Filipinos, Chinese and Asian-Indians comprise the largest Asian-American groups in the United States (US) (Kiang 1). Although they could share a common origin (Asia), different sub-ethnic groups in the Asian-American community have different languages, cultures, and histories (Ngai 96). Furthermore, different nationalities in the Asian-American population, living in the US, have unique dialects, class backgrounds, and political perspectives that separate them from other groups.
Collectively, these groups make up more than 13 million people in the US who identify themselves as Asian-Americans. According to Pew Research Center (1), about 75% of the Asian-American population was not born in America. The percentage of those who speak English and those who do not splits evenly across both divides.
Pew Research Center (1) says Asian-Americans have outnumbered Hispanics as the largest group of immigrants who are coming to America today. Indeed, sustained immigration and refugee settlements in America have elevated Asian-Americans as the fasted growing minority racial group in America (Espiritu 1-3). According to Lee (2-4), the growth of this population is a modern American phenomenon of the 21st century.
Given that this racial group continues to be continually dominant in present-day America, we must all confront some critical questions regarding it. For example, we must understand the true definition of Asian-Americans as a category of social difference. This paper investigates this fact. However, first, we must understand what makes Asian-Americans distinct from other racial groups.
What makes Asian-Americans distinct from other racial Groups?
Asian-Americans differ from other racial groups in American because of their social beliefs and values. For example, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center (1), this racial group places more value on honesty, family, parenthood, career success and hard work more than other racial, or ethnic group, in the US. The theory of primordialism espouses this fact because it postulates that ethnic cohesion within this racial group emerges because of people’s shared sentiments, beliefs and worldviews (Espiritu 3-4).
If we use this theory to explain the commonalities of different ethnic groups of Asian-Americans, we find that their distinguishing attributes stem from their birth connections. However, this is an abstract assessment of the identity of Asian-Americans because instrumentalists hold a different view of ethnicity among Asian-Americans by postulating that ethnicity is a strategic tool for yielding returns to a social group, better than other available measures of social identity (Espiritu 3-4). Nonetheless, despite the differences between the primordialism and instrumentalism, we find that Asian-Americans are voluntary collectivists who share a common national origin and whose members share common cultures.
How Meanings about Asian-Americans have Shifted over Time
According to Ngai (96), most first generation Asian-Americans were low-skilled workers who suffered racial discrimination and ethnic profiling as other minority racial, or ethnic groups, in the US. In his studies, he focused on the struggles of Filipinos who came to America in the 1800s and 1900s to work for American farmers as casual laborers in their sugarcane plantations (Ngai 96). He also found out that most of them worked as construction and railroad workers (Ngai 96). While doing so, they never enjoyed the rights and privileges accorded to white people. For example, dating a white woman was punishable by law (Lee 2-4).
There were also social conflicts between Filipinos and white people in some states, such as California. Most of these conflicts became violent confrontations among different races (Ngai 96). White people never saw Asian-Americans as equals. Therefore, they treated them as “second-class citizens.” However, changes in social and political progress have promoted social inclusivity in the US.
Today, many Asian-Americans live in mixed neighborhoods and marry other races, unlike their predecessors. For example, when a woman of Asian origin, Priscilla Chan, married Mark Zuckerberg (owner of Facebook), she joined a long list of Asian-Americans who marry outside their race. The percentage of this population is about 32% of Asian-Americans (Pew Research Center 1-2). Today, Asian-Americans comprise the largest immigrant group in the US with the best education and among the highest incomes in the country (Pew Research Center 1-2).
Studies have also revealed that they are among the happiest and most contented racial group in America (Pew Research Center 1-2). These social changes have come to a population that many Americans still consider as “immigrants.”
Most of the changes we see today on the progress made by Asian-Americans and other minority populations in America come from a rise in social pressures from feminist groups and civil right groups who have advocated for equal opportunity and treatment among all racial groups in the country. Such pressures were alive in the 1950s, 1960s, persisted in the 1970s, and beyond. For example, during the Vietnam War, the Hanoi-based Vietnam Women’s Union and the Union of Women for the liberation of South Vietnam played an instrumental role in fostering women’s interests in America’s foreign policy (Jung 238).
Their ability to inspire a moral outrage among Americans about the treatment of Asian-American women in the US demonstrated a common belief among them that signified a sense of commonality of purpose among women and all races. Such efforts have largely contributed to the progress made by Asian-Americans in seeking equal opportunities and treatment in the US.
Influence of Legislative Policies, Practices and Popular Culture on the Meanings of Asian-Americans
Intermarriages have not only contributed to the diversity of Asian-Americans as a minority population in America, but also added to the complexity of this racial group (Pew Research Center 1). Stemming from this trend, there is a high proportion of biracial and multiracial Asian children in America. Similarly, there are high numbers of Asian children adopted by American families that have no Asian roots. For example, one may find a Korean child adopted in America by an African-American family and has an English name, such as Williams Sandy.
Refugees and Immigrants
Legislative policies on refugees and immigrants have added to the complexity and diversity of Asian-Americans in the US. For example, some Asian-Americans have found solace in America as refugees who have fled their country because of fear of religious or political persecution. The American law has allowed for this type of immigration (Jung 240). Most Asian-Americans who use this legal provision to come to America have a “permanent status” because they have no plans of going back home. Furthermore, unlike their immigrant counterparts, they may not have a family, or friends, in the US. This situation makes them more likely to integrate with the American population than immigrants.
Media (Popular Culture)
The media and Hollywood movies have constantly redefined our perceptions of Asian-Americans and reshaped what we know about their beliefs and attitudes towards life. For example, movies depict this racial group as “extremely smart.” According to Lee (4), most of these depictions are stereotypes and distorted perceptions of Asian-Americans. Such views have prompted some researchers to investigate the impact of these perceptions on the American society (Pew Research Center 1). For example, the Asian-American Journalist Association has conducted a study titled, “Project Zinger: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” to investigate the impact of the media on changing America’s perception of Asian-Americans. Relative to this fact, Kiang says,
“Historic images such as the treacherous Fu Manchu, the exotic/erotic Suzy Wong, and the inscrutable Charlie Chan, coupled with contemporary depictions of the Japanese tourist and Samurai businessman, the dog-eating refugee on welfare, the gang member, and the violin-playing/whiz-kid/spelling bee champion, offer little of value in clarifying the identities and realities of Asian Americans” (10).
The influence of popular culture on Asian-Americans also appears in our conception of whether Asian-Americans are real Americans, or not. Oriental “racialization” has given people the power to define what is real and what is not. Here, categories, representations and distinctions of Asian-Americans emerge through people’s conception of the “real” Asian-Americans.
This paper has shown that the process of defining the evolution of the Asian-American is in itself a lesson in diversity. Through our analysis of the social, historical and political dimensions of Asian-American identity, the concept of “Asian-Americans” has emerged as an “oriental” concept that defines a product of changes in the legislative policies, practices and popular culture of Americans.
The concept of the “Asian-American,” as depicted in most studies outline undertones of western stereotypical perceptions about Asia and not necessarily about its people. After all, the concept of “the oriental person” is a term that embodies colonial perceptions about the Asian-American. In contrast, Asia is not a geographical location of the world, but, rather, a place where some Americans trace their origin.
Espiritu, Yen. Asian-American Panethnicity, Philadelphia, PV: Temple University Press. Print.
Jung, Moon-Ho. The Rising Tide of Color, Washington, DC: Washington University Press, 2014. Print.
Kiang, Peter. Understanding Our Perceptions of Asian Americans. 2014. Web.
Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Print.
Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Americans and the Making of Modern America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
Pew Research Center. The Rise of Asian Americans. 2012. Web.