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Defining ‘Asian American’ is complicated. Who gets left behind?

Asian Americans have long debated who is included in their cohort. South Asians and Southeast Asians, among others, sometimes feel overlooked by the umbrella term.

(Tara Anand/For The Washington Post)
8 min

As a child, Christian Vongdara was often forced to explain his ethnicity to classmates and teachers in his hometown of South Sioux City, Neb.

He would tell them his parents were refugees from Laos, a Southeast Asian country east of Thailand and west of Vietnam. The first time he brought sien savanh, Lao beef jerky, for lunch to middle school, he explained to his peers how it was prepared.

But “I knew in the back of my mind they would immediately forget and just label me ‘another Asian,’ or more specifically, Chinese,” said Vongdara, 25. “When we [Laotians] mention to somebody, ‘Hey, we’re Asian,’ they’re thinking of more prominent countries like Japan, Korea, China.”

Just who counts as Asian American has long been the subject of debate within America’s fastest-growing racial group. The umbrella term can create a sense of community, but it can also blur the unique cultures and histories of distinct Asian ethnicities. Asia, which encompasses over 17 million square miles, about 50 countries, more than 4.6 billion people and nearly 2,300 languages, is the largest continent on Earth by both area and population.

But who counts as “Asian” can be difficult to pin down.

“The Daily Show” comedian Ronny Chieng reignited the debate in October when he stood in front of a photograph of Rishi Sunak, the newly named Asian-origin prime minister of Britain, and joked that “Indians are not Asians.” The audience erupted with laughter. Chieng, who is Malaysian Chinese, went on to accuse Indians of trying to “have it both ways,” imploring them to “pick a lane” between Asian and Indian.

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Many Asian American viewers — in particular, South Asian Americans — took issue with Chieng’s comments.

“I know it’s a comedy show and it’s very lighthearted, but I feel like South Asians are often not regarded as Asian even though they’re part of the Asian subcontinent,” said Muskaan Arshad, a 19-year-old Indian American from Bentonville, Ark. “And I felt a little hurt that we weren’t regarded as part of the community just in its most basic form.”

Comedian Abby Govindan, 25, said that she is a big fan of Chieng’s comedy and that it inspired her own career. But perhaps Chieng needs a map to better understand the Asian continent, she joked in a video posted to Twitter with the hashtag #MapsForRonny. The clip has been viewed more than 41,000 times. Asians around the world should “unite against a common enemy,” such as anti-Asian hate, instead of continuing to “fight amongst each other,” she told The Washington Post.

Chieng’s publicist, Sam Srinivasan, declined to comment on criticisms of Chieng’s remarks, writing in an email that she is South Asian and has worked with Chieng “for many years and will continue to proudly.”

South Asian Americans, particularly with ancestry in India and Pakistan, find it “challenging” to be seen as Asian American in the United States, according to the 2016 National Asian American Survey. It found that 42 percent of White Americans surveyed viewed Indians as “not likely to be Asian/Asian American,” and 45 percent expressed the same view of Pakistanis. Even some Asian American respondents don’t consider South Asians as part of their cohort.

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When Democrat Joe Biden picked Kamala D. Harris to be his running mate in the 2020 election, media coverage largely focused on her being the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. But fewer outlets acknowledged that she was also the first Asian American in this position. Harris was raised by her Indian mother to identify as Black, but over time, she became more vocal about her Asian heritage. When she accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president in 2020, she told audiences, “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chittis,” using the Tamil word for aunt.

The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by graduate students in California who founded the Asian American Political Alliance.

It “was partly a response to the way we had been perceived as the other, the Oriental,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It was a declaration of our self-identity.”

It wasn’t until 2016 that President Barack Obama signed into law a measure to stop the federal government from using the word “Oriental,” an offensive term to describe Asians.

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Many Americans’ understanding of “Asian American” is shaped by the history of Asian immigration to the United States — which began primarily with Chinese immigrants. So they assume the term refers to “East Asian,” a descriptor that includes Chinese, Japanese and Korean people, said Tajima-Peña. But, she said, Filipinos also immigrated in large numbers in the early 20th century, and they make up the third-largest share of Asians in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Britain, which has a deep history of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent, she pointed out, “Asian” implies South Asian: mainly Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants and their descendants.

The umbrella term obscures the complexity of the community, said more than a dozen Asian Americans who spoke to The Washington Post, reaffirming stereotypes such as the “model minority” and the assumption that all Asian Americans are high-achieving and financially successful. It’s unfair to lump Burmese Americans and Hmong Americans, who have some of the highest poverty rates and lowest incomes of any Asian ethnic group in the United States, with Indian and Filipino Americans, who have some of the lowest poverty rates and highest incomes among Asian ethnic groups, they say.

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“It really homogenizes Asian American identity to be one thing when it really isn’t,” said Arshad, the Indian American student from Bentonville.

The distinct immigration histories of various groups can also get lost under the label “Asian American,” said Thu Pham, a 21-year-old college student whose parents came to the United States as Vietnamese refugees. Their post-Vietnam War immigration story is often overlooked in dominant narratives about Asian Americans who immigrated for purely economic reasons, she said.

“In college, I didn’t really go to a lot of the pan-Asian affinity groups just because I felt like it was very overwhelmingly East Asian, and I felt like I couldn’t relate to a lot of aspects, like, for example, how our parents came to the U.S.,” Pham said.

But Pham said there is a relative privilege to being Vietnamese American. “There’s a higher chance of [non-Asians] knowing about Vietnamese” identity in comparison with those of Lao, Cambodian or Hmong heritage, she said.

Some Asian Americans of mixed heritage say the term can also leave them feeling lost. Nina Ong, a 23-year-old Vietnamese and Chinese American, said that she was raised with the “values and traditions” of the former ethnicity but that the term “Asian American” implicitly associates her with being Chinese.

Harvard’s Asian American Association is trying to be more inclusive of multiethnic, multiracial and non-East Asian students, including by celebrating holidays such as Diwali and Eid, said Kylan Tatum, 19, who is Black and Chinese American and co-president of the group.

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An alphabet soup of acronyms has also emerged to bridge the gaps. In recent years, AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander), APIDA (Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American) and AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander) have become more commonplace.

They are a welcome attempt at bringing more parts of the Asian American community into the conversation, said Sangay Mishra, an associate professor of political science and international relations at Drew University. But, he said, these acronyms must be paired with meaningful action.

“It’s not so much about nomenclature,” he said. “It’s more about [whether] these associations or spaces make an effort to actually highlight South Asian experience, highlight Filipino experience, highlight Pacific Islander experience.”

Other acronyms like URM, or underrepresented minority, exclude some Asian Americans, said Truong Nguyen. The 21-year-old Vietnamese American recalls wanting to apply to a research program for URM students when he learned that the term did not include Asian Americans as an underrepresented minority and exclusively referred to Black, Latino and Indigenous students.

“Southeast Asians are underrepresented in STEM fields and in higher education, but because of the umbrella term ‘Asian American’ … I couldn’t apply,” he said.

Banding together as Asian Americans gives the community a “chance to think about what our relationship is to other communities of color, like Black and Latinx communities,” said Bakirathi Mani, an English professor and co-director of Asian American studies at Swarthmore College.

When Marcus Magsayo, 20, a Filipino American college student, put together a large cultural event with Filipino leche flan, he learned that his Latino friends also eat a version of the caramel dessert. Spain colonized both the Philippines and almost all of Latin America for more than 300 years. This connection through food — and Spanish colonialism — was an opportunity to build cross-cultural solidarity among Asian and Latino communities, Magsayo said.

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Given the diversity of the Asian American community, finding a common denominator can be difficult.

There isn’t a shared language or immigration history, Mani said. Instead, “I think what brings us together is this experience of being racialized in the United States … [and being] minoritized in this country.”