Why is Asian American culture?

Every time I write about a topic that touches on Asian Americans, I feel compelled to define it. I usually stick to people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent living in Western society, notably Canada, the United States and Australia, but also other Western countries with a more open immigrant policy. This time, I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and discovered the origin of the term.

The first recorded usage of “Asian American” was in 1968 with the founding of the Asian American Political Alliance at Berkeley. Inspired by the Black Panthers and other civil rights groups, the group was created to unite Asian Americans as a single coalition comprising mostly of Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese Americans. This was California after all, and this was before the increase in South Asian immigration.

The aim of the AAPA was not only to build a multi-ethnic Asian American political movement, but also to: create alliances with other people of color, advocate for self-determination for Asian Americans and all people of color, and stand in solidarity with colonized and decolonized nations around the world. Wow. I understand this was peak counterculture and anti-Vietnam, but still managed to be surprised at how similar the rhetoric and ideology is to that of the contemporary political left.

I wonder what the founding members of the AAPA would think of the pervasiveness of the term “Asian American” today. Granted, the innocuous nature of its name and its structural similarity to “African American” undoubtedly led to its adoption as the name of a cultural group, not just a political one. But what would they think of Asian American culture?

In my mental word cloud of Asian American cultural touchpoints, bubble tea and anime are featured most prominently. Of slightly smaller size and significance are academic excellence, parental trauma, and YouTube influencers. Relative to other cultural groups, there is perhaps a disproportionate emphasis on music festivals, career, video games, and food.

Unlike its founding or its food, Asian American culture seems bland. Like its food, it is more often than not, either strictly Asian or American. Aside from small-town Chinese restaurant fare and the case Eddie Huang makes for sesame ice cream, truly Asian American food, like Asian American culture, seemed to only exist at the margins if at all. There seems to be little sense of community, except for to rally around highly commercialized products, be it media, music, or merchandise. There is virtually no solidarity except for the moments of pause taken when some sort of unspeakable tragedy occurs, but then quickly fades as it actually becomes unspoken. What happened to its radical left (grass) roots?

If to be black in America, as James Baldwin says, is “to be in a constant state of rage”, to be Asian is to be in a languid state of apolitical indifference. Except when it comes to that newest Japanese streetwear drop or the latest K-pop music video. Asian Americans don’t need to be constantly organizing against the state, but an awareness of their situation and compassion for those facing similar challenges in more precarious stations wouldn’t be so misplaced.

Du Bois writes about the double consciousness of black people in America, a “two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” To be a standard gym going, rave attending, fashion toting, young professional Asian American is to deny this duality which exists in all people of colour in the West, and adopt the label prescribed to them: neither Asian, nor American, but Asian American. The Asian American is inclined to indignant anger when referred to as Asian, but also when told they’re not really Asian.

For me, it isn’t important whether this muddled identity is a cause of the shallow consumerist Asian American culture or proliferates as a result of it, but that both certainly exist and go hand in hand. This is particularly evident when the culture is compared to the outsized influence of the African American community. Despite their abhorrent historical treatment and continual abuse at the hands of the state, the African American community has undeniably shaped American culture. From jazz to rap to house and from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Spike Lee to Michael Jordan, American culture is inseparable from African American.

And it’s not the footprint that African Americans have on Western society that Asian Americans lack, it’s also the sort of racial consciousness. The black community knows the system works against them, they know not to trust the man, and they know they can turn to one another. The sense of solidarity within the Asian American community is heavily diluted compared that of the African American community (or, at least that I can perceive). There is an understanding that most have gone through a few comparable experiences, and are less likely to judge another Asian American by race alone, but that’s where the kinship ends.

Granted, in places where there is a large enough Asian population for a community to form, it usually does. Asians will cluster in certain suburbs, or parts of a city. In schools and workplaces there are often Asian cliques. This empirical observation is trumped by my even less scientific feeling that these groups are formed on the basis of exclusion from other groups than a true affinity for one another. I have mostly Asian friends from a variety of settings. But I rarely feel that I’m bound to them more so than other people because they’re Asian.

Arguably, that’s a good thing. Maybe Asian Americans don’t see race, maybe identity politics is ineffective and diversionary. At the same time, this sort of assimilation is not entirely beneficial, because there are still issues affecting the community as a whole: workplace discrimination, healthcare access, problematic media portrayal, racially motivated assault, and sexual fetishization. There is strength in numbers and there are merits to being recognized as a political block.

I don’t expect everyone to become a left wing revolutionary, or for Asian Americans to come up with the next hip-hop, but why is Asian American culture? In fairness, Asian Americans are not uniquely to blame, and there are many exogenous factors causing this diluted sense of identity, disunity, and banal culture.

To start, there are simply too few Asian Americans. As of 2010, only 5% of the US population is Asian, as compared to 13% Black and 16% Hispanic. Though Canada and Australia have populations hovering near 10%, America is undoubted the current center of the Western world. Without a sufficient population, it’s difficult to see similarities and create a culture that transcends more than skin tone. But Asian Americans tend to cluster and congregate in enclaves in Australia, Canada, and the USA. In these areas, the Asian American population ranges from twenty percent to over seventy percent, surely over the density required to form a culture that revolves around more than tapioca drinks. Though propagation of this culture might be limited by its overall population size, it doesn’t explain why Asian American culture lacks the richness of other minority groups.

This is where the age of Asian American culture comes into play. The culture itself is too new, and hasn’t had sufficient time to acquire the depth of Black or Latino cultures. Though it’s often repeated that Asian Americans have existed for over a hundred years in America, the descendants of railroad builders and gold seekers, the number of Asians in America remained at a fifth of a percent until 1960, when it climbed to 0.5%, and then spiked to 4% in the aughts, finally reaching a population that communities can build around.

However, these communities are fractured among many lines, tied to the different waves of immigration and the connectivity available to the countries of origin. Lacking a deep-rooted common trauma, Asian Americans are often divided amongst themselves, seeing others as extensions of their native country instead of peers living in an adopted land. Asian geopolitics don’t help either: certain countries were or are colonial or neocolonial powers, while others view themselves as intrinsically superior.

Empirically, each successive wave of modern Asian immigrants also seems more well off than the next: emigrants fleeing socialism of the seventies and eighties gave way to the college-educated brain-drain of the nineties and aughts, in turn giving way to the fuerdai and international students we have now. Asian-American income inequality is the highest of all racial groups in the the United States. Each of these groups sees little in common to the others, even immigrants from the same home country, not to mention ones they have no common language with. These divisions don’t reinforce the emergence of many strongly tied groups, but rather one rather vague grouping where all the differences strip it of any value except yellowness, particularly in the second generation.

Ultimately, it’s impossible and counterproductive to force these disparate groups into a single ambiguous ethnic caste of “Asian”. Appreciation for ones distinct Asian ethnic origins, history, language, and tradition is also a positive. And Asian Americans should be thankful that we lack a shared trauma in the way of African Americans. So that’s why Asian American culture is the way it is. But there’s so much more it can be.

Asian American culture is new. It’ll grow. Artists who have had to operate within more traditional power structures are beginning to find their own voice to tell their parents stories and their own stories. Soon, there will be more to hold the culture together than jokes about immigrant parenting and Crazy Rich Asians. So read, watch, and listen. Ask yourself how you can help others in the community, in your community. Contribute what you can, because even though we may not see anything in each other that marks us as Asian American, everyone else certainly sees us as Asian.