The idea of a shared Asian American identity has been fraught for about as long as it has existed.
How can one term encapsulate the experiences of people with very different ties to dozens of countries? What shared interests bind refugees struggling to make a home in a new land with people whose families have lived in the United States for generations?
During the coronavirus pandemic, though, fear and pain have acted as grim unifying forces. A surge of violence and harassment targeting Asian Americans has shown that America’s long history of treating people of Asian descent as foreigners whose belonging is contingent — on labor, on cultural assimilation, on perceived success — is far from a relic.
Still, when we asked people to tell us how it feels to be Asian American right now, many said that the past year and a half has been clarifying in other ways. The responses, which have been condensed and edited, came from Asian Americans across the country and from a variety of backgrounds.
We asked respondents what terms they use to identify themselves. In some cases, full names and ages have been withheld because of safety and privacy concerns.
Many said they felt newly visible — vulnerable, but also more keenly aware of how they’re seen. Some said they felt compelled to speak out against both anti-Asian discrimination and against other forms of racism in their communities.
Some said they yearned to gain access to an American dream without the burden of prejudice, that they wished simply to blend in. Others said they were embracing their Asian heritage after years of feeling like it made them somehow less American.
“Now, what’s embarrassing is that I ever felt that shame about my family’s roots,” Jenny Wu Donahue, 33, told us.
Together, the more than two dozen reflections shown here reveal a range of views and complicated emotions being felt in Asian American communities today. Share your experience in the
What’s different now is that people see us. I told my husband: “I’ve been Asian all my life, but it’s only now that people notice.”
Sarah Rudolf, 46, Chinese American, St. Paul, Minn.
Before this rise in hate, it was my parents calling me every other day to check in on me and if I’m doing OK. Now it’s me calling them.
Jamie, 28, Korean American, Laurel, Md.
I signed my daughter up for a charter school recently. My husband was filling out the forms and he said we could only choose one ethnicity for my daughter. So he chose white and he didn’t choose Asian. I have misgivings about that. But we only had one choice. And I thought, well, she’s growing up in the U.S. I guess she is more white now than she is Asian.
Christine Nguyen, 46, Vietnamese American, San Jose, Calif.
I am a single Chinese working mother living with my only daughter in Central Indiana. Before the pandemic, we lived like many other friendly and kind neighbors in my community.
Now, I find myself remaining constantly alert. When I take a walk in my neighborhood, when I stroll down an aisle in the supermarket, whenever there are strangers around me, I am on guard.
I start to feel a little uncomfortable when the conversation turns to accusing the diplomatic relationship with China. I no longer feel free to talk about everything and anything with friends as I used to. I started to alienate myself, after so many years taking my community as an integral part of my life. I began to think I am different and maybe I should leave the table.
But this is still where home is. I will stay, and I hope I can eventually regain the sense of security I used to have.
Jane T., 42, Chinese, Indiana
My parents raised my two older sisters and me with a lot of fear, and I would very openly criticize what I believed to be racist sentiments from them. Fear of other races, fear of hate and violence directed at us, fear of us having mixed-race kids one day.
Now that I’m an adult witnessing and experiencing the racial bias and hate in this country, I see what my parents were warning me about from the very beginning. As much as I didn’t want it to be true, race very much matters in America.
Geraldine Lim, 33, first generation Chinese American, Oakland, Calif.
My family is Cambodian and we immigrated to the U.S. when I was just 3 days old — escaping the communist regime called the Khmer Rouge in the late ’70s/early ’80s. I am immensely lucky that my parents escaped a war torn country and resettled here in America.
I grew up in a western suburb of Chicago that was predominantly white and affluent. From an early age, it was apparent I was different from the other kids. We lived in the only Section 8 housing offered in that area. My childhood wasn’t exactly happy and easy. I grew up with Latino and African American neighbors that sometimes treated me more racist than Caucasian people I went to school with. I was regularly called derogatory names growing up and was bullied because I was Asian. I remember this very clearly and it has had an impact on me to this day. There were times when I felt really, really lonely growing up as an Asian kid.
Now I have a more heightened sense of awareness that I’m Asian and that there may be neighbors, people in the community, at the grocery store or at work who may not like me because they see me as an Asian guy and they connect that with the notion that the coronavirus originated from an Asian country — China. I’m not even Chinese and I’ve never even been to China; I’ve lived my whole life in America.
I’m a husband, and a father to two cute little girls. My wife, Katherine, is Caucasian. We are two working professionals in management positions just trying to raise our family. Working hard and trying to earn a living. And now I have to worry about being randomly, physically attacked because of my skin color. Sad is not the right word. It’s disbelief. It’s tremendously awful. It’s this heightened sense of potential violence toward me that I now have to live with and look out for.
Samuel Kong, 41, Cambodian American, Chicago
I rejected my Korean identity completely when I was young because I was embarrassed and ashamed to be Asian. It wasn’t until college that I became interested in the culture. I ended up living in Korea for a few years.
I now make my own kimchi and cook primarily Korean food, listen exclusively to Korean music. I study the Korean language every day. I am so proud now and it’s taken a long time to get there.
But the rise in anti-Asian sentiment made me feel ashamed yet again. If I were just white, life would be so much easier. I feel so resentful sometimes of my circumstance. Why couldn’t I just have stayed in Korea?
Kim Y., Korean American, New Jersey
I think particularly being an Asian American woman, you find yourself in the position of being vulnerable a lot and being perceived as vulnerable. And even if you consider yourself a very strong person, your perception of vulnerability makes you an easy target for violence because people think they can take advantage of you.
Indu Radhakrishnan, 23, South Asian, Baltimore
At the beginning of the pandemic, as I was going through an airport en route to my flight, I was spit on by a stranger. I was in shock.
But what was more crushing wasn’t the saliva dripping down my face. It was looking around and realizing that the dozen people around me simply pretended like it never happened. No one cared or no one wanted to say anything. The silence was complicity in the act of hate. I went from being a “model minority” to being used as spitting target practice.
That moment made me realize that I needed to speak up. I went from trying to fit in and blend in my entire life to asking questions and trying to raise awareness to our communities, even if it meant having tough conversations and pointing out that everyday turns of phrase that some would call funny are what I and many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders would call belittling and offensive.
Jeff Le, 38, Vietnamese American, Washington, D.C.
I grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, where most people still talk about race as a Black and white issue.
My father, himself the victim of many instances of anti-Asian discrimination, denies systemic racism exists and believes protesting (against what he sees as anecdotal episodes) would bring unwanted consequences, that it’s better to remain under the radar even if it means enduring occasional hatred. Ten years ago, I might have agreed with him.
Siew David Hii, 23, Chinese American, Raleigh, N.C.
I was raised in a predominantly white place and for the longest time, I believed I could assimilate myself into whiteness.
I knew other Asian Americans who went to language school and had communities of other Asian Americans. I rejected that as much as I could because I thought I was American first.
As I’ve become an adult, I realize that it doesn’t matter how I think of myself; some others will see me the exact same way as the people who embraced their heritage tighter. It’s literally about nothing aside from how we look.
Sam You, 34, Taiwanese American, Los Angeles
As a Pakistani American, I have found it more and more confusing to use the term Asian American to identify myself in recent months.
I was a young child when 9/11 happened, and I remember how scared I was of words like “terrorist” and “Osama” because my family had nailed it into me that using these words would get our whole family into big trouble. I dealt with that anxiety any time another terrorist attack was being covered on the news. I have seen parallels between that and the kind of disgusting anti-Asian sentiment other Asian Americans are feeling now.
While I sometimes see “Asian American” used as an umbrella term for all Asians, a lot of the recent violence and racist sentiments have been directed toward East Asians specifically and not so much toward South Asians. Since I feel that most South Asians look so physically distinct from other Asians, and since recent hate crimes seem to target people based on identifying East Asian physical characteristics, I have been conflicted about whether or not I even feel targeted by any of this.
I have simultaneously felt the need to speak up about racist anti-Asian sentiment I have felt in the past while also wanting to step back and let East Asian Americans discuss how this is all affecting them.
Waleed Khan, 23, Chicago
Being Asian means…
wondering if someone is going to say your name right.
continuing to wonder if things are about race or not.
starting to cleanse away my self-hate and shame and learning that white supremacy is the enemy, not myself.
resisting the model minority and creating our own narratives and stories.
being proud of your name, whatever it is.
finding peace in the past and building a different future.
knowing we don’t need to be white or white-adjacent in order to be human, unlike what the media has taught us. Who we are is human enough.
Yue Xiang, 27, Chinese American, Philadelphia
I don’t really know who I am, or what I am, but I’m starting to embrace whatever it means to be Asian American, although I’ll tell you the truth: When I moved from Florida to California, I wasn’t Asian enough for the Asians, and to the Americans I’m never American enough.
Karen Ong, 37, Chinese American, Galveston, Texas
I’ve learned over time that Asian American voices shouldn’t be heard only when we are feeling like our lives are being threatened. We should be vocal long before and long after the news cameras turn away from us to focus on the next big headline.
Michael Thai, 38, Vietnamese American, San Diego
Despite the fact that my mother’s family has resided in this country for four generations, we are perpetually viewed as foreigners, making assimilation seem impossible. That is the reason that I personally find the “American” in “Asian American” to be so important, because I am, culturally, by birth and in every other way, 100 percent American.
Amy Tieh-mei Chang, 46, Chinese American, Alameda, Calif.
I have always viewed our status in this country as being one of second-class citizens. While, in the past, American-born people of Asian descent have said that they were grateful for their parents or ancestors having come to this country to give them a better life, I have long felt that this was a wrong decision on the part of my parents.
Seeking economic gain and being misguided by this country’s false promises of equality, they came here and now I and my descendants are basically stuck being second-class citizens in a country that we can never truly call our own because it seems to disown us. I also find it hard to feel any patriotism or even loyalty to this country as it is hard to love something that seems to hate you back.
Eugene, New York City
I’d like to say that we’re not a monolith. Just because the virus started in China doesn’t mean that we’re all Chinese. There are many other countries in Asia. And just because we’re Asian doesn’t mean that we’re loyal to other governments and that we’re trying to play against you and that we’re on another team. On the contrary, we’re on the same team. We’re Americans. We see ourselves as Americans, and we hope that you do, too.
Elie Mala, 29, Thai American, New York City
When do we stay and fight for an equal and just piece of the American pie, and when do we choose a better life elsewhere, like our parents and grandparents did?
Our ancestors were pragmatic — they wanted to provide a better life for themselves and their children, and they did everything they could to make that happen, even if it meant leaving their homes and venturing into unfamiliar lands where they didn’t speak the language.
What if that better life is no longer in the U.S.? What if that better life is actually possible in many other places now, including the very lands our ancestors came from?
Jane W. Wang, Taiwanese American, Taipei, Taiwan
Asian American has become a term that is co-opted by states, corporations and other oppressive forces and no longer stands for the radical solidarity it once did. Sure, coalition building is useful — but I am interested in a coalition that doesn’t erase the oppression that occurs within and among “Asian” communities. As a Sikh American, I don’t want to be labeled as Asian American because other “Asian” communities express discriminatory anti-Sikh prejudice. I don’t want to have the same name as my oppressors.
Asian American no longer captures the nuances and layered oppressions faced by marginalized “Asian” communities, such as Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, Dalit, Sri Lankan, Assamese, Sikh, Indian Muslim, Indian Christian and Uyghur communities, among others. I want to be seen. I want to define myself. I don’t want to be defined by a generic label that has lost its power of resistance.
Kanwalroop Kaur Singh, 29, Sikh American, San Jose, Calif.
I was adopted from China into a white family, and the rise in hate crimes and violence and racist rhetoric has brought up some difficult conversations with my parents.
My parents see me as their daughter, someone they love and are proud of. They don’t see me through the eyes of society: a young Asian woman who is often hit on for being exotic, or constantly asked where I am from. It’s hard to have these conversations with my white family, to get them to understand and to recognize that even as they try, they will never fully understand my experience.
Like most white people who are currently trying to understand what it means to be a person of color in America, their intentions are good but the burden to educate is on me.
Annie LaFleur, 25, Chinese, Portland, Ore.
Like many second-generation Asian Americans, I was the kid with the stinky lunch and the only one among friends whose parents had an accent. It was embarrassing. Now, what’s embarrassing is that I ever felt that shame about my family’s roots.
Jenny Wu Donahue, 33, Chinese American, New York City
As an American of Chinese descent, I feel like we are being given two options, neither of which truly solve our problem. The first comes from the older generation, those who tell us that our silence will be our survival. Then there’s the second option, from those my age, who feel like we have to show more than just our passports and polished American English as proof of our belonging. We aren’t even unified in our beliefs, and that’s our greatest weakness.
Chase, 24, Chinese American, New York City
My grandparents were interned during World War II. This had a profound impact on my family financially and emotionally. Due to the anti-Japanese postwar sentiment, my parents were encouraged to assimilate as much as possible into the dominant (white) culture. Growing up in the 1980s, I experienced some discrimination, yet it wasn’t until the last decade that I became more educated and engaged as an advocate for racial equity, including standing with my Black and brown friends to fight injustice.
Elaine Ikeda, 56, Japanese American, Redwood City, Calif.
I only think of myself as Asian American when I check off an identity box on a form. Otherwise, I’m a Sikh American, a Punjabi American and a South Asian American. The Asian community is not a monolith, and the term “Asian” to describe all of our various experiences and cultures is not helpful or accurate.
Jo Kaur, 38, Sikh American, Queens, N.Y.
I’m married to a Caucasian man and we used to think it’s possible for us to belong. Now we don’t. Now people look at me differently when I’m alone versus when I’m with him. I don’t feel as safe. I carry a passport that says “U.S. citizen” to prove to people that I belong. Though at times I wonder if it’s a reminder to myself that I do.
Anh W., 42, Vietnamese American, Eden Prairie, Minn.
Like all immigrants, I have an American dream. As a queer woman from a country marred by military dictatorships, censorships and blood coups, I saw the United States as a safe haven where diversity is celebrated.
That sense of security and optimism was shattered after my assault. It took me a month after my assault before I could confess to my father, who dreamed of being reunited with me after my medical training. A former monk known for his calm and gentle presence, my father cried for the first time in my life. He asked, “Are you hurt?” I hope to one day be able to tell him, “Yes, I was hurt, but I am also healing.”
Oranicha Jumreornvong, 26, Thai, New York City
Introduction by Jill Cowan. Illustrations by Sally Deng.
Produced by Ruru Kuo, Adriana Ramic, Deanna Donegan, Alice Fang, Rebecca Halleck and Antonio de Luca. Additional production by Fahima Haque, Brad Fisher, Aidan Gardiner and Clinton Cargill.