I’ve had trouble my whole life knowing what Asian American means. Doesn’t Asian equal Chinese? That’s what I passively assumed as a kid. Nope. Asia has around 50 different countries — such as India, Micronesia, Macronesia (made that up for false equivalency), Kazakhstan and others. Indeed, Asian American Pacific Islander means a ton of different things.
As a teen, I wasn’t exactly welcoming when I encountered new Asian folks arriving from another country.
If the United States were a pizza cut into 12 slices, AAPIs would be represented by one slice. The AAPIs who live in that slice speak more than 100 different languages, and two-thirds are foreign-born. Divide that one slice of pizza into 50 smaller pieces (especially if prone to ethnic heartburn), and I’d be part of one bite-sized piece.
And yet as a teen, I wasn’t exactly welcoming when I encountered new Asian folks arriving from another country. I was American. In fact, I was a sixth-generation American on one side of my family. By Asian American standards, that was as good as coming over on the Mayflower. I didn’t dress like these new Asians. I didn’t eat what they ate. I didn’t smell like they smelled. I was authentically American. That meant I was better. Which meant I became an “ugly” American.
One of the unique qualities of the United States is that it represents all communities of communities. At least 37 diasporas make up the AAPI population. There are some 20 countries of origin that make up the African American community and at least 32 diasporas that make up the Latino American community. In the United States, there are 574 Native American tribes and 120-plus origin countries represented within our borders. Nationally, we are a community of communities.
But I became an ugly American as a teenager. I was so ugly that I made fun of the new Asian immigrants who came to my middle and high school. I called them FOBs — people “fresh off the boat,” a prejudiced, derogatory term. I was proving I was from here. But instead of carrying around my birth certificate, I joined with the chorus of others mocking immigrants. Only later did I begin to realize I was also indirectly making fun of my grandfather who risked everything to come to the U.S.
That is my journey of growing up Asian in the United States. Only as a journalist did I learn this over the years. The stories I told taught me about, well, me. I reported on unauthorized Asian immigrants, on the cultural implications and continued prevalence of "yellowface," on the ignored AAPI swing vote, on Jeremy Lin’s “Chink in the Armor” moment, on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the death of Vincent Chin and more. Those stories were me.
Today, as we observe the ongoing consequences of anti-Asian hate, we are also seeing AAPI journalists conspicuously like never before. Their reporting is tinged with something specific. What you are seeing is conflict; conflict between their job and the expectations society has long held for many in the AAPI community. We are done being your “model” minority. And we want you to listen to us, about the discrimination and xenophobia and fear and pain that has colored the experiences of AAPI Americans in this country for decades. For centuries.
When two men killed Vincent Chin with a bat in the street in 1982, there were just dozens of Asian American Journalists Association members nationally. Though few, they went to help fight for justice and tell Chin’s story.
Today there are more than 1,500 AAJA members. Together we have become civil rights reporters of an ignored history.
We see the watershed moment. America’s eyes have never been wider. Now is the time for a movement to protect and embrace the AAPI community.
We need allies to stand with us, and to help us — not just with their words. There are big tasks ahead that require big investments. We need a March on the Mall in May, timed for APA Heritage Month. We need a reinvigorated presidential advisory commission on the AAPI community. We need a Smithsonian National Museum for AAPI History and Culture. We need to push for national landmarks that reflect 200 years of AAPI contributions.
I’m no longer that angry confused teen whose desire for assimilation ended up hurting members of his own community. I don’t have trouble knowing what Asian American means anymore. I certainly can’t ignore my identity.
And neither can the rest of America.
Copyright © 2021 by Richard Lui. Adapted from "Enough About Me: The Unexpected Power of Selflessness," published by HarperCollins/Zondervan on March 23, 2021. Printed with permission.