Rain pools in the seats of folding chairs arranged haphazardly near an outdoor stage. Parents, huddling under umbrellas, have pushed the chairs aside, determined to capture photographs of their children performing a traditional Filipino dance against the backdrop of the United States Capitol, in Washington. An announcer thanks the families for spending their Saturday afternoon this way, despite the inclement weather.
“Anyway, for Asians, this is a blessing,” she says of the rain.
Such sweeping statements are true to the nature of Fiesta Asia, an annual festival held in Washington that aims to broadly celebrate Asian heritage in the US – essentially, commemorating the “Asian American” experience.
That term – Asian American – encompasses dozens of distinct ethnic identities, which, in our label-obsessed era, has splintered the community’s attitudes toward it. Some appreciate being lumped into the collective, while others question its utility.
Uncertainty remains: what does it actually mean to identify as Asian-American in 2018?
Melissa dela Cuesta stands under one of the many tents at Fiesta Asia, wearing a purple dress with puffy sleeves. She has a sash across her torso denoting her second runner-up place in a Miss Teen Philippines pageant and looks surprised when asked how she would identify herself. Isn’t the answer obvious?
“I am Filipino American,” declares the 17-year-old. The explanation gushes out: she is “in love” with her culture and feels as though it influences every aspect of her being. She does not understand why anyone would reject their ethnic identity, especially with their skin colour as evidence of it. She proudly calls herself a “morena”, a Spanish word used in the Philippines to describe women with darker skin and hair.
This is not uncommon among first-generation Americans, according to sociologist Dina Okamoto. If someone were to ask them the dreaded “But where are you really from?” question, the answer would most likely be the country their parents came from, not the continent. About two-thirds of Asian Americans identify primarily with their specific ethnicity, according to the research organisation AAPI Data.
They “reject the [broader] label because they view it as homogenising, and they don’t believe it really captures who they are”, says Okamoto, 47, author of the book Redefining Race (2014).
In the past, it was targeted discrimination that motivated the strong connections to their family’s country of origin. When Japanese Americans were incarcerated during the second world war, for example, some Chinese Americans wore buttons or carried signs that stated their ethnicity so they would not meet the same fate. A pan-ethnic identifier would have made little sense to them.
But that changed in 1968, when activist and historian Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” to serve as what Okamoto now calls a “rallying cry to build this broad, collective identity around”. He had witnessed the success of the Black Power movement, she says, and felt communities with Asian roots could also benefit from embracing their shared history.
Calling yourself Asian American meant rejecting the derogatory “Oriental” label in favour of self-definition. It meant discovering a sense of kinship in a population that remained quite small until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act loosened quotas set in place for non-European immigrants. And especially after the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man beaten to death by white autoworkers upset by competition from Japanese manufacturers, it meant banding together to combat widespread injustice.
Nicholas Lach, waiting for a Korean barbecue food truck parked at Fiesta Asia to prepare his lunch, says he would call himself Asian American because, as he puts it, “I’m Asian. I’m in America. That’s just how it works.” He was born to Cambodian refugees in Minnesota who “were just fortunate enough to find someone that nice to sponsor a random family”, he continues. “It’s crazy, thinking about it.”
Lach, 23, does not usually give much thought to his cultural identity, either – perhaps when he used to volunteer at a Buddhist temple, but not now he is stationed at Joint Base Andrews airbase in Maryland. After a pause, he adds that “maybe if I was born in Cambodia and then came here, I’d consider myself Cambodian American, because I’d be more attached to the culture”.
A few tents away, Lexi Crisostomo, 25, says his immigrant parents would probably be upset that official forms – such as those associated with standardised testing, or even the US Census – don’t usually include Filipino as an option. But he does not mind the lack of specificity. He has no problem with putting “them all under an Asian umbrella and everyone’s just there, you know? … I’m a little more accepting.”
But it isn’t always clear who comes under that umbrella – those of South Asian descent are often left out of Asian American discussions, and AAPI Data founder Karthick Ramakrishnan, 43, is not sure why. Many Asian Americans have experienced being treated like a perpetual foreigner, he says, but there are differences in how that manifests itself: East Asians might get called racial epithets or mocked for their accents, for example, whereas South Asians may be profiled at airports because “they’re perceived to be Muslim, whether they are or not”.
Instead of protesting on the streets, Asian Americans now try to gain power from within institutions, Okamoto says. These include offices such as the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, re-established in 2009 to collect data on the fastest growing racial group in the country.
When talked about in terms of the fight for greater representation in Hollywood, actors such as John Cho and Constance Wu are generally described as Asian American, rather than Korean American and Taiwanese American respectively.
“Even in pop culture, it’s fascinating,” Ramakrishnan says. “There’s a lot of energy about how we need more Asian representation in television and Hollywood, but many of the people don’t think of actors like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari as Asian.”
Brynn Hobelman, also waiting in the rain at Fiesta Asia, talks about her childhood fascination with South Korea. Her parents have always encouraged her to explore her heritage after adopting her from the country as a baby. She so immersed herself in the Korean culture that, when she recently said she was from Asia, an acquaintance stopped her.
“‘I thought you were Korean,’” Hobelman, 25, recalls them saying. “I’m like, OK … I don’t really identify with one more than the other. I’m well aware that Korea is in Asia.”
It is not always acase of one thing or the other, says Jenn Fang, 36, founder of the blog Reappropriate.co, who identifies as both Asian American and Chinese American. She says the broad term is popular among civic-minded college students who are taught its activist roots in their coursework.
Fang blindly signed up for an introductory Asian American studies course as a student at Cornell University and describes the first lecture as having been “completely mind-blowing”.
If you are lucky, she says, you might have read a paragraph or two about Japanese American internment camps or the Chinese Exclusion Act in high school. This particular course at Cornell had a 300-page textbook on Asian American history.
“We, as Asian Americans, are done a disservice by the fact that it takes going to a college before any of us learn about the basics of who we are and how we came to be in this country,” she says. “Most of us don’t get any kind of education about our history of immigration, what kinds of legislation was passed in regards to Asian Americans, the many ways we’ve impacted the course of American history.”
For Fang, being Asian American is part of her political identity and links her with the shared experience of others whose families immigrated from Asia. She says her cultural identity as a Chinese American “flavours the way I think about my Asian American identity because I recognise how that creates certain privileges, certain experiences and basically adds nuance to the way that I am an Asian American.”
The Washington Post