnic groups. To be blunt, no single Asian ethnic group is overrepresented in UW Seattle. Even within the “Asian” category, there isn’t an over-represented group. The fact that the largest population of Asians on campus are “Other Asians” is another argument against overrepresentation. This subcategory within the Asian category is extremely confusing.

Further, these numbers do not make any distinction between generations in college or income levels and whether a student is an immigrant, refugee, or American born. And yet these numbers treat all Asians as the same. This is an injustice. The term “Asian American” is not a monolithic term; it is an identification used to unify and empower without losing the diversity that makes us great. None of our stories fit the narrative of “Asian.”

Below are student responses to two main questions. First, we asked students to give us their definition of diversity. Second, we asked to hear about how being Asian American has affected their lives. Of the 11 interviews conducted, six student responses were used to highlight the complexity within the category of “Asian.”

Defining diversity

Diversity is by no means an easy word to define. As another disclaimer, in no way, shape, or form are we trying to say our definition of diversity is the only definition. The definition we came to took the three of us an entire afternoon of going back and forth coupled with our backgrounds in the field of American Ethnic Studies. This means that despite having three experienced and knowledgeable individuals who have devoted countless hours to studying and experiencing diversity, diversity is a concept we’re still grasping to understand ourselves.

When we decided to ask students we interviewed to define diversity, we received a range of different definitions that varied in scope and depth. A common theme across the board with all interviews is that diversity is more than just what any of our interviewees looked like. Many of our interviewees acknowledged that diversity included ways of thought and ideologies on top of race and ethnicity. More often than not, our interviewees knew what they meant but had a hard time putting words to meanings. It became apparent that all interviewees had difficulty coming up with a definition.

This question was not meant to provoke any specific response or answer, but an earnest reflection upon a word that too often is used as some sort of gaudy party decoration. This was by far the most difficult question we asked during our interviews. We deliberately chose to leave it as open as possible so our interviewees would then have the freedom to answer in the manner they chose to.

Being Asian American

History is almost always seen as a study of what has already come and gone. This view treats history as something static, unchanging, and, thus, dead. However, history is made every single day with every passing moment. It is something ever-moving, ever-changing, and alive. It is always personal. It is always present. These two questions asked for the personal histories of our interviewees. In essence, we were asking questions about their identities.

While these were our most specific questions, we asked these questions with the intent of allowing our interviewees to answer however they chose to. This was done to eliminate as much of an influence we had upon their answers as we could. That said, there was never a single interviewee with the same story as any of the others. The only detail-specific similarities within these stories were the ways in which forms of institutional oppression affected their lives.

Two common themes among the responses were identity issues and marginalization. The identity-based issues were in regards to feelings about being Asian American. Our interviewees all expressed displeasure or experience in dealing with the idea they are somehow half-Asian and half-American. To clarify, as a Chinese American I do not know what it means to be Chinese or American, but I do know what it means to be Chinese American. Our identities are not halves but wholes. The “Asian” cannot be separated from the “American” just as the “American” cannot be separated from the “Asian.”

Many of our interviewees expressed a sense of tokenization whether in coming to the UW or before then. This form of marginalization is a common experience among people of color, not just Asian Americans. Tokenization was expressed in numerous interviews in varying degrees from outright recognition to alluding heavily to being tokenized.

Once again, these six students are in no way representative of the entire Asian student population enrolled at UW Seattle. These students are representative of the voices and stories that get lost when “Asian” is widely applied in broad strokes. As representatives ourselves, we felt it was necessary to highlight and celebrate these overlooked voices. To be Asian American is to be a part of a long history filled with diverse people and stories.

varsha

Varsha Govindaraju
Indian American
Law, Societies and Justice/Anthropology Major
Junior

How do you define diversity?

I define diversity as the multiple unique intersections of privilege and oppression based on identities that shape the way you interact with the world and the world interacts with you.

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

My family went through a lot as immigrants with family abroad, having no support system in America, and trying to figure out how to be brown in a white country.

How hasn’t it colored my life? Everything is different because I’m brown. I don’t fit into categories of white or brown, American or Indian. I can’t be a part of the Indian community because my language, accent, gestures, mannerisms all betray me. I can’t be a part of the white community because look at me, who the hell would think I’m white? No one. It’s been really hard trying to figure out the hyphens that surround my identity, while paying respect to a history, understanding my desires aren’t always mine, and that life itself is formed in these tensions.

litthideth

Litthideth Phansiri
Laotian American
Intended Computer Science/Informatics Major
Transfer Sophomore

How would you define diversity?

The way I define diversity is one, look at my background, there’s only a certain percentage of Laotians where I grew up. In high school there was maybe about two or three including me. I joined the Marine Corp and only met a handful of Laotians throughout the entire Marine Corp, whereas the population of the Marine Corp is supposed to reflect that of the United States. So, meeting and interacting with different people from all races down to where you grown up is what I consider diversity.

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

[Being Asian American has colored my life] because I’m Laotian, and because there are not so many of us. Going to school, I actually had no Laotian family members that went to school with me in the same grade. So I didn’t actually talk with any of them unless I knew they were Laotian. My brothers on the other hand always had some type of cousin that went in the same grade as them, so they were able to hang out, you know, stay connected. Me, I definitely had to branch out because there were none. And then during the summer when I was growing up, in high school, I spent most of my time in Kansas University, trying to do something to better myself. My other brothers were hanging out with the cousins and doing things with them. So, in the long run, I knew that for me to be successful is to break away from ethnicity pretty much. I mean, although I know where I came from, the only way for me to be successful was to move past that and try to accomplish something better than who I am. I knew I needed to break away so that’s why I joined the Marine Corp in the first place, is because I didn’t want my ethnicity to be the factor that I won’t be able to do things in life. So that’s one of the reasons I’m here at UW because I know that there are not so many of us around that are successful.

christina

Christina Xiao
Chinese American
Informatics Major
Junior

How would you define diversity?

I would define diversity as all of the different identities a person holds and how all of those different identities sort of shape how the world sees them and how they see the world. And how they interact with the world and how the world interacts with them. That varies a lot for every person. You can draw some similarities between the same ethnic groups, or genders, or socio-economic status. You can draw some similarities between groups, but really every person holds a different set of identities and that really shapes how they see the world. It’s really important to value the different perspectives that people bring and hold different sets of identities. And they have different perspectives and it allows them to see different problems and different issues within our society. Drawing on that different perspective you can come up with different solutions and you can come up with new solutions, more innovative solutions, more creative and effective solutions that actually benefit everyone instead of a majority.”

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

One thing that’s frustrating about being an Asian American, because we are seen as being the model minority, is that in some ways as an Asian American you aren’t even allowed to identify as a person of color even though you face some of the same discriminations. So because some Asian Americans have gained certain privileges it kind of polarizes you and puts you on the opposite side of people of color. You aren’t even allowed to identify with that struggle because we have gained some of those privileges.

And because it’s that huge category of Asian American, that means no Asian American can identify in that way. That’s absolutely false because there are a lot of Asian Americans within that huge category that still are facing huge barriers. That has been hard because as an Asian American you’re like, “Am I a person of color?” I don’t know, because people are telling me I’m not because some people have gained these privileges but there’s still things I have to deal with everyday. I’m never going to be considered and seen and have the same things as a white person does.

Nasiroh Mathno
Cham Muslim American
Environmental Science and Resource Management Major
Junior

How would you define diversity?

Diversity is a very tough subject because it has to deal with background, race, and history, and all these different things. So, I wouldn’t be able to define diversity, because I’m still confused by that word.

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

Being Asian American. Being raised in South Seattle, where there is a Cham Asian American community, even if it’s not the same ethnic community, they’re also really well connected. I grew up with a very good sense of pride of where I’m from as an individual, not just as a quote on quote “Asian” I guess, but as an individual of my own ethnic group and being a part of a bigger community. I grew up with a really strong sense of where I am, where I come from, the history of what happened to my parents and a lot of people like them. So coming from South Seattle, that community of Asian America shaped me now into being very grounded in who I am. Then coming to UW, it kind of changed from being very grounded to being kind of like a statistic in a way—where you’re the minority and you’re kind of the token minority that they kind of want to parade every so often.

minna

Minna Kim
Korean American
Law, Society, and Justice/Political Science major
Junior

How would you define diversity?

I don’t think diversity is always just defined by race or ethnicity. There is just an extent. Since I grew up in the country, coming from the country to the city, even that in itself there’s such diverse people … and I would say diversity would be the various elements of people’s lives that define a person. Whether that be their race, their education background, their hobbies, how they look, how they talk, what they do, just everything in general and whatever makes that person unique would contribute to this whole aspect of diversity.

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

Growing up in an essentially white community, a small town, that in part has defined a lot of my Asian [experience]. I never really recognized how important it was until I came to college. Because in high school I hung out with essentially no Asians, I didn’t really recognize the importance and special weight of being Asian. I think that growing up as a token Asian, coming to college it was a culture shock. It’s weird because it’s a culture shock within my own culture. Growing up, being Korean American was kind of a home thing. My language, what I ate, my morals, my habits, they were all maybe reinforced at home. … But coming here I felt more comfortable, first initially, around white people, because I had just grown up with white people. I almost didn’t prefer being around Asian Americans. I had always been used to the token Asian girl. Being just a part of the larger “Asian” community was something I wasn’t really used to or seeked.

geomarc

Geomarc Manahan Panelo
Filipino
American Ethnic Studies
Junior

How would you define diversity?

Diversity means being different, but still able to harmoniously live together. People might not understand each other well but there is that respect with everyone living together. … It’s embracing everyone’s culture, color, tradition.

Describe your experience as an Asian American. How do you think being Asian American has colored your life?

I can go back to my experience being Filipino in Riverridge. Being the new Filipino, being, I wouldn’t say bullied, but I got teased a lot there. Looking back now, when I first started college, I [told] myself that I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m not this Filipino they thought [I was] because they can’t really define me. My whole experience there affected how I wanted to be when I grow up, which is to be a professor and be a person to educate people about Asian American experiences. I want people to understand and learn about how Asians are so diverse and we all have different experiences coming and living here.

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