Is ‘Asian American’ a Viable Category?

Is ‘Asian American’ a Viable Category?
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What you need to know

What is the value of “Asian American” as a term for political mobilization?

This essay originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in A Broad and Ample Road, a weekly newsletter written by a couple, Michelle Kuo, a writer, lawyer, and activist, and Albert Wu, a historian. Wu is the author of this essay.

Since the pandemic began, the Time to Say Goodbye podcast, hosted by Jay Caspian Kang, Tammy Kim, and Andy Liu, has been essential listening for thinking about Asian America and Asian Americanness, among many other topics. In a recent episode, the hosts discuss the utility of “Asian American,” an umbrella term for a notoriously heterogeneous group. A Pew Research report shows that more than twenty million Asian Americans have roots in at least twenty countries spanning East and Southeast Asia as well as the Indian subcontinent.

In their conversation, Kang defended his previous writing, where he argued that “‘Asian-American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-­America.” Kim disagreed, describing “Asian American” as a “synthetic term that is still useful.”

Having grown up in Taiwan and come to the United States at eighteen, I was suspicious for a long time of the potential of “Asian American” as a unifying group identity. My skepticism began in college, which I attended in the early 2000s. Every year, the Chinese Student club hosted a “night market,” inviting students from Asian American clubs to set up stalls with their best imitation of their grandparents’ cooking from their countries of origin: sticky rice, baozi, mango lassi, Thai iced tea.

Such get-togethers are harmless, but in the lead-up to this one a flame war broke out on the club’s email listserv. Some mainland Chinese students had seen Taiwanese flags at a rehearsal event and demanded that they be taken down. The Taiwanese students refused. The organizers tried to defuse the situation by appealing to our Asian Americanness: we’re all Americans now, they reasoned, so why fight over geopolitical issues going on over in Asia? I found this argument naive, an attempt to diminish “real” political disagreements and passions.

I realize now that I was swayed by my Taiwanese nationalism, which, as Michelle often tells people mostly jokingly, is one of the few issues that can make me lose my cool. The issue of Taiwanese independence has never been an abstraction to me; the signature historical moment of my young political consciousness was the election of Chen Shui-bian as Taipei City mayor in 1994. Chen was the first politician in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a bloc rooted in dissidence against the authoritarian KMT government, to win a major political post. Other dissidents like him had been disappeared or had self-immolated, but he had survived. I was eleven, but I remember the joy I felt when he won, and again when he was elected president in 2000, as if it were yesterday. Even as I write this, I can picture the happiness of my normally even-keeled father, who told me, “We Taiwanese can finally make our own decisions now.”

The actions of the Chinese students on the listserv angered me. If an innocuous cultural event can reveal such deep divisions between Taiwanese and Chinese communities, I thought, how much deeper were the divides between other Asian American groups, between Korean-Americans and Japanese-Americans, between Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans? That’s not even to mention all the fraught migration histories, the generational divides, even the cultural differences between Asians and Asian Americans.

For my part, I tried to attend as many Taiwanese American club events as possible, and struggled to understand why I never felt at home there. I shared the organization’s explicitly stated goals, after all: I wanted to promote Taiwanese culture and politics, wanted people to learn more about the country’s history and celebrate its achievements. And even though the club never said so outright, I shared the political orientation of many of its members, who yearned for Taiwanese independence.

But there seemed to be a gulf between the experiences of Taiwanese Americans who grew up in the U.S. and those who recently came from Taiwan. The heterogeneity of Taiwanese experience and identity that I had grown up with seemed flattened in America. Some held quite hardline positions toward Taiwanese identity, regarding any affiliation with members of the Kuomintang (KMT) as a stain. Those people were not “Taiwanese.” I thought instantly of my many “mixed” friends and family in Taiwan. My cousin, for instance, is a diehard member of the DPP who is happily married to a longtime KMT supporter. They have a model marriage, and they always joke that the only day that they don’t talk to each other is election day.

Others were contemptuous toward recent immigrants. I was shocked when several of my own Taiwanese American friends made fun of a less acculturated recent Taiwanese immigrant by calling him a “FOB,” laughing at his accent and mocking the way he dressed. They must not have realized I was a recent immigrant too, likely because I speak “unaccented” English. I wish I’d spoken up, but I didn’t.

In my classes, I discovered the degree to which “Asia” itself was an imaginary constructed by the “West,” further charged with a multitude of connotations — both positive and negative — by Western orientalists for centuries. Instead of finding community in groups that were explicitly Asian American, I felt more connection to my Christian fellowship, which I thought grappled more honestly with the urgent task of creating interracial spaces. Another Asian American welcomed me to a radical leftist reading group, where I first encountered internationalist, anti-capitalist ideas such as the writings of Manning Marable, David Harvey, Perry Anderson, and Robin D.G. Kelley. In short, in college I embraced arguments similar to Kang’s — I was skeptical about the value of “Asian American” as a term for political mobilization, and instead threw my energy toward fostering spaces of religious faith and explicit political organizing.

Does that mean we would be better off jettisoning the term itself, referring to ourselves instead as Indian Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Korean Americans, or Japanese Americans? I don’t think so. To reject the term “Asian American,” to only identify as Taiwanese American, Chinese American or the like, is to submit to the thinking of nationalism and the nation-state, to accept that our collective solidarities begin and end with the nation.

That’s not to say that nations don’t matter. Of course the national histories of Japan, of China, of Taiwan, of India play a powerful part in shaping the different outcomes of people’s lives. To reject national boundaries is to fail to look reality in the face. It’s utopian.

But why not engage in some utopian thinking? Since graduate school, I’ve come to see the potential in “Asian American” as a source of solidarity. In the Bay Area I learned about the history of radical Asian American activists such as the people involved in the Third World Liberation Front. In the 1960s, they also asked what binds together a disparate group of people and concluded that the history of state oppression — Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, and denaturalization of Indian Americans — is linked to a struggle against American imperial power in Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. To radicals living under imperial rule in such places, “Asian American” — even “Asia” itself — represented a possibility of solidarity and resistance.

Since meeting Michelle, I’ve also come to understand growing up Asian in an Asian country was itself a form of privilege. I didn’t inherit the anxieties and fears of the minority obliged to perform under a proverbial “white gaze.” I didn’t notice the slights until Michelle pointed them out to me. I never felt an existential crisis about where I belonged. I knew where I belonged: in Taiwan.

It was in grad school that I began learning about the history of “pan-Asianism,” which transformed my thinking. The heavily anti-Japanese curriculum with which I grew up had taught me that the term was a front for Japanese imperialist ambitions in the 1930s and 1940s to assert power over the region and create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” But as I immersed myself in histories of the region, I learned that aggressive imperialism was only one strand. I learned of Rabindranath Tagore’s invocation of pan-Asianism as a spiritual response to the ravages of Western imperialism and capitalism; I learned that Sun Yat-sen used the term in a similar way, to criticize the brutality of gunboat diplomacy and offer an alternate philosophy of power and geopolitics rooted in “benevolence and virtue.” For both of them the word “Asian” could hold together diverse forms of anti-imperial, anti-capitalist critique.

In recent years, in my course on contemporary world history, I’ve taught the work of Tan Malaka, whose story is one of the most remarkable in the history of decolonization. Born in Indonesia when it was still a Dutch colony, Malaka traveled to the Netherlands to train to become a teacher; it was there that he experienced Dutch racism (a teacher he met was surprised that he could do math), became radicalized, and joined the Communist Party. In 1921, he was a representative at the Comintern, where he argued for an alliance with Pan-Islamist forces in the Dutch East Indies. Like Tagore and Sun, he saw Asia as a possible space of resistance to Western imperial power. He expanded its geographical boundaries to include all of Southeast Asia, covering “Annam, Siam, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” and spent his entire career trying to organize revolutionary activity there. Everywhere he went, Malaka was thrown in jail: Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guangzhou, Shanghai.

Like Tagore, Sun, and other radicals, Malaka saw “Asia” as a broad canvas rife with potential for revolutionary action, and in turn for universal liberation. I think you can find traces of this radicalism in the “transnationally Asian” media landscape that has emerged in the past decade or so, as Tammy Kim shows in this excellent article.

Elsewhere in the Time to Say Goodbye podcast, Kang describes the recent uptick in anti-Asian violence as a Vincent Chin moment (a friend of his calls it “the Vincent Chin industrial complex”), arguing that now is an important time to think through the long-term ramifications of bringing a new Asian American politics into being. I do agree with this — it does appear that a new Asian American consciousness is emerging from this moment, and that’s an opportunity worth seizing. If there’s an Asian America I want to align with and fight for, it’s the one borne by the inheritors of the radical, liberationist vision of pan-Asianism. It’s one that’s not obsessed with the trappings of national recognition or injury; it’s internationalist in its vision, and concerned with justice for all.

READ NEXT: Don’t Blame Jeremy Lin. The Problem Is Taiwan’s ROC Nationality Laws.

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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