Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Do we still call ourselves “Asian American?”
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Do we still call ourselves “Asian American?”

AAPI Heritage Month poster from East Tennessee State UniversityWith Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month about to end, I thought I’d write a bit about the terms we choose to describe our identity. Like other ethnic groups, the labels we use for ourselves seems to be always evolving. Hispanic evolves into Latino; Negro to Black to African American; Native American to American Indian. Asian Americans are sometimes called Asian Pacific Americans, sometimes Asian Pacific islander American, and sometimes Asian American Pacific islander. These labels lead to a crazy bowl of alphabet soup acronyms: AA, APA, APIA, AAPI.

I choose to say (and write) “Asian American” most of the time, but say “Asian American Pacific Islander” and use the acronym AAPI for formal references. Although organizations such as APIA Vote and APAs for Progress helped get Asian Americans involved in the political process, President Obama and the White House prefers AAPI, as in “Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” (Note that the poster shown here, from East Tennessee State University, calls it “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.”)

Earlier this month at an AAPI Heritage Month event sponsored by the Colorado Asian Roundtable, our friend emcee Kim Nguyen stumbled on “Asian American Pacific Islander” and I had to snicker. It’s a mouthful, all right, especially when you say it over and over into a microphone. And even just saying “AAPI” repeatedly gets to feeling odd, as if the letters lose all meaning upon repetition.

As it happens, we may be on the cusp of a change in how we identify ourselves anyway.

The Sacramento Bee the other day ran an interesting story that proposes that “Asian American” is fading off like the term “Oriental” before it.

“As Sacramento’s growing Asian immigrant communities celebrated Sunday’s Pacific Rim Street Fest, a growing number note that Asian American isn’t a race and said they choose to identify by their ethnicity,” the article stated. The excellent (required reading) group blog 8Asians picked up on the SacBee’s story and expanded upon its theme of ethnic Balkanization.

Asian Americans are increasingly identifying more by their specific culture and ethnicity, and not so much as a larger, racially-linked group.

Like a lot of social change, this may be a generational swing.

Growing up, I was Japanese American (when I wasn’t thinking of myself as a white kid, a banana or Twinkie who’s yellow on the outside and white inside). But as an adult, I identify as an Asian American first, and Japanese American second. There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which include the Japanese American community’s often tiresome small-mindedness, and my increasing interest in a shared cultural identity that includes values, traditions and cuisines (!) from many cultures other than the one I was raised in. And whether we’re Japanese American or Vietnamese American, we’ve suffered many of the same prejudices and indignities, and met — and hopefully, overcome — many of the same challenges that mainstream America has placed before us.

This issue of specific identity has risen to the surface of our racial consciousness because of the 2010 Census, which includes more categories for self-identification as well as a write-in option. But fewer respondents are choosing the broader term “Asian American” and there have been efforts across the country to be more specific, and for instance enter the term “Taiwanese American.”

The SacBee article quotes Sacramento civil rights activists Jerry Chong and Alice Wong:

“There are so many Asian ethnicities, the term Asian American still gives us a sense of unity, solidarity and identity,” said Chong, legal counsel for CAPITAL (Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy & Leadership), an umbrella group for several dozen organizations.

“To break ethnicity down into the various subgroups works against the collective voice the greater community needs,” Wong said. “When you look at our history, culture and language, there are a lot of similarities.”

They include emphasis on hard work, education and family values, Chong said.

“Asian American” is an umbrella term that gained popularity in the late ’60s, in the wake of the African American civil rights era, when various Asian student groups began lobbying for ethnic studies classes that taught their history. That struggles continues today, even as the students themselves start to see themselves as representing specific communities, including Hmong, Cambodian, Pakistani, Thai or Filipino.

Let’s face it, each of our communities definitely has its own rich traditions and cultural heritage, so in a way it is unfair to lump us all together.

But my thinking is that the larger identity as Asian Americans (or AAs or APAs or APIAs or AAPIs) has still helped us be a little less invisible in the mainstream American society, and it has still allowed us to continue celebrating our own heritage.

That, after all, is what AAPI Heritage Month celebrates every year.