“I’m 100 percent of both!”
A conversation about the meaning of Asian American Identity
Summary: Public opinion researchers spend a large part of their working lives speaking to Americans about their values and identity. In their quieter hours, they also have a chance to reflect on those questions for themselves. This week, we’ve turned the table on some of More in Common’s current and past researchers, to ask them about their own sense of identity. May is the month when Americans celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, so we’ve focused on researchers who share Asian American heritage. The discussion highlights the rich diversity of backgrounds and feelings about this unique expression of American identity.
This is Part One of a two-part series.
Visitors to America often remark on America’s surprising success in forging a spacious sense of American identity. In the eyes of most Americans, the double-barreled identities shared by many Americans with immigrant backgrounds – such as Latin American, Asian American and Irish American – complement, rather than compete with, a universal sense of American identity. The same is not true for many other nations.
These labels are not without their complications, but they are widely used, and they help shape the way many Americans think about themselves. We discovered more when we convened a conversation between a group of American researchers with heritage from one of the more than twenty countries of origin that comprise Asian American identity.
Five of the six participants in this conversation are current or former colleagues at More in Common, with backgrounds in social science, history and public policy. They’re more often asking than answering questions, but they’ve each thought deeply about American identity and their own part in our diverse society. We were also privileged to have input from Dr. Jin Goh, a social and personality psychologist who studies Asian American identity.
22 million people share Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage, making them the fastest growing identity group in the country, expected to almost double in size by 2060. With such diverse national backgrounds, comprising of more than 20 countries with multiple religions and languages, many feel connections to three levels of identity: a country of origin, a wider Asian American identity and a larger sense of national identity as Americans, connected to a set of core American values.
As we continue this exploration of what it means to be an American in the 2020s, we welcome your thoughts on how you experience different dimensions of American identity.
Personal Stories of Identity in the US
Moderator, Calista Small, MIC Research Associate
What is your family background, and do you identify as Asian American?
Noelle Malvar, former MIC Senior Researcher, Social Psychologist
I'm Filipino. I'm a Filipino immigrant. I moved here when I was 21, right after I graduated from college. I have been here 15 years now. I transitioned into a dual citizen: American Filipino. I consider myself both American and Asian American and still Filipino. 100% of each of those.
Taran Raghuram, former MIC Research Fellow, Associate at Equal Opportunity Ventures
I was born in North Dakota. My parents are from India. When I was in middle school, we actually moved back. I'd never lived there before. So, I finished middle and high school there, and then came back here for college. My family is still in India. So, I kind of have one foot in both worlds. But, you know, I grew up here. I obviously sound like—as my professor once said—like I’m “from Cleveland.” So, I [feel like I’m] sort of a mixed bag. I guess if you were to pin me down, my identity would be very much quasi-Indian, quasi-American—but not necessarily Indian American or Asian American as strongly because the Indian part of me is very Indian and the American part of me is very Midwest. So yeah, a mishmash of identities there.
Coco Xu, MIC Research Associate
I'm Chinese. I was born and raised in China. I came here when I was 18. My family is still there. I see myself as Chinese immigrant. I’m not legally American yet, but I definitely identify as Asian American.
Mohammed Naeem, former MIC Researcher, Deputy Director at the American Immigration Council
I am Afghan American. My father was granted political asylum in the late 1980s and I've lived in Queens, New York, almost all my life. The question regarding whether I identify as Asian American is interesting, and the answer probably depends on what stage of life I was asked. Growing up, I didn't necessarily consider myself to be Asian American. The only time that came up for me was during my teenage years, often on applications. Generally, that's the box I checked, [and] that's the box I continue to check.
I currently think of myself as being Afghan, which technically qualifies as being Asian because it's under the South Asian category. But being Afghan is more of a formative, emotionally appealing identity because it's where I'm from—it’s the culture that [surrounds me]. I would never say, Oh, I'm Asian American. I would almost always exclusively say Afghan American or American, depending on the space.
Fred Duong, MIC Research Fellow, Social Psychologist
I'm Vietnamese American. My parents left Vietnam because of the Vietnamese War, and they landed in Texas. So I was born and raised in Texas. I definitely identify as Asian American. But, I think it's very complicated. I identified more as Vietnamese American for the longest time, and then people would say, “Are you Asian?” [And I’d think] Sure. Yeah. But I would never say I'm Asian American. I would just say I'm Vietnamese. And I think my identification with this broader umbrella is probably recent, probably in the past five or so years.
Dr. Jin Goh, Professor at Colby College, Social Psychologist
I was born and raised in Malaysia. When I was 10, my family moved to California. So, I've actually lived in the US longer than I have in Malaysia. I do consider myself Asian American, but I also consider myself Malaysian at the same time, mostly out of legality, and because I still have a Malaysian passport.
I want to add that, you know, the transnationalism—like going to India or having Vietnamese family or moving here after college or before college—this is what makes us Asian American. We are so diverse in how we identify with the category. There's no one way of defining Asian American and that is why I think it's pretty amazing. We can all be here having grown up in different countries or coming to the US at different stages of life—or having been here all our lives and moving back and forth between two continents. The transnationalism of this identity is very unique.
How do you identify as American? What other identities resonate with you?
I identify as American because I care about the country, and I'm civically engaged. I moved to the South Bronx a year ago. And I'm really, really involved. I go to the community board meetings. I report when trees need to be planted. That level [of engagement] feels so American... And then, you know, celebrating American holidays. I think I'm able to do that because my American identity doesn't clash with my Filipino identity, which is why I said I'm 100% of both. I just don't have that conflict internally. I fully embrace being Filipino and also being American.
I 100% identify as American because of my values and the way America can welcome diversity. There's American identity as white and Christian, and I’m neither of those things. But there's a strain of American culture that welcomes diversity of thought: freedom of press, freedom of religion, right to protest. And I've always loved that. Also, minority rights—the protection of minority rights, as well as majority rule — has always been a cornerstone of American democracy and values. So, in that way, I’ve felt American as long as I can remember.
Growing up, I often oscillated between two worlds. I grew up as many American children did during the 90s, and almost exclusively spoke English outside. Upon entering our home—my parents didn’t speak English—so I’d speak Pashto, one of the two languages spoken in Afghanistan. So, you're experiencing life between these two worlds. And so, you don't exactly consider yourself to be American, partly because it’s not an identity that I fully understood.
When I came here, I felt 100% Chinese. I was hesitant to identify as Chinese American because I went to a school that had a lot of Chinese Americans. I felt that they had a very different culture—different childhood memories and different ways of interacting with each other. And some used the term FOB [“Fresh off the boat”] to draw the boundary between the American-born and us, the newly arrived immigrants. So, I couldn't fully see myself as Chinese American. But in recent years, I’m seeing more Asian American literature that draws out a pan-Asian identity and common experience of migration, transnationalism and diasporas. And that's when I feel like I can truly identify as Asian American, even though I still feel uneasy with the label Chinese American.
It's been really interesting [for me] to integrate into this broader “Asian American” umbrella. When I grew up, my parents and my parents’ friends were all very Vietnamese. It was a very Vietnamese community. We’d drive around Dallas, and they would point out other Asian people and they’d guess, like, What are they? Are they Chinese? Are they Vietnamese? Are they Thai? There's always been this search for boundaries. I didn't like that. But, at the same time, these boundaries were very clear to me. Like: we only hung out with other Vietnamese. There was not a pan-Asian collective. So, I do identify as Asian American, but it's kind of a more recent thing.
We really like to draw boundaries and distinctions from one another—in a way that's not always productive. I was called a “FOB” by other Asian Americans when I was in middle and high school. And I think that's what really prohibited me from identifying as Asian American. Like Fred, I really only started identifying as Asian American within the last few years.
I think the challenge for me was that I experienced the “FOB” exclusion the other way around. I moved to India, and so I was the one who was the immigrant, the foreigner...When I came back, I felt very Indian. I like to say I’m a “1.5 immigrant” because I share some experiences with people who were born here, but whose parents are from India…But I also have the mentality of the parents because I've seen where they're coming from. And so, I have a big disconnect with people who grew up here fully, and I have a lot of clashes with people who were only raised in India because they don't really get what it means to be a minority in a majority white, developed nation.
Identity is really a double-edged sword. It can bring people together as we try to do and as we have done with this rising pan- Asian American sense of identity. [It’s] unifying: we all feel like outsiders who have some transnationalism, but we don't really have a class that we belong to. But, at the same time, when you define it that way, you start realizing what's not under the umbrella. And that's always where the tension starts to emerge, at least in my experience.
To be continued!
Thank you for reading! Keep an eye out for Part Two, where we will continue the conversation. In the meantime, you can read the results from the 2023 STAATUS Index survey, the leading national study of American attitudes towards the AAPI community, and dive into the latest report on Asian American identity from the Pew Research Center, Diverse Cultures and Shared Experiences Shape Asian American Identities.
Thank you to Asian American illustrator and designer, Sylvia Asuncion-Crabb, for her illustrations that helped bring this conversation to life.