American-ness, Ever-elusive

What does it mean to be Asian and American in the United States?

by Karlos Bautista

Illustration by Floria Tsui

published May 1, 2020



As the number of coronavirus infections and deaths increases in the United States, so too do hate crimes against Asians in America. With COVID-19’s reported origin in Wuhan, China, some Americans have started associating the virus with Americans of Chinese and East Asian descent (our President did too, frequently calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” only later taking to Twitter to slightly back down, but not commenting on his use of the phrase: “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States”). 

There is a rising sense of fear among Americans of East Asian descent about the way they are perceived by their fellow non-Asian citizens. Some prominent figures have called for action, including former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. 

Yang embodies the dream that so many immigrants chase after: acquiring meaningful higher education, financial success, and stability. My parents sought that dream when they immigrated from the Philippines, seeing substantially more opportunity for mobility in the United States. When I was younger, my mom would be sure to remind me (at the time, a very picky eater) of the opportunity afforded to me being in America whenever I didn’t finish the food on my plate that a hungry child in the Philippines would be more than grateful to have. There is nothing more “American” than pursuing economic prosperity through freedom, hard work, and rugged individualism (maybe with the exception of running for the President of the United States). 

In a Washington Post op-ed, however, Yang called for the need for Asian Americans to “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Yang’s call suggests something more than showing patriotic pride. Why do we have to, as Yang implies, prove our “American-ness?” Isn’t being “Asian American” enough to show that, in fact, we are American? What does it mean to be “Asian American”? What does it even mean to be “American”? Should there be a difference between the two? Where do they converge and diverge? How has the “Asian American” identity been forged? How will it change? 




It’s December of 1969: More than 300 Asian Americans take to San Francisco’s streets to participate in a peace march on the moratorium of the Vietnam War. These protestors have not been calling themselves “Asian American” for that long—the term was first coined one year prior. In the decades leading up to the first usage of the phrase “Asian American,” White Americans had been content to refer to Asians in America as “Oriental,” bolstering the Western view of Asia that scholar Michael Keevak describes as “seductive, mysterious, full of pleasures and spices and perfumes and fantastic wealth.” This patronizing view of an alluring exoticism gave White Americans justification for othering Asians in America, silencing their voices in any important cultural or political discourse. 

The new term had been created as a rejection of that derogatory “Oriental” tag. “Asian-American” was coined in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka, an activist and historian at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of the Asian American Political Alliance. Ichioka also created the term to organize a pan-ethnic, political coalition composed of formerly disparate groups. These groups included Cambodian Americans, Indian Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Laotian Americans, and Vietnamese Americans, among many others. Inspired by the success of the Black Power Movement, Ichioka saw potential in a coalescing of these diverse Asian communities under shared history and aspirations. These aspirations consisted of advocating for socialist policies, anti-imperialism, the Black Liberation Movement, and the Women’s Liberation movement. While Ichioka and the activists he mobilized hoped that the term “Asian-American” would increase visibility for every American with Asian roots, that hasn’t exactly panned out. Most Americans associate “Asian American” with East Asian. In a study conducted by the National Asian American Survey in 2016, 42% of White Americans polled believed that Indians were “not likely to be” Asian or Asian American; 27% of Asian Americans polled answered the same. Though Ichioka wanted “Asian-American” to be as inclusive as possible, that just hasn’t happened. Even the use of the hyphen in the term has been subject to debate. While grammar experts view the exclusion of the hyphen as improper, community activists have argued that the use of “Asian” as a modifier diminishes their identity, giving the “American” part of the term more importance. In 2019, the Associated Press bid farewell to the hyphen in their stylebook guidelines, giving what proponents of the change describe as equal status for the “Asian” and “American” parts of Asian American identity.

Since the movement in the sixties, the Asian population, composed of people identifying as Chinese, Indian, Filipinx, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Cambodian, Hmong, Thai, Laotian, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Nepalese, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Bhutanese, and Mongolian, has seen the fastest growth in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau. “Asian American” has been used as a catch-all term to uniformly (mis)characterize this massively diverse and extensive group of people in the United States. The term is meant to encompass a myriad of ethnicities, cultures, and languages, from a swath of different nations on an enormous continent. There not only exists an inter-diversity among different Asian groups in America, but intra-diversity within those groups. Numerous religions, languages, dialects, income levels, and sexual identities can be found in just one ethnic group. However, the usage of the term rarely captures this mosaic of Asians in America.

While understanding American identity can affect any American of Asian descent, second-generation Americans of Asian descent face unique challenges while assimilating into American culture. The model minority stereotype is one of the historic root causes for these challenges. While the stereotype appears laudatory in portraying Americans of Asian descent as intelligent and well-adjusted, it perpetuates the false notion that this “model minority” is without meaningful problems. This stereotype also creates a pressure to assimilate, painting the “model minority” with a shiny veneer that endorses the perceived benefits of acculturation and the cultural capital that comes with English language proficiency and comfort in greater white society. For second-generation immigrants from East Asia and the Philippines, growing up and forming a sense of self is met not only with the external weight and pressure to succeed, but a dissonance between the collectivist and family-oriented culture belonging to their parents and the liberal, rugged individualist culture that American society demands. This dissonance, this constant in-betweenness, provides ripe opportunity for intergenerational conflict and interior turmoil. 

Second-generation immigrants feel the weight of cultural alienation from both their non-Asian and Asian peers. Studies from the University of Florida and the University of Chicago examining second-generation immigrant youth from East Asia and the Philippines have found that Americans of Asian descent experience feelings of social exclusion from their non-Asian peers. This alienation doesn’t come from non-Asians alone. Among second-generation youth there can exist a derogatory view of Asians who closely associate with their ethnic background as “fresh off the boat.” On the other hand, Asian youth who exhibit more “Americanized” qualities can be perceived as “white-washed.” Despite the negative connotation of the latter tag, second-generation youth seem to develop a preference for America’s liberal and individualist offerings, disparaging those who belong under the former tag as backwards and unequivocally “un-American.”




Ingrid Ren, a Brown University student who grew up as a second-generation Asian American in a Bay Area household with Chinese parents, described the inevitable assimilation of second-generation immigrants into American culture. “It’s complicated. If you immigrate anywhere, a certain assimilation will take place.” While she wouldn’t expect her experience to be true for every person in the Asian community in the Bay Area, she remarked on how the second-generation Asian youth around her felt that a desire to become more American went hand-in-hand with a desire to internalize and externalize whiteness growing up. “They thought, when they were in elementary school, that when they grew up, they would be white. They would start out as a child who is Asian, but they just had the idea that when they were an adult, they would be white,” Ingrid said.

This desire for whiteness isn’t specific to just Chinese and East Asian people in America. Kiara Pornan, a Brown University student who grew up in a Filipino household in San Diego, reflected on how perceived whiteness and “American-ness” impacts the Filipino-American identity. “There’s some fundamentally American part of Filipino identity, and that American part is also fundamentally anti-Filipino, xenophobic in general, based in imperial colonialism,” she said. The lingering presence of American colonialism in the Filipino consciousness makes the distinction between American culture and Filipino culture unclear. The paradox of the Filipino-American identity lies in its desires to submerge itself in favor of valuing American culture, whether it be consuming Western media, the lust for quintessentially American goods, or the purchase of skin-lightening products. “Part of our culture is being dark and wanting to erase that,” she added. “A lot of Filipino culture is chasing literally whiteness and White American-ness, so to fully accept one will always be a rejection of the other.”    

Filipino identity in America becomes especially complicated when considering the long history of Western imperialism and subjugation in the Philippines. After over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines came under American rule in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Americans viewed the Philippines as “The Pearl of the Orient,” foreseeing the strategically valuable location of the islands for wartime operations and trade with East Asia. America would see its role in the Philippines as a moral one. America viewed itself as a generous benefactor for the ignorant, uncivilized, “barbaric” Filipinos, instilling a Western-centrism that built on the vestiges of Spanish Eurocentrism and racial hierarchy. The United States encouraged “benevolent” assimilation into American culture and values on multiple fronts, ranging from establishing a public education system akin to America’s (that encouraged the erasure of the Filipino language in favor of English, further imposing Western values and education as the ideal) to the maintenance of American economic interests in the Philippines. While America granted the Philippines independence in 1946 after World War II, American-ness pervades the Filipino consciousness. “We don’t have access to our culture before American colonization and Spanish colonization so we don’t even know what is Filipino and what is not,” Kiara reflected. Western colonialism’s influence on the Philippines has produced a culture seeking to erase itself. In viewing the United States and the West as the gold standard, Filipinos value American culture over any non-American aspects that belong to a specifically Filipino sense of identity. The more American or Western you are, the more likely you are to take part in traditional American prosperity. Despite this valuation and the Filipino desire to emulate America and the West, there’s a double-bind at work here—“We still don’t feel completely accepted by America so we can’t feel completely accepted by ourselves,” Kiara added.

Ingrid and Kiara shared bewilderment at the rise of reported hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ingrid shared how those reports felt “surreal” to her. “I really thought we were past this by now,” Kiara said. 

While Ingrid and Kiara described the lack of an easy solution to the surge of hate crimes, they weren’t fully sold by Yang’s idea of what Americans of Asian descent should do. Kiara expressed deep criticism for Andrew Yang’s call. “This all read to me very much as, ‘come on guys, we got to show the White people that we’re good, that we’re the good guys.’ I don’t know why that’s my responsibility. Why do I have to show you that I’m American? What does that even mean? And why don’t you have to show me?” Kiara’s observation here shows that “American” isn’t simply a state of being for non-White Americans, but a status that has to be earned at every turn and can just as easily be taken away. “We have to go out of our way to be fucking American and [White Americans] just are,” she added. 

The rise of hate crimes against Americans of Asian descent is far from self-contained and anomalous. The politicization of the pandemic could create more and more challenges for Americans of Asian descent. Many communities, families, and individuals will face difficult choices if they continue being perceived as an un-American danger to fellow citizens.




Americans of Asian descent may find themselves caught in a Catch-22. Either you assimilate and appease, or you resist acculturation, not only risking social othering but also untempered vitriol and violence. The continuation of an ongoing acculturation could lead to the further deterioration of Asian identity to appease burgeoning oppressive White nationalism and a painstakingly white vision for the ideal American citizen. We need to closely interrogate our construction of what it means to be American and assess how fundamentally white it is. 

The complexities this pandemic will bring to understanding American identity won’t only be faced by Americans of Asian descent. Although the coronavirus infects across all class and racial boundaries, Black, Brown, and undocumented populations have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with the coronavirus infecting and killing populations of color at higher rates and undocumented and mixed-status families being left out of federal stimulus aid (to name just a few injustices and inequalities). The fabrics keeping our society together will be fundamentally changed in the coming months and years, and with that comes the potential for reevaluating what it fundamentally means to be American. 

My parents are American citizens. They immigrated from the Philippines in search of economic opportunity and a better quality of life. For them, ensuring that I had the best chance to partake in that opportunity and better quality of life meant raising me to be as “American” as possible. They didn’t want to teach me Tagalog or Filipino. My parents were worried that if I had learned to speak their native tongue, I would have picked up their Filipino accents, or even worse, that I would have found it difficult to learn and speak English. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed how distanced I am from my Filipino heritage—but I don’t blame my parents. They were well-intentioned and had more-than-valid concerns. But I wish the America they live in—and love and cherish—didn’t necessitate those concerns in the first place. America prides itself on being a cultural melting pot, but American-ness fits within agonizing and narrow confines. We need to recognize those confines and break them down. To say that this is a tall order would be a gross understatement, but, hopefully, we can come out of this crisis with a more inclusive and diverse vision of what it means to be American. 


KARLOS BAUTISTA B’23 has gotten less picky with his food.