How to Be Asian In America

The first, and perhaps only, rule of being “Asian” in America is, in fact, not necessarily to be Asian…

The first, and perhaps only, rule of being “Asian” in America is, in fact, not necessarily to be Asian, by which I mean the full spectrum of immigrants from all of Asia; but to be East Asian, which refers to people descended from China, Japan, or Korea.

A quick Google search of “Asian models” or “Asian actors” reveals a short list comprised of mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Korean public figures.  I wish you luck finding multiple mainstream, well-known, household-name Asian celebrities who happen to be Filipino, or Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian, from any of the other countless countries that happen to make up Asia as well.  An additional qualifier; not just well-known non-East Asian Asian celebrities; ones who publicly identify as Asian; who receive “Asian” roles and “Asian” jobs and “Asian” recognition.

This is particularly interesting, especially when taken into account that aside from English and Spanish, Tagalog – the second national language of the Philippines – is the most commonly spoken language in California, Washington, Nevada, and Hawaii.  This means almost one million people per state speak Tagalog.  The same applies for Vietnamese, which after English and Spanish, is the most commonly spoken language in Texas, Washington, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.  Similarly, Hmong is the most commonly spoken language in Minnesota, again after English and Spanish.  East Asian languages are only the most commonly spoken in three other states; Korean gets Georgia and Virginia, Chinese gets the state of New York.

The first Asian immigrants to the United States were “Luzonians”, Filipinos who settled in Morro Bay, California, in 1587. All this shows there certainly is no shortage of South and South-east Asian-Americans, nor a shortage of South and South-east Asian history or impact in the United States. So where are we?  Where is our representation in the media of this country we are such a large part of, that we consume just as much as any other Asian or race?  Where are the visibility and focus afforded to our East Asian peers but rarely, if ever, given to us, when we have contributed so much? The answer to that question is not the answer we hope for, but one that, if you know where to look, is painfully apparent.

We are domestic service workers; housekeepers, drivers, au pairs, maids.  We are nail techs in salons.  We are janitors and menial IT workers.  We are hairdressers, call centre operators, low-level accountants, farmhands, and registered nurses.  To be clear, we can be and in many cases are successful, as there are plenty of South and South-east Asian people with high-flying jobs and large salaries, respected by their colleagues and respected in their communities.

But when someone says “Vietnamese”, or “Filipino” or “Indian”, America doesn’t think of the PhDs, the CEOs and CFOs, the lawyers, the executives, engineers, inventors, innovators, dancers and poets, writers and photographers, senators and leaders.

America thinks only of the Vietnamese woman who does your nails and speaks accented English, the Filipino man in the call centre who addresses you as “Sir”, the Indian couple with H1-B visas, taking your tech job away from you.

All I can think about, however, is my Filipino grandfather, who won a FAMAS award – one of the most prestigious film awards in the Philippines – for sound direction and nominated for three other film awards;  My best friend, a Vietnamese girl who’s talent in art is such that she’s won multiple national and California awards for her illustrations;.  Another best friend’s Indonesian cousins, twins, who after being selected for Asia’s Next Top Model’s fifth season, have been catapulted into Asian mega-stardom; These same twins also happen to have degrees in microbiology and bioengineering, respectively;  Prashant Ranganathan, an Indian 12th grader who won Intel’s US Science Fair in the environmental engineering category; My Sikh Indian classmate, who wants to be the founder and CEO of her own nanotechnology company.

I do also think about all of our South and South-east Asian brothers and sisters who do work in the service industry, who are IT workers and farm workers, registered nurses, call centre operators, hairdressers and nail salon techs, and I am just as proud of them for working hard, persevering, and succeeding in this country.

I’m a senior in high school; I’m surrounded by intelligent, talented peers, many of whom are South and Southeast Asian.  We are suffused with the excitement of college applications, potential careers, graduation.  Our futures are unfolding in front of us, our potential and the impact we could leave on our world is endless.  The only thing we ask is that America not hold us to the stereotypes and expectations placed on the generations of Asians, all Asians, before us, and instead that we be given the same courtesies, opportunities, and representation afforded our East Asian peers.

Perhaps one day, maybe even the same treatment as our European peers.

Art credit: Vivi


On the author: Amelia is a Chinese Filipina high school senior, writing out of California, United States.  She has been involved in social justice since 6th grade, starting with the Occupy movements and most recently the executive order Muslim ban, and hopes to pursue an International Relations degree in university.  Her favorite food is boba.

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