Asian Americans: Struggling, surviving and evolving into something new (Part 1 of 2)
Let’s be real. Right now is a pretty dangerous and trying time for folks of Asian descent who live in America. The ongoing pandemic has triggered hostilities that make it clear that Asian Americans have always been perceived as “other.” It is not easy to seek peace and a place in a divided and racialized country. And yet, in the midst of these bleak times, something curious, something fascinating has been happening. An explicable burgeoning new era is revealing itself—right before our eyes and ears.
Who are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs)? The U.S. Census Bureau defines “Asian” as a person with origins from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders” include a person with origins from Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. The reality is that AAPIs are a minority, coming in at 6.2% of the total population or 20.6 million, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020. If you add those who identify as AAPI and another race, there are 25.6 million people as per the U.S. Census data from 2020. Despite having lived in the United States for centuries, AAPIs are often still perceived as foreigners, different, and not the “norm.” In today’s polarized environment, it isn’t surprising that a group of people are experiencing both extreme lows and highs.
Poet and essayist, Cathy Park Hong writes in her book, "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning," that “Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites.” Asian Americans are considered people of color; but some have said they enjoy “Asian privilege,” are “white adjacent” and are, therefore, immune to racism.
What has been happening since the start of the pandemic has shown otherwise. Because of their race, this heterogenous group of people have experienced ongoing surges of verbal attacks and physical assaults, some brutal and fatal. In fact, a total of 10,370 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) persons have been reported to the Stop AAPI Hate coalition from March 19, 2020 to September 30, 2021.
Furthermore, a national survey conducted by Stop Asian Hate and the Edelman Data & Intelligence team found that one in five Asian American and Pacific Islanders—an estimated 5.1 million AAPIs—have experienced a hate incident in the past year. The survey results, published November 18, 2021, showed 31.5% of Asian American and 26.4% of Pacific Islander respondents experienced a hate incident at work in 2021. One in three or 30.6% of Asian American parents and 31.4% of Pacific Islander parents stated that their child experienced a hate incident at school in 2021.
Unfortunately, it’s not just hate from non-Asians that AAPIs have to contend with. Some of the hate comes from within. Asian Americans who internalize racism, often develop feelings of self-loathing and are repelled by others who look like themselves. “Not enough has been said about the self-hating Asian,” writes Pulitzer Prize finalist Cathy Park Hong in her aforementioned book published February 25, 2020, right before the pandemic shut down. “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way Whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.”
Hong admits to feelings of discomfort with other Asian Americans. She explains, “You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.” She also writes about receiving a pedicure by a young Asian boy: “We were like two negative ions repelling each other” and speculates that “he treated me badly because he hated himself. I treated him badly because I hated myself.”
Indeed, solidarity among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, for belonging or protection—even to fight against racism and discrimination—cannot be assumed. Whether it’s identity challenges or ethnic differences, AAPIs do not think or act similarly; they are not a monolithic group. They are comprised of more than twenty ethnicities. Their heritages are uniquely different with distinct cultures and languages. Some also bring with them various prejudices and biases against people from other Asian countries due to contentious political histories.
Additionally, there are often strong generational differences, including differences in expectations and behaviors, between Asians who were born and/or raised in America and those who were born and raised in another country and immigrated to the U.S. as adults. Moreover, Asian adoptees have their own unique experiences and outlooks. AAPIs are, therefore, a vast and varied group with some even questioning the meaning or purpose of the label Asian American itself.
The challenges of being a minority, of growing up Asian American, of having an Asian face in America right now, are inarguable. Nevertheless, the assumption is that educational, economic and career opportunities, especially for women, are better in the United States than in the ancestral home country. For many, the benefits still outweigh the disadvantages.
Many people of Asian descent do find happiness and fulfillment in America. Celebration of one’s unique individuality; personal self-acceptance; belief in the intrinsic value of all humans; cultivation of healthy, meaningful relationships; and having a sense of purpose can lead to great life satisfaction. To recognize one’s Asian cultural heritage while maintaining one’s American identity is also accepted and supported in the many multicultural communities of the United States.
Regarding unjust harassment and racial targeting, Asian Americans draw on personal strength, friends, family and communities for support and solace. Education and activism have also been constructive responses. After the violent killing of 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco in January 2021, the Atlanta spa shootings of six Asian women in March 2021, and ongoing racially motivated attacks and murders across the country, Stop Asian Hate, anti-Asian-violence rallies were held across the country that Spring. Over 1500 participants rallied in San Francisco; 1200 rallied in Berkeley, for example. Engagement was widespread with a total of 105 Stop Asian Hate rallies in 43 U.S. states, Canada, and Taiwan.
AAPIs are organizing, standing up for themselves and making a difference. On May 20, 2021, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law after overwhelming support from both chambers of Congress. He also stated, “My message to all of those who are hurting is: We see you and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias.” The law specifically addresses the “dramatic increase in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
While the hate has unfortunately continued, something else remarkable and unprecedented has been happening. The love for many things Asian/Asian American has been on the rise over recent years. Sometimes the adoration can even be fanatical. Overall, though, there has also been a refreshing mainstream movement towards an appreciation for authenticity, nuance and diversity that’s intimate and personal.
Take food, for example. Chinese American cuisine has long been part of the staple of mainstream American fare. Americanized dishes like egg foo young, chop suey, and fortune cookies, however, were created to please the Western palate. First wave immigrant Chinese Cantonese restauranteurs typically cooked more authentic food at home. By comparison, today’s third wave Chinese immigrants open restaurants that serve authentic food that Americans enjoy—spicy Hunan and Sichuan dishes. Likewise, Korean restaurants didn’t have to modify their cuisine for American mass consumption. There is no crab Rangoon, Americanized Korean dish equivalent. Instead, mainstream America has grown to love and appreciates Korean food like kimchi and galbi in its original, unadulterated form. Moreover, the popularity of Asian food chains in America has also been unexpected. Across the country, there are Korean Bonchon Chickens and Filipino Jollibees, H Marts and 99 Ranch Markets. As Asian food offerings have evolved, mainstream tastes have become bolder.
Similarly, after decades of limited authentic representation, there has been a visible rise of prominent Asians and Asian Americans in American pop culture, the arts, film, music, and entertainment. Social media platforms such as YouTube, launched in 2005, have played a significant role in helping to fuel the surge in popularity of Asian entertainers, creators, and artists. Some of the earliest and most influential American/Canadian YouTubers were of Asian descent, including Lily Singh (3.5 billion channel views); Ryan Higa (4.36 billion views), and Mark Fiscbach (17.1 billion views).
American born Ryan Higa, who is of Japanese descent, was the first person on YouTube to achieve 2 million and 3 million subscribers. His channel also had the most subscribers on YouTube for 677 consecutive days from 2009–2011, an achievement surpassed only by PewdiePie. Social media gave Asian Americans like Ryan Higa the opportunity to freely showcase their talents and prove their worth when established industries like TV and studio movies were nearly closed off to Asians. The widespread popularity of these influencers meant that the image of Asians as stereotypes, racist tropes, and insignificant one-dimensional side actors began to erode. American audiences got to know people of Asian descent as real people with personalities, emotions, and depth.
Before social media, traditional mediums like television influenced how society perceives minorities. The 1994 TV sitcom "All American Girl" was groundbreaking, because it was the first show to feature stories centered on an Asian American family. Asians were historically seen on TV as minor characters or sidekicks. Unfortunately, the show was short-lived and it would take another 21 years before a television show revolved around primary characters who were Asian. The year 2015 brought us two shows, "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Dr. Ken"; both focused on the comedic interactions between members of an Asian American family. "Fresh Off the Boat," starring Randall Park and Constance Wu, was the more popular of the two and was on air for six seasons.
Then, in 2018, the major motion picture release of "Crazy Rich Asians" featured an all-Asian cast, something that hadn’t happened since "The Joy Luck Club" in 1993. "Crazy Rich Asians" was the highest earning romantic comedy film of the decade, grossing $237 million worldwide. The success of the film opened doors for other stories featuring Asian actors in more prominent roles. “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ success has Hollywood scrambling for similar Asian-centric stories,” read a headline for an NBC News article written September 5, 2018. “When a movie with all Asian leads brings up $35 million in the first week, executives sit up and take notice.”
Consequently, there has been an increase in the visibility of Asians in movies, books, music and streaming TV. They are also being portrayed in ways they haven’t been before. The Netflix teen romance film "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before" and its subsequent installments, for example, would never have cast an Asian American female to play the main character in the past. But in 2018, it did. Vietnamese adoptee Lana Condor played Lara Jean, a typical, all-American teenager. The series was told through her character’s point of view, which again, is a notable achievement. Asian women historically only played minor roles or were portrayed as prostitutes, dragon ladies, or foreigners with broken English.
Recent years have shown that Asian actors are getting more diverse opportunities. Like Lana Condor, they are able to take leading roles where the story is not about being ethnic or Asian. Korean American actor John Cho, for example, played a father in San Jose, California who is desperately searching for his missing daughter in the Hollywood studio produced movie, "Searching" (2018).
Incidentally, the film "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before" was based on the book of the same moniker written by author Jenny Han. The book is noteworthy for two reasons: the story is about a teenager who is half Korean American and the novel was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 40 weeks. In regards to the literary arts, analysts Kate Hao and Long Le-Khac have stated in the Post45 Journal dated April 21, 2021, that “Asian American literature has grown dramatically in recent decades, reflecting a broader acceleration in contemporary cultural production.”
(to be continued)
Cover photo: Jasmin Chew, Milo Milk, Jason Leung, and Cottonbro