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Blog: Who Gets to Be Asian?

Photo by Karl Koenen

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent

As much as we as Asian Americans like to talk about diversity, Asian America can be a very exclusive club to some.

Those who don’t happen to be East Asian can feel excluded from the larger Asian American experience.

A group of students at Stanford recently criticized the school’s Asian American Studies program of not being more inclusive of the experience of South Asians and Pacific Islanders.

There are some Pacific Islanders who insist they have nothing in common with the Asian American experience and totally reject the idea of being part of the larger AAPI community.

South Asian Americans have long complained they don’t feel welcomed in organizations that are supposedly for Asian Americans, but are comprised of mostly Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.

Hapas as well, can be made to feel they’re not Asian enough.

The video from College Humor Are You Asian Enough touched on some of those themes and has generated nearly 1.9 million views since October.

Recently students at Swarthmore held what they called a teahouse discussion on these themes.

“I was interested in having this teahouse because I think one of the biggest problems with a lot of Asian groups on campus or Asian communities is that they become very homogeneous,” Charlotte Iwasaki ‘18 said to the Daily Gazette. “A lot of people don’t feel included in them necessarily.”

Does your appearance make you more Asian than another person. I recently heard someone of mixed race heritage describe herself as living as White. She personally identified as Latino, but acknowledged she looked more White and most of her White friends did not realize she was Latino.  I imagine many hapas may feel the same way.

My nephew is hapa. He has blonde hair but Asian eyes. His parents have put him in an after school Mandarin program. He goes out to eat with his Chinese grandma in mostly Chinese restaurants weekly, if not twice a week. He’s only in first grade, but will he grow up identifying as Asian, White or hapa? Is there a hapa identity or does one have to choose between their bi-cultures?

I don’t know the answers to that, but I’d like to hear what hapas in our readership think.

What I do know is that the Asian American Pacific Islander experience encompasses the East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, hapa and Pacific Islander communities. Whether you choose to be a part of the larger AAPI community is up to you.  Only one in four Asian American Pacific Islanders identify as AAPI. For those who do identify as AAPI, it’s important you be as inclusive as possible and make everyone feel welcomed.

AsAmNews has tried to incorporate Pan Asian views in its coverage. We’ve succeeded in some area and fallen short in others. We’re trying and we want to get better. Let us know how you feel. We’d love to hear from you.
(AsAmNews is an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. You can show your support by liking our Facebook page at  www.facebook.com/asamnews, following us on Twitter and sharing our stories.)


  1. RE: Who Gets to be Asian: This is interesting. I am a hapa born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was adopted by 2 Japanese Americans who are 2nd generation. I was raised very JA and most of my friends (even in Utah) are AA. I have also been mistaken for Hawaiian. I believe there is a hapa identity. I do not think that we should have to choose which side of hafu we must identify with. I have no idea who my biological parents are and due to circumstances beyond my control I was raised JA. So, due to this fact I identify with and am very proud of my JA cultural heritage. I have embraced it whole-heartedly.

  2. RE: Who gets to be Asian?: Not hapa, not mixed w/ native hawaiian or anyone who has cultural roots to hawaii–so i’m not hapa (but i love hawaii and deeply felt connected w/ folks there who assumed i was from hawaii as someone who looked so clearly mixed race; that said i still def do not feel entitled to the word or concept of Hapa). I’m also not mixed with white so I don’t think I feel nearly as, like conflicted or something about being mixed w/ the dominant and oppressive culture/race or this fear of being erased by the dominant culture. I identify as black and filipino and I don’t experience much confusion. It’s obvious I’m part black and I grew up as a daughter of filipino immigrants in the US and don’t feel self-conscious about being filipino enough b/c i’m not filipino–i’m filipino american. But yeah being filipino is pretty different than East Asian… the colorism and anti-blackness is similar though. Identifying as asian american was an obvious statement of fact but what i’ve experienced as inherent conservativeness, reformist, identity-politics-driven, anti-blackness, and white-is-rightness of pan asian american organizing or lack thereof on some levels leaves me primarily identifying as black and filipino versus black and asian american at this point in my life.

    The best way for y’all to be “inclusive” is to get more people of differing experiences to write for you all I suppose. If that’s not possible then maybe just speak for yourselves and don’t pretend to be pan-asian or AAPI??

    • RE: Who Gets to be Asian: We’re with you, B. We’d love for more people with varying experiences to write for AsAmNews. As for pretending to be AAPI, we’re not pretending. That’s who we are.

  3. RE: Who gets to be Asian?: I am multiracial AA, and I prefer not to apply the term hapa to myself because I am not Hawaiian and want to honor those who are.

    I think who gets to be Asian depends on how deeply we engage our sense of identity.

    A surface way to engage identity is to view ourselves as free individuals with certain attributes, and then the question becomes “Who has X essential attribute that constitutes being Asian?” I think this approach is encouraged by the American spirit of expressing individuality and also the marketplace, where the goal is to organize people according to specifiable attributes for profit.

    A deeper way to engage identity is to inquire about the stories that we were born into. This recognizes that we are not simply free individuals but that we have a place in history. Then, I think, what it means to “be Asian American” has something to do with responding to history with awareness of the oppressive practices against Asians and even the category of “Asian” itself as a product of the white racial frame.

  4. RE: Who gets to be Asian?: So South Asian people complain, but Hapas are made to feel they’re not Asian enough by other people? Maybe this is where the tension comes from.

    • RE: Who gets to be Asian: Viraj, Thanks for pointing out the poor word choice. No one here, however, is arguing the complaints are not warranted.


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