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Use of "Asian American" Wanes PDF Print E-mail

By Stephen Magagnini
©2010 The Sacramento Bee
May 24, 2010

Is the term "Asian American" fading into history, like "Oriental" before it?

As Sacramento's growing Asian immigrant communities celebrated Sunday's Pacific Rim Street Fest, a growing number note that Asian American isn't a race and said they choose to identify by their ethnicity.

Robbie Mae Lopez and her family came downtown to enjoy more than 15 Asian cultures represented – but don't call her Asian American.

"I'm full-blooded Filipino American," said Mae Lopez, 27, of West Sacramento. "Asian American is kind of a loose term. I think being Filipino American is a full-blown identity crisis itself. We were overrun by the Japanese, Spanish … ."

As the race question on the U.S. census form has expanded to 15 categories and write-in options – giving Americans the right to check as many boxes as they want – fewer are embracing the term Asian American.

It still holds currency for local civil rights activists Jerry Chong and Alice Wong. .

"There are so many Asian ethnicities, the term Asian American still gives us a sense of unity, solidarity and identity," said Chong, legal counsel for CAPITAL (Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy & Leadership), an umbrella group for several dozen organizations.

"To break ethnicity down into the various subgroups works against the collective voice the greater community needs," Wong said. "When you look at our history, culture and language, there are a lot of similarities."

They include emphasis on hard work, education and family values, Chong said.

Linda Ng, a Hong Kong immigrant who's treasurer of the national Organization of Chinese Americans, said she's proud to be an American. She added it's often hard for Asian Americans themselves to differentiate by ethnicity "in a sea of Asians."

Chong, 65, grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown when virtually all Asian immigrants were called Orientals – a term that fell out of favor because it was associated with European imperialism and conjured up cinematic racial stereotypes.

"I was around when they coined the word Asian American," Chong recalled.

In 1968, to build bridges with blacks, Latinos and American Indians fighting for civil rights, UCLA historian Yuji Ichioka created the Asian American Political Alliance.

Ichioka's family was interned during World War II. Before he coined the term and established UCLA's Asian American Studies Center in 1969, it was unheard of for Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Koreans to join forces politically.

Ichioka's efforts are credited with planting the seeds of ethnic studies programs at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and Sacramento State, which recently celebrated its ethnic studies program's 40th anniversary.

Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who arrived when she was 4, calls herself Asian American. "We all have a shared background of coming to find freedom," she said.

Sacramento educators Lee Yang, 40, and his wife, Bo Moua, fled communism in Laos. As they strolled through Old Sacramento, past the booths selling savory Thai noodles and barbecue, nan bread, lumpia, teriyaki bowls and sushi, Yang said: "We look Asian."

But there are significant cultural differences, he said. While Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese were influenced by Confucianism, many Hmong refugees are now Christian. Asia is home to many of the world's religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Animism and Zoroastrianism.

On the 2010 census, the couple wrote in Hmong. "That's mostly how I identify," said Moua, assistant principal at Pacific Elementary School.

The term Asian American works for McClatchy High School freshman Marisa Fong, 14, who is half Chinese and half Japanese.

Sonney Chong, president of CAPITAL, said he founded his organization in 1995 around the term Asian Pacific Islanders specifically to include Filipinos. "Some consider themselves Pacific Islanders and some consider themselves Asians," he said.

Pascual Fidel, 79, of the Filipino American National Historical Society noted that Filipinos themselves are often divided by language and geography – and sometimes feel excluded by Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and other East Asians.

Fidel recalls that when he taught business at Luther Burbank High School in the 1970s, a Filipina won the title of Asian Club Queen "and other Asian students wanted to have another vote. They said, 'You really aren't Asian.' "

He explained that Filipino roots are more Indonesian and Malayan than East Asian. In fact, earlier in U.S. history, they were identified as caucasian.

Ed Evangelista, a Filipino, said that when he enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces in the 1960s, he was classified as white.

At Sunday's festival at the Downtown Plaza and in Old Sacramento, the Asian and Pacific Islander population was fully represented.

Liu Lolani, 40, said he checked "Samoan" on the census and said Asian American means Asians born in America. Renu Lal, a Hindu henna artist from India, said she used to identify as Asian American on the census, but is now happy to check Asian Indian.

The festival did feature a Miss Asia Sacramento – Tiffany Tsui, 22.

"Asian American is a very broad term. I usually identify as Chinese," Tsui said, adding that many Asian Americans "struggle to really stand out in American society and be true to our culture."

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0 #14 wally 2010-12-21 18:44
its pretty fucking simple. unless east asians around the world attempt to swallow pride,and put aside our differences, and stop playing to the stereotypes the racist media that is portraying us as invisible and ching chong is never going to end. and what that means for your western born childrens psychology and selfidentity will go on and on
-5 #13 2010-11-16 22:24
I got called an Are you!?
Uh how about a nice Indo Asian / ? ? ?
American- or
+8 #12 RyanW 2010-10-24 02:52
"I'm full-blooded Filipino American," said Mae Lopez, 27, of West Sacramento. "Asian American is kind of a loose term. I think being Filipino American is a full-blown identity crisis itself. We were overrun by the Japanese, Spanish … ."

always nice to throw in dot dot dot before they mention the US invasion of the philippines
+1 #11 2010-10-19 23:54
I like to think of such developments as pointing to the fact that most Asians are just too intelligent to fall for old-timey racial/ethnic group-think and group-vote.

It's actually ironic how, despite our reputation for collectivism, we're actually quite diverse in many ways, not the least of which is our own self-identification and self-image!

I know I'm supposed to be "Asian-American" but colloquially I simply refer to myself as "Chinese." Not even "Chinese-American," but just "Chinese," thank you. The other two labels just feel so political, you know, like a friggin' statement like how Muslims want to wear their head scarves and what not while wearing tight-assed pants, you know what I mean? Just unnecessarily political and pedantic.
+2 #10 Sarah 2010-10-13 07:22
Personally, I identify with Chinese or even east Asian as opposed to Asian. I think it's because all the Asian ethnicities are so different. Fitting us all under one term is not doing any of our cultures justice.
+4 #9 2010-08-22 15:16
politically, asian- & pacific island-descended people in america, whether born here or due to immigration, together comprise the smallest percentage of the population. while we may form near majorities in certain parts of the country we are almost completely absent in others. let's understand that we do live in america and the ideas of freedom, rights and equality are a game that, as ethnic people of color, we have to learn to play. let us keep the power of how we identify ourselves. we need to maintain a political presence where we can continue to work from a position of numbers with other disenfranchised communities whether they be communities of color, gender, sexual orientation, and any other socially disadvantaged group.
0 #8 2010-08-09 07:22
Don't forget abot that other Abrahamic religion, Islam. Islam is a religion practiced by many Asians: a few Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, a few Central Asians, some Indians, Bangladeshis, a small number of Chinese, Malaysians, some Vietnamese, some Cambodians, some Burmese, Bruneians, a whole lot of Indonesians...phew.

And yes, Filipinas are Indo-Malay. Maybe one of the reasons they aren't really accepted as typically 'Asian' is because they don't practice a funky cool 'oriental Eastern religion steeped in mysticism', so aren't exotic enough. Same goes for Malays (from Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore) and Indonesians(gee , how popular is Islam nowadays?)

We all know Whites only ever want to see White guys and exotic Asian girls. Hot Asian Imports are all the rage. Bah
+6 #7 2010-08-01 18:58
To me, the term "Asian-American" refers to a specific type of pan- cultural identity, in addition to the racial component, that is heavily dominated by Japanese- and Chinese-American experiences, which I frankly don't relate to, since I'm Vietnamese-American. Asian-Americans want to talk about commonalities and the shared experience of Asians in the U.S.--but ignore the major issues that go on back in Asia, which many 1st and 2nd generation "Asian-Americans" are still connected to through their families. When we're expected to ignore all of the drama in the "motherland" it's not only a very American conceit, but one that tries to construct a new identity by ignoring what came before, except to promote a very superficial idea of what it means to have an "Asian" background.
+1 #6 2010-07-04 13:38
i find that in this world, the asian minorities seem to have been on a constant regression since 2000 towards their own groups. this is particularly noticeable in younger generations. its a shame really because as long as this goes on , there will be no unity.
-12 #5 2010-06-20 00:56
I have never met an unhappy lot like the "Asians".
First, they insult Filipinos tease them they are not asians.
Filipinos didnt even want to be called Asians, its that damn form that lumps them as Asian. So Filipinos are clear that they dont want to be called Asians but are forced to, and the other Asians whoever they are dont want them to be called Asians.

Its the Japanese who keep insulting Filipinos in the internet because they still havent gotten over the world war 2 loss. The only Asians I like are the filipinos. Humble, good sense of humor and christians. The rest are just annoying, insecure little people with a big chip on their shoulders.

My grandmother told me once that she met a Filipina teacher in Nigeria during the 1960s, she was very surpised because she is very independent and smart, something she didnt see in other asian women. Thats why they are hated by the geishas & chinese factory girls

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