To most people, being asked, “Where are you from?” seems innocuous enough. Someone is just trying to get to know you a little bit better. Asian Americans, however, have almost universally had a different experience with this question. At first we’ll answer with “California,” “New York,” or a variety of other places. But then comes the dreaded follow-up question: “But where are you really from?” It becomes immediately clear that there’s a certain answer that is expected, and a failure to comply will just result in more questions.
Even if you have lived in one state your entire life, answering with that state’s name is not acceptable. It’s at this point that even the Louisiana-born Asian will usually relent and say, “Well my ancestors are from China.”
This common scenario cannot just be attributed to a simple interest in someone else’s ethnic heritage. When examined, it is an indication of the societal perception of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” By virtue of one’s Asian face, she is pegged as being an alien with experiences necessarily different from those of Americans. It doesn’t matter if she has never lived in Asia; she will be thought of as incapable of assimilating regardless.
I am not the only person to have noticed this issue; other people have addressed it as well. Filmmaker Ken Tanaka, for example, made a pretty funny video about it.
I see this “perpetual foreigner” mindset as manifesting itself in other ways, however. Since arriving on campus, I’ve talked to many people about why Princeton needs a program in Asian American Studies, and have heard a variety of concerns people have with the program. But the concern that has always bothered me the most is the question, “Why do we need Asian American Studies when we have a great East Asian Studies department?” It’s true that we do have a great East Asian Studies department, but this does not mean that we have a space for focusing on studying Asian America. Consider this analogy: could the Program in African Studies take the place of the Center for African American Studies? Hopefully the difference between ethnic and regional studies thus becomes readily apparent.
The view that conflates East Asian Studies and Asian American Studies also overlooks the diversity of the Asian American community. Beyond East Asians, Asian Americans can also have ancestors from Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Pacific Islands, and many more areas. The categorization of these various ethnic groups as “Asian American” has been controversial, but that is how these groups are currently labeled in academic circles for the purpose of research. As a result, the lack of a program in Asian American Studies also hinders research of many other ethnic groups. (Based on a survey currently being conducted by the Asian American Students Association, Princeton students also seem to be divided over what “Asian American” means. I hope to write a future article to present our findings on this issue).
Of course, a large number of Asian Americans are foreign-born. But that does not deny the fact that Asian Americans have had, and still do have, a radically different experience in the United States than they would have in Asian countries. Asian American history stretches back centuries and has been impacted much more substantially by the United States than Asian countries. Japanese internment and Chinese exclusion, for example, are both results of political dialogue and social tensions in the United States. The recent rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh violence across the nation could be examined to see how the American psyche has been impacted by increased US interaction with the Middle East. This research would not have its academic home in South Asian Studies, but rather in Asian American Studies. Asian American literature is written in English and centers on characters whose life experiences are fundamentally impacted by living in the United States. Finally, Asian American Studies would help to raise awareness of what is now the fastest growing racial demographic in the United States. Such literature is not studied as a part of East Asian Studies.
Making the distinction between Asian and Asian American is necessary to show anyone why Asian American Studies is necessary at Princeton or any other university. Once this difference is understood, then more substantial debates can occur about how Asian American Studies interacts with other ethnic studies departments or the more traditional fields such as history or English. I will address those debates in later articles.
There is currently no developed Asian American Studies program at Princeton, and I do not expect that creating a program in the field would suddenly cause universal understanding of Asian American issues on campus. But it is time to start taking steps forward. It is time to move on from “Where are you really from?”