I often wonder: will I ever be American enough for the country I was born and raised in? Will I ever be Minnesotan enough for the state that I grew up in? From Chinese exclusion to Japanese internment, has there ever been a time when Asian Americans weren’t a hair’s width away from being aliens? Our history has been manipulated and molded into something palatable that whiteness is comfortable with. We have been doled out slivers of humanity on the condition of our complicity. But anything — a war, a pandemic, a skit — can expose how dispensable we have always been to them.
I miss the bustling streets of Shanghai with their never-ending streams of pedestrians going to and from work. The smell of cigarettes and a slight hint of sewage, but also of the cong you bing frying on a nearby street cart. I miss the yell of Chinese and the concert of people moving, going, hustling, doing. The streets of Shanghai are where I’m from; my parents immigrated in 1990. I was born nine years later in Corpus Christi, Texas, a world away from the origins of my blood. I grew up grossed out by the Chinese food my mother made and embarrassed by my parent’s accents when we went out in public. So much of my life has been spent trying to assimilate myself into my whiter surroundings, rejecting all the yellow parts of me.
2.2 million amounts to the entire population of Houston, Texas. It adds up to the entire U.S. population of Japanese-Americans and Korean-Americans combined.
I am one of 2.2 million and I know I’m not alone, especially in this political era where we breathe toxic stress-like fumes. In this trumped-up climate of racist fire and ICE, any one of us could face mental health challenges at any given moment, just as any one of us feeling well today could wake up tomorrow with a cold.
During my last year of university, I decided to explore beyond my close-knit group of friends and join some new clubs while I still had the opportunity. During Clubs Week, when all the clubs on campus set up booths in the common areas, one that caught my attention was the Asian Students’ Society. When I walked up to their table, the girl there told me non-Asians were welcome.
“I’m Asian,” I told her. She blinked at me.
I still joined, paid the dues, and went to one event, because I become stubborn when I’m made to feel that I don’t belong somewhere. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one at that event who looked like me, and not one person among the hundreds of attendees did anything but politely look past me.
The experience stayed with me, because it drove home a point that until then had been a vague constant in my peripheral awareness: In North America, when we say “Asian,” we mean East Asian. (I went to school at the University of Toronto, but although Canada’s relationship with race differs from ours in important ways, they have generally treated their Asian diaspora similarly to the US—unlike, for example, the U.K, where “Asian” has historically referred primarily to South Asians.) As a brown Asian American of Pakistani descent who often gets mistaken for Arab, I am used to not being included in this category that I clearly belong to.
We often hear about the success of Asian Americans who are emblematic of the “model minority” stereotype. But we rarely hear the voices of those who fall through the cracks. The term AAPI, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was popularized by the Obama Administration from among several terms which already existed. It encompasses not only East Asian and Indian American immigrants who on average possess more degrees and levels of education when they immigrated to the US, but also the Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders who are not as well off. And when the public only has one “model minority” conception of AAPIs, comparably marginal peoples are too often forgotten.
These were not the only stories about Asian Americans circulating in public discourse. In an October New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof asked what he framed as an “awkward question”, wondering, “Why are Asian-Americans so successful in America?” A week earlier, an author at The Economist (unidentified, as per The Economist’s practice) had penned a piece about how “The Model Minority is Losing Patience,” referencing the joint complaint against Harvard to the Department of Education made by a group of Asian American groups.
Both pieces exhibit more nuance than other Model Minority hot takes routinely peddled out in the mainstream. But both pieces are still painfully clumsy in talking about Asian Americans, especially when considering the broader political and historical context of race in America. (And there were indeed swiftresponseshighlightingtheir flaws.)
 cultural capital, i.e. knowledge on how to navigate dominant cultural norms. C.f. Pierre Bourdieu and Paul DiMaggio. Both pieces also cite (and arguably misunderstand) sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s research that suggests coethnic resources and networks—what they term as “ethnic capital”—account for intergenerational success among Vietnamese and Chinese Americans in a way that the prevailing socioeconomic and cultural explanatory models of intergenerational mobility do not. As the educational and economic attainment of some Asian American populations continues to both fascinate and confound commentators, Asian Americans are now finally making significant strides in what is sometimes posed in contrast to “successes” in educational and economic attainment: media representation.