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In Defense of Asian American Identity: Reflections from a Chinese American Adoptee

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

By Emily Thoman, Ph.D student

When I was first approached about writing this blog post, I was excited–finally, an official space for me to share my perspective on Asian American issues that mattered to me! But as I started the writing process, that excitement quickly wore off and imposter syndrome set in. Not in the traditional way you might think, though. For me, the concern was not about my ability to write or speak about a topic intelligently (though to be fair, those are usually my biggest concerns). It was about whether or not I was even Asian enough to write a blog post for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the first place.

“Chinese, but not Chinese Chinese”

My Asian American identity and I have always had a rocky relationship. As a Chinese American adoptee[1] with white adoptive parents, I have always had to reckon with my otherness in white spaces. But I have also had to reckon with my otherness in Asian spaces. When I was young, my parents made the decision to send me to a Chinese immersion school. They wanted me to learn more about my culture and learn Mandarin. Most importantly, they wanted me to be around other Asian American kids. On the surface, this seems as if it would be incredibly affirming. And in some ways, it was. I do think that growing up with Chinese American peers and teachers provided an insight into Chinese culture that I would not have gotten otherwise. However, my teachers made it clear that I was not the same as my friends with Chinese parents. I was “Chinese, but not Chinese Chinese,” as my eye doctor so casually phrased it in between greeting me and determining whether or not my prescription needed updating. I remember feeling shame, and later, grief. But I had no way of alleviating either of those feelings because what I felt ashamed of was something I could not change. And what I was grieving was something I never actually knew.

I know that I am not alone in feeling as though I am not represented during AAPI Month, or even in the term, “Asian American.”

Every May, AAPI Month rolls around. Every May, I am shown images of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have contributed to or influenced the history and culture of the United States. Every May, I search for someone who looks like me, has a similar story, and shares my outlook. And every May, I am disappointed.

I know that I am not alone in feeling as though I am not represented during AAPI Month, or even in the term, “Asian American.” Inspired by the Black Power and American Indian Movements, “Asian American” first emerged in the 1960s for a political purpose. Asian American activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined the phrase to create a coalition of Asian ethnic groups to combat shared experiences of racism as well as American imperialism abroad (Kambhampaty, 2020). And yet when people say, “Asian American,” they often picture Eastern Asians, specifically people from China. Therefore if I, as a Chinese American adoptee, do not feel represented when someone says “Asian American,” what must others feel? Or do their racial and ethnic identities not matter to them in the same way they do to me?

Earlier this semester, while I was researching literature about Asian American identity development for one of my classes, I stumbled across an article in the New York Times by Jay Caspian Kang titled, “The Myth of Asian American Identity.” In one of the sections, he discusses some of the responses he saw from the Asian American community after the Atlanta Spa Shooting. Kang writes:

[A]s long as these tragedies reroute the specific class, immigration and gender politics at play into the squishier problems of professional Asian Americans, the nation that’s built will too often ask, “Why aren’t we treated like white people?” instead of, “What can we do to liberate ourselves and all other oppressed people?”

His discussion about the position of Asian Americans proves important. Asian Americans (with the exception of biracial and multiracial Asian Americans), occupy a unique racial position as neither white nor Black in a country that has historically operated on a Black-white binary. Previous scholars (Kim, 1999; Matsuda, 1990) have written about this at great length, and have also helped inform my thinking about my own positionality. Because if being a Chinese American daughter to white adoptive parents taught me anything, it was that I was very clearly not white–but I was also not Black, and because of the way the United States (and the world) has systemically devalued and dehumanized Black lives, then I, by definition of my being, possess privilege in this regard. I have had to reckon with my Asian identity, my whiteness, but also my anti-Blackness. And sometimes, when expressing my sentiments about anti-Blackness and colorism within the Asian American community, my legitimacy as an Asian American has been called into question. Which brings me to the heart of this blog post.

Asian American identity is messy, but I do not think that it is a myth. It is a myth if you understand it from a colonial, capitalist, white, western perspective that requires anything “other” to somehow neatly fall into a category. But it is not a myth if you choose to understand it as something more fluid and dynamic that holds different meanings for different people. Even if that meaning is nothing more than having to check a box on a form. Despite the fact that this degree of detachment makes me want to pull my hair out, I also know what it is like to have people invalidate my perspective as an Asian American because it did not match theirs. So I try my best not to do the same.

I hope that we remember the history of the term, “Asian American” and stay politically engaged towards collective liberation.

As I think about what my Asian American identity means to me, I think back to its political beginnings, and then to Kang’s words about a nation built on assimilating into whiteness. I hope that we remember the history of the term, “Asian American” and stay politically engaged–not towards efforts such as banning affirmative action, but towards collective liberation. If I have not yet convinced you, I encourage you to think about the conditional nature of our safety. Silence and whiteness will not save us. COVID-19 reminded everyone how quickly we can go from model minorities[2] to the “yellow peril.” Even if our understanding and importance attached to our identities are different, we are still racialized as Asian American–perpetually foreign and different. And different, within the white, western, colonial landscape of the United States, will always be dangerous.

I leave you with the conclusion of Matsuda’s speech at a fundraising banquet to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990:

“When I told a friend about this speech, he sent me a news clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle about Asian Americans as a retailer’s dream. It starts out, ‘[t]hey’re young, [t]hey’re single, [t]hey’re college-educated, and on the white-collar track. And they like to shop for fun.’ Does that describe you? Well, it may describe me, too. But I hope there is more to Asian-American identity than that. I hope we will be known to history as a people who remember the hard road of their ancestors and who shared, therefore, a special commitment to social justice. This song is now at an end, a song of my hope that we will not be used.”


[1] Chinese American adoptees (and transracial/transnational adoptees) all have different perspectives. What I am writing applies to me. I do not speak for all Asians, Asian Americans, or even Chinese American Adoptees.

[2] I recognize that the model minority myth has historically only applied to specific groups of Asians, especially Eastern, lighter skinned Asians such as myself.

Emily Thoman, PhD Student, Economic & Racial Equity (ERE) Concentration

References

Kambhampaty, A. P. (2020, May 22). In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term ‘Asian American’—And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy. Time. https://time.com/5837805/asian-american-history/

Kang, K. C. (2021, Oct. 18). The Myth of Asian American Identity. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/05/magazine/asian-american-identity.html

Kim, K. (1999). The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society, 27(1), 105-138. 

Matsuda, M. (1990). We Will Not Be Used: Are Asian Americans the Racial Bourgeoisie? In J. Y. S. Wu & T. Chen (Eds.), Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader (pp. 558-564).  Rutgers University Press