What does it mean to be Asian in America? A new qualitative study from the Pew Research Center examines how Asian Americans are grappling with their Asian identity in America.
In fall 2021, the Pew Research Center conducted 66 focus groups with a total of 264 participants from 18 Asian ethnic origin groups. The participants discussed their experiences as Asian Americans.
“Asian American” as a pan-ethnic label
Several participants said that using the term Asian was “less of an active choice and more of an imposed one.” Many identified more with their specific groups than the larger “Asian American” label.
“I guess … I feel like I just kind of check off ‘Asian’ [for] an application or the test forms. That’s the only time I would identify as Asian. But Asian is too broad. Asia is a big continent. Yeah, I feel like it’s just too broad. To specify things, you’re Taiwanese American, that’s exactly where you came from,” said a Taiwanese American woman in her early 20s.
A Nepalese woman participating in the study also noted she has to check the “Asian American” box because there often is no option for Nepalese Americans on forms. Other participants implied that the “Asian American” label is easier to use because many Americans are not familiar with smaller Asian ethnic groups.
Participants also discussed other identities beyond race and ethnicity that were important to them like gender and sexuality.
“I belong to the [LGBTQ] community … before, what we only know is gay and lesbian. We don’t know about being queer, nonbinary,” a Filipino immigrant in her early 20s said in a focus group. “[Here], my horizon of knowing what genders and gender roles is also expanded … in the Philippines, if you’ll be with same sex, you’re considered gay or lesbian. But here … what’s happening is so broad, on how you identify yourself.”
Immigrant participants discussed how they view their “American identity.” Many said they slowly defined what it means to be “American” as they experienced their new lives in the United States. For several participants, becoming American has more to do with how you adopt the culture (learning the customs and language) than how long you have lived in a place.
“Every time I go to a party, I feel unwelcome. … In Korea, when I invite guests to my house and one person sits without talking, I come over and talk and treat them as a host. But in the United States, I have to go and mingle. I hate mingling so much. I have to talk and keep going through unimportant stories,” a Korean immigrant woman in her mid-40s.
Focus group members who were immigrants also said it was easier to socialize with people who shared their ethnic identity.
Stereotypes, Model Minority Myth, Perpetual Foreigners
The 264 participants also discussed how non-Asian Americans perceived them.
Non-Asians are often confused about specific Asian identities. Focus group participants described instances when they had to explain their identities. Participants from smaller ethnic groups said they were often misidentified as belonging to larger ethnic groups.
For some, ignorance about specific Asian identities comes at a high cost. A Pakistani American in his mid-60s said he was harassed frequently after 9/11 because people thought he was Arab.
“There [were] a lot of instances after 9/11. One day, somebody put a poster about 9/11 [in front of] my business. He was wearing a gun. … On the poster, it was written ‘you Arabs, go back to your country.’ And then someone came inside. He pointed his gun at me and said ‘Go back to your country,’” he said.
Participants also discussed the harm the model minority myth has caused. The model minority myth paints Asian Americans as a successful minority group that works hard, often without complaint. For several participants, the expectations outlined by the myth don’t match the impoverished experiences of their ethnic groups.
It is hard for many non-Asian Americans to recognize that Asian Americans are also Americans. They view Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. Several participants said that non-Asians would ask often ask them where they were really from.
“I find that there’s a, ‘So but where are you from?’ Like even in professional settings when they feel comfortable enough to ask you. ‘So – so where are you from?’ ‘Oh, I was born in [names city], Colorado. Like at [the hospital], down the street.’ ‘No, but like where are you from?’ ‘My mother’s womb?’” U.S.-born woman of Indian origin in early 40s said.
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