Who Is An Asian American?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

This weekend, Asian American Alliance (a campus group that I am a part of) is putting on their annual charity culture show, called CultureSHOCK. It's going to be an electrifying event with a great lineup including Hari Kondabolu, Kelly Tsai, Brown Star, and many other Asian American performers and designers as part of our fashion show. All the proceeds will go to supporting CAAAV, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. As with all of our work, we'll be working to highlight the broad variety of cultures and politics that exist in the Asian American community. Simple, you say? I think not.

Throughout the planning of this event, we've tried to encompass as much material as is possible to put into one show about Asian Americans - and it raises a lot of intense questions. Who gets to perform? What type of representation do we want to lay out there? How political do we get and how do we get that political message through the jovial/de-politicized atmosphere of a cultural showcase? And then there's the nagging question that undergirds our club's entire existence. The one that the Facebook event for CultureSHOCK puts with a little more vulgarity than I will in this post: "what the f*** is an Asian American?"

While the show will give you some ideas in its jampacked all-star lineup, I want to put down some answers this week in plain text form. Let's begin:

Who is an Asian American? 

The obvious answer that you're going to respond with is that they are peoples of Asian descent living in the United States, including everyone from first generation immigrants to those whose families have put down roots a hundred years ago. Congrats on paying attention! Now, let's complicate that vision a little bit.

Boundaries and borders. The borders of the Asian diaspora are murky in our globally connected world. There are Asians who have put down roots everywhere from South Africa to Trinidad, and those families may migrate to the United States later down in their family line. That gives you people of Indian descent who are nationally Trinidadian and whose families live in the United States. Are these people Asian Americans? Are they something else? Who gets to decide?

While I will return to the idea of self-identification tomorrow, I think these questions bring up an interesting conundrum in terms of representation. What culture do you identify the most with if you come from a family of intersections? And how does that get played out when you are represented in the media/at conferences/in research and all those other fascinating forums that enjoy making little compartmentalized categories for people? I don't really have an answer to these questions, but they are food for thought when thinking about inclusivity and group dynamics.

More on this tomorrow!