More Than a Minority, Less Than an Asian

By Guest Contributor: Akshita Gupta

Asia is the world’s largest continent. It occupies 30% of the world’s area and encompasses a booming 4.4 billion population. With a continent so huge, it’s needless to say that diversity lies everywhere, in every part of Asia. Yet, in a common man’s mindset, Asia is limited only to East Asia, although the continent is divided into six distinct parts: North, South, East, West, South-east and Central. Asians from anywhere other than the East are dubbed “not Asians”, “not real Asians” and “not Asian enough” and are unconsciously fed into a trap of a compressed checklist of  physical features as to what an Asian looks like, or should look like according to outsiders.

Aside from being absolutely incorrect, this common and unofficial terminology has become something people have unknowingly accepted. It has seeped into our thinking system, and has led to the offensive disregard of us non-East Asians as not being Asian. Such a treatment contributes to our feeling of alienation and being left out of place.

Not including non-East Asians in the term Asians excludes and wrongfully eradicates our identity. Growing up, I was taught that as India lies in Asia, and since I was Indian, I was Asian. I was Indian, but I was Asian too. I was sure of it.

As I got older, I started to identify more with the term “brown”. At the time, brown in terms of colour meant being neither fair enough nor dark enough– although it has less to do with colour than with the place where one is from. I thought the term was perfect.

Increasingly, however, I became uncomfortable with the term “brown”. Sure, I was Indian, and I was Asian; and I was no doubt a brown girl. But the tag felt more like a consolation prize than an identity. It was already too late when I realised that both Non-Asians as well as Asians didn’t consider ‘Brown Asians’ to be really or fully Asian.

I’m completely okay with being called Indian, but even till now the term has wrong preconceived notions to it. People from the West have always linked India with poverty and underdevelopment; whereas India is a highly modern developing country. It’s surprising when people in US ask me if “there’s TV in India” when practically every modern day used technology is used on a daily basis by all middle class Indians. When my friend’s sister went abroad, people would flat out believe her when she jokingly said that she used to go to school on an elephant and live in a jungle. It was funny at first, but soon it became upsetting. I didn’t want people to think of Indians this way, and I didn’t want them to keep denying my existence as an Asian. The exclusion of Brown Asians has been reinforced time and again through pop culture, media and daily interactions. We’re all complicit in this exclusionary mindset: you, me, and all of us. The recent movie, Crazy Rich Asians, which featured an all-Asian cast, has been praised for its representation of Asian people; yet Brown people in the film were minimized as maids, gardeners, and guards. I felt ashamed by this portrayal of Brown people as befitting only subservient roles to rich East Asians. Sangeeta Thanapal, a Singapore-Indian writer and activist,  remarked: “The dominance of East Asia in the worldwide imagination of who constitutes the idea of Asia is troubling, especially since brown Asians make up a sizable portion of the continent.”

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Many non-Asians share a common stereotype of Asians: Asians have small eyes, monolids, a fair face, short hair,  and they’re all-similar looking. I don’t fit into these simple tags, and it makes the world see me as less Asian, if not Asian at all. As an Indian I know I am brown, but who are Brown people? Does it literally mean people with brown skin? If so, Americans with a darker skin tone would be “Brown”, while white-appearing Indians would be “White”.

But, it doesn’t work like that.

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The Office of Management and Budget established federal guidelines for defining “Asians” as  “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam”. In other words, a person being born in Asia and/or having Asian parents makes him Asian, regardless of how much they resemble the stereotype of what an ‘Asian’ looks like. Why is it, then, that non-Asians still dismiss me as not Asian or not a “real Asian” when I fulfill those requirements? Non-Asians who disregard brown or dark-skinned people as ‘not Asian’ or not ‘like an Asian’ because they don’t look East Asian often also equate Chinese, Korean and Japanese people because of similar features — as if to confuse ethnicity and appearance. Meanwhile, South Asians and Russians are not considered Asian because of the difference in their physical features from East Asians.

The diversity of people who fall under the pan-ethnic Asian American identifier means that many of us might share a political history even while we might lack physical or cultural similarities. Some wonder whether that history, alone, is enough to maintain our political ties; especially when it comes naturally for many of us to struggle to find commonality with other Asians who look different than ourselves, who speak different languages, and who celebrate different cultural practices. We might all be Asian, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

Lucy, a Filipina student at Iowa State University said, “Growing up, I never knew which box to check when identifying myself. I came to strongly identify myself as Pacific Islander until the definitions changed to becoming more explicit and limited. Filipinos were excluded from Pacific Islanders and were added to Asians. I accepted and allowed that to become a salient part of who I am and joined the Asian club in my school. There was a disconnect between me and the rest of my Asian peers. They viewed me as “less Asian” because I didn’t use chopsticks, something Filipinos can’t do because of colonisation. It made me question if I had a place I’m Asian spaces.”

Even East Asians can face pressure about not being “Asian enough” or not fitting into their culture. Sam, who is a biracial Korean American, said that since she is White-passing, she has always been the target of prejudiced comments. “Since I was little, people would say, ‘oh, I never really thought of you as Asian’; or, ‘but, you look so White!” Even around relatives I’ve never felt Korean enough or Asian enough. I don’t have the habits or ideals my grandparents passed on to my mother. I stick out like a sore thumb in their eyes because of that.”

Sophie Celiene from Pennsylvania, who is a mixed race Filipina, Chinese American with Dutch and Irish ancestry, agrees about the complexity of mixed race identity. “I feel compelled to spell out the entirety of my race so that I’m not accused of lying. I’ve been told so many times I’m not a Filipina,” she says.

Meanwhile, someone on Instagram once told Ansuya, a girl of Indo-Guyanese descent, that she wasn’t Asian because she was too mixed. “She said I would never experience the true struggles of being an Asian and I was trying to steal her identity,” says Ansuya.

* * *

Asians are too often told who we are, who we’re not, who we should be and where we are from. This often comes from people who have no authority on this subject.

Hufrish, who is Indian Canadian, told me how her classmates in Canada would refuse to believe she was from Asia. One time she had an assignment in which she had to make a PowerPoint presentation about the continent she was from; none of her friends thought it was ‘correct’ of her to make it on Asia.

Hillary M, a Filipino teenager said, “When I used to introduce myself to people, they would tell me I was a Pacific Islander, or not Asian because I didn’t look like it.” Apparently, because Hillary didn’t have ‘light skin and straight hair’ or wasn’t rich ‘like an Asian’, she had no claim over the Asian identity.

Hillary rejects this thinking: “I know I look different, but a person cannot define my racial history or association solely based on my physical features. I am a proud Filipino. It’s an identity I have struggled to accept because so many people have told me otherwise.”

Another Filipina, Natalie Carpizo, who moved to the US when she was four, says: “I remember the very first time when I didn’t feel Asian enough. I was seven, and I told a kid in summer camp that I was Asian. He replied, ‘You’re not Asian, your eyes don’t go like this,’ and he proceeded to stretch his eyes out. I started crying because I didn’t know how else to show him my racial background was valid.”

Asia is different for everyone; it always has been. Asian can mean a shared political project; an array of cultural heritages; a grouping of different nationalities; and more. For each of us, the word “Asia” holds an individual significance.  What remains true for me is that there is no single, defining Asian identity or experience. Non-Asians group certain Asians together based on shared physical features, and in so doing, assert that their definition of what is — and what isn’t — Asian carries more weight than our own. I reject that thinking. My identity as a Brown Asian girl is as valid as that of any East Asian.

No person’s ignorance changes who you fundamentally are. Instead, what really matters is rejecting the stereotypes you grew up with; and working to at least know yourself for yourself and no one else.

Akshita Gupta is a freelance writer.

Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest contributor program and submit your own writing here.

All Immigrants Deserve to Not Just Arrive, but Also to Thrive

Students at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Leesburg line up for breakfast. (Photo credit: Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

By Guest Contributor: Quyen Dinh, MPP (Executive Director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center)

I grew up poor but never knew just how I poor was until I hit middle school.

In elementary school, my day started with getting breakfast from the cafeteria window, where I got to choose a cereal box along with a small carton of milk from our cafeteria lady, Angie.  She had short curly silver hair and always happily provided us our breakfast, along with a great smile.

For lunch, I lined up with the rest of my classmates to get lunch from Angie, too. Each of us carried a small envelope with our names on it.

I didn’t realize, though, that my envelope was different from the other students.  While other students had money in their envelopes with cash to pay for the weekly price of school lunch, mine was empty. Instead, my envelope had my name on it along with five checked boxes for every day of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday –that I was able to receive free lunch.

Continue reading “All Immigrants Deserve to Not Just Arrive, but Also to Thrive”

My journey as an undocumented immigrant

I’m on the right making the grumpy face. I was five, on a family road trip with my cousins around the island of Taiwan. (Photo credit: Yin Yin Chan)

By Guest Contributor: Yin Yin Chan (@yinychan)

My daughter, Mia, has another year in preschool, and her father and I are assessing our best options for her educational future. The original plan was to raise her in Taiwan before she reached kindergarten age when we would move back to America for grade school. Although I was born in British Hong Kong, Taiwan is my mother’s native country and where I had lived from ages two to seven.

We had hoped for Mia to develop an understanding of her family’s background by directly immersing her in our ancestral language and culture. But after two years in Taipei, we shortened our plans and created new roots in Los Angeles when Mia turned three. As it turned out, adapting to the Taiwanese culture, climate and language was just too challenging for us as Asian-Americans.

We chose Los Angeles for its vastly diverse spread of people and neighborhoods with access to top schools, museums, and cultural centers. The resources the city offer falls inline with our aspirations of providing Mia with the best education we can afford.

Being an American-born citizen with Asian-American parents, Mia moved back to the US with relative ease. This was in great contrast with my own experience moving from Taiwan to America; I was seven years old when my parents and I came to the US as undocumented immigrants, a status that would shape the rest of my life.

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Behind LA Chinatown’s Hip Food Scene: Baos, Coffee, and Gentrification

The interior of the restaurant J&K Hong Kong Cuisine. (Photo credit: F. Huynh)

By Guest Contributor: Frances Huynh

Read the first of this series: “The Gentrification of Los Angeles Chinatown: How Do We Talk About It?”

* * *

A quietness lingers as we set up shop. Empty streets fill with the jostle of clothing racks. The multiple clicks of stoves turning on. The soft smack of noodle to plate. Doors open.

On the top floor of Far East Plaza stands 香港美食坊 (J&K Hong Kong Cuisine), a 茶餐廳 (cha chaan teng — a specific type of Hong-Kong style diner). Cantonese shows play on the television in the background, while seniors chat with friends and family at the tables all around. For many of Chinatown’s residents, it is one of a handful of go-to restaurants in the neighborhood for plates of Cantonese comfort food. Peter, a long-time resident, enjoys eating their 海鮮粥 (seafood congee) and 水餃 (dumplings). “很平 (It’s very inexpensive),” Lee Tai Tai, another resident, says. The restaurant is an important community space, providing Chinatown’s seniors an accessible place to hang out and to socialize with friends over dishes reminiscent of those found in the homelands they immigrated from. They also frequent other small shops, including New Dragon, Zen Mei Bistro, and Fortune Gourmet Kitchen, in addition to larger banquet-style restaurants such as CBS Seafood Restaurant, Regent Inn, Full House Seafood Restaurant, and Golden Dragon.

Every morning Monday to Friday, Julie, who has lived in Chinatown for over thirty years, joins about sixty other seniors to eat at Golden Dragon, a longstanding Cantonese restaurant commonly frequented by residents and visiting families. She enjoys eating the healthy meals provided by the “senior nutrition lunch” program held there.1St. Barnabas Senior Services is a non-profit organization that provides free nutritious meals to low-income adults 60 years and older at fourteen congregate meals sites including Golden Dragon. There is a suggested donation. Afterwards, she walks home to her apartment several blocks away and spends the rest of the day listening to the radio and watching Hong Kong dramas. When dinner time comes, she walks to one of several restaurants in the neighborhood to buy what she considers “fast food”: convenient Chinese takeout. By then, she notes, time just passes by.

Continue reading “Behind LA Chinatown’s Hip Food Scene: Baos, Coffee, and Gentrification”

Fighting for equal pay for Southeast Asian American women

Cropped Infographic for AAPI Equal Pay Day (Photo Credit: NAPAWF)

By Guest Contributors: Sung Yeon Choimorrow and Vimala Phongsavanh, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum

Disaggregated data indicates that Southeast Asian women in the U.S. are making on average 61 cents to the white male dollar — and this pay disparity is hurting their ability to make choices about their bodies, their lives, and their families.

Imagine having to work an extra nine months to for your pay to catch up to that of a white American man. For millions of Southeast Asian American women, this is no fictional scenario.

In 1981, Vimala’s parents and sister fled the country of Laos to escape political persecution and arrived in Rhode Island as refugees. Just a few months after settling in, her mother, Kongdeaune, began working at a factory where she ended up being paid the same minimum wage for the next 35 years of her life. She worked many 16 hour days just to be able to afford to give her kids a comfortable life and send some money back home to her family in Laos — and she did all of this without paid sick leave or vacation. Vimala saw the weight of the financial burden take a toll on her mother’s emotional and physical health. Women like Kongdeaune would have greatly benefited from equal pay and — and it’s about time they get it.

Continue reading “Fighting for equal pay for Southeast Asian American women”