Becoming Asian American

boy writes message on the ground with chalk during a “DC Rally for Collective Safety - Protect Asian/AAPI Communities" in March 2021. (Getty)

As we celebrate Asian/Pacific Heritage month, particularly during this year of the violence against Asian Americans, it’s worth reflecting on the genesis of this marker. Begun as a week that turned into a month during the presidency of President George H.W. Bush in 1990, it was based on the arrival dates of Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and the presence of Chinese workers to build the First Transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.  It was understood that coming from hundreds of countries and regions in Asia and the Pacific with many disparate cultures and thousands of languages, what we had in common was not our “Asian-ness” but our American experience, our American stories of arrival on new shores. The celebration, we hoped, was to highlight the processes by which each one of us came to own our American-ness and in turn, expand the notions of what it means to be American. As we are painfully aware now, what unites Asian Americans today is fear; caused by shared experiences of persistently being seen as the other, (read “foreigners”) in our adopted land, often resulting in insults, hate crimes, and even murders.

I took my citizenship oath in 1980 at a ceremony at Faneuil Hall in Boston, the cradle of American democracy. It was 10 years after I had been living in the country and 13 years after I had spent a year as an exchange student, living with an American family, in Santa Barbara. I was more ambivalent than hundreds of other fellow new Americans, waving American flags, and some even wrapped in stars and stripes with genuine excitement. My hesitation came from the fact that I had not yet resolved the implications of taking on the markers of a new citizenship: legal, political and psychological. Legally speaking, I had declared my allegiance to the United States and I was looking forward to participating in the political process by voting in American elections. But I had not yet let go of my Indian identity in America in a psychological sense. I justified the feeling by focusing on the perceptions of the fellow Americans: Even if I tried to erase my Indian identity, it won’t stop many Americans from asking, “where are you really from? You don’t sound like other Indians here. Your English sounds more American” (legacy of my exchange year). 

Such questions continue to haunt Americans of Asian descent, whether they are recent immigrants or third-generation Americans, sometimes resulting in insults such as “go back where you come from” or worse.  And that idea of “foreignness” lies at the heart of the current spade of crimes against Americans of East and Southeast Asian descent.

It is worth remembering that the current spade of hate crimes against Asian Americans is part of a long history of prejudicial treatment that seems to grow exponentially when tensions rise between the U.S. and a region in Asia.  The Japanese Incarceration camps in World War II, hate crimes against people of South Asian and middle eastern descent following the 9/11 attacks, and now the attacks on east Asian Americans following the labeling of the coronavirus as China or Wuhan virus, are part of this long-standing pattern of identifying Americans of Asian descent as more Asian than American. Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that we perceive the term Asian American in stark binaries. Either Asian or American, not both. The Peruvian American writer Alessandra Foresto defied this exclusionary sentiment well: “I’m the definition of what it means to be an American. My American passport doesn’t make me less Peruvian and my Peruvian passport doesn’t make me any less American. I’m both and unique, and that’s what this country is about.”  

Over the last 40 years of my life as an American citizen, I have come to cherish this idea: I am both and unique, because that is what this country is about, at its best. And that is worth fighting for.

As writers like Foresto and politicians like former President Obama and current Vice President Kamala Harris remind us, stories like theirs, and of millions of others, are not even remotely possible in any other country. Such stories of multi-rooted belongings are what makes America such a special, even if an imperfect, nation. In our current age of COVID and climate crises, they also provide a beacon of hope for a more expansive sense of belonging in the world that we so desperately need.

So, as we celebrate the American heritage of the Asian communities in this country this May, let’s celebrate the reality of multiple belongings that is embedded in the American ideal and Asian American experience, one that is necessary for the survival of the human community of 7.7 billion inhabitants of the planet earth that we call home.

Vishakha N. Desai is Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University and President Emerita of Asia Society.  This essay is based on her memoir, “World as Family: A journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings,” published by Columbia University Press.