The “Asian American” Identity and Experience

Interview quotes that touch on the Asian American identity and experience, appearing in interview order.


To me, being Indian is just being proud of where I’m from, and being able to showcase and share my experiences and everything about my culture to people that don’t know, and just being proud of who I am.

Alysha, SU, Class of 2023

My entire experience as an Asian American is kind of outlined by feeling different in both places. Because in America, I have been raised by people that were raised in a third world country. So, a lot of the ways that I handle myself and just exist, it’s just really strange to other people because it’s like, “Oh, that’s not what we’re used to.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And then if I go back to Malaysia, I’m also kind of weird there [. . .] because I was also raised in America.

Janine, WWU, Class of 2023

For me, being Chinese American, it’s kind of different because [. . .] I actually grew up in a white family. So, my answer might be different than other Chinese Americans, but I guess for me, you have, like, two cultures, two different backgrounds, but also the intertwining of the history of China and the US kind of thing that always is on my mind, but that’s also probably because I’m [an East Asian studies] major. Sometimes it sounds like I know much about my native heritage, but I’m not really sure how I feel about being Chinese American. But I think it’s cool to have different takes on cultures and stuff.

Maya K., WWU, Class of 2022

So, I think [growing up in San Jose] prepared me [for university] in the sense that, I very much believe that being Vietnamese was important because for me all those traditions [I grew up with]—I actually learned Vietnamese before I even learned English. My grandma taught me when I was really young [. . .] so I think that was really important to me to be able to speak. I won’t say I’m the most fluent or have the best accent, but I’ve always made an attempt to talk with my family. I understand things pretty well with reading and writing but I think it just reminded me, coming into college, that being Vietnamese is really important. And that I wanted to stay in touch with that. [. . .] That identity is still evolving.

Peter, SU, Class of 2020

So, I was in high school and [. . .] you know the pumpkin spice Frappuccino at Starbucks and how it’s very seasonal and considered a “white girl” drink? So, I said to my friends who are Filipinos, “That’s a really good drink. I tried it the other day and it was pretty good. I think it’s my new favorite,” or whatever.

And then one of my friends said, “Oh, so you’re a white girl now.” Like, “You’re going to become too American.”

And I’m like, “Uh, I’m Filipino?”

It felt like, I’m only Filipino and I shouldn’t be American, or like I shouldn’t have an American interest or like the American culture, and I should only stick to my Filipino heritage. And I’m like, “No, I think I can like American stuff. I can enjoy that pumpkin spice Frappuccino.”

And so that got me questioning. What’s so wrong about liking a “white girl” thing? Or what’s so wrong with liking something that’s American? Can’t I like both?

Katrina, SU, Class of 2023

[Malaysia is] not like a melting pot—that means that you’re conforming to something. It’s a salad bowl, like, everything is so different, but it works together in harmony.

America [should be] a salad bowl. There are a lot of different cultures and immigrants and people who have been here since before colonization, and how their way of living has changed, but they embrace that. There are the refugees. There are people that are strong with the diaspora. There are people that know nothing about their diaspora. And all of that is what makes America American. Just [trying to be] a salad bowl.

And being Asian American is just a few of those ingredients. I can’t say just one, because that’s to say, like, a Japanese person is equivalent to a Sri Lankan. And that’s where it’s hard to say, “I’m Asian American,” because when I think of “Asian American” I think of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. I even rarely say that I’m “Southeast Asian” because even though there is a lot more identity there, like, it is more specific, I also like to claim, like, Tamil Nadu, in India.

But it just has to do with where your ancestry comes from, what you feel most comfortable with, and if there are any aspects that you can embrace, or at least appreciate. For some that’s food. For some, they may not know the food at all, but they speak the language.

And people can decide if they’re “Asian American” or not. Some Indians don’t say that they’re an Asian American, they’ll prefer to say that they’re Indian, and some Arabs or Iraqis—it’s hard for them to say that they’re Asian American too, but on the census, it says that they’re white. So, they struggle with that too; they have to separate being Middle Eastern from being Caucasian from being white from being Asian. So, it’s all up to interpretation if you think that you’re Asian or not. Geographically it’s all Asia, but borders are arbitrary.

Anton, WWU, Class of 2020

Even in Asia, a lot of these cultures are so close together that there are overlaps or there are ways in which you can find connection or interaction. So, I took it as, as long as I’m finding ways in which I’m able to interact with certain aspects of my culture, and then maybe other cultures that were prominent growing up, just finding certain experiences or certain things that I could allow myself to do and enjoy, and by enjoying them, this is me being Asian American. [. . .]

It is the fact of the Asian American experience that you grow up with, like—boba I feel is now a general Asian American experience regardless of whether you’re Chinese, Korean, South Asian. For everyone that’s Asian American, we’ve found a way, like with boba, to interpret that as some part of our experience growing up. I feel like that itself is authentic in the Asian American experience; sometimes it’s drinking boba or having seen at least one Korean drama (because for some reason we all love k-dramas).

I kind of decided it was little things like that—as long as I feel it’s fulfilling and I like it. Like how sometimes I feel Indian enough just going to an Indian market, and maybe these people don’t think I’m Indian, but I’ll walk in there and I’ll look at brands and I’m like, “That’s such an Indian brand . . . yes, like me,” and then I’ll just go. [. . .]

It is what it is because when you’re American, you can’t just pick one identity to interact with; there are certain aspects that, because of the people you grew up around, are going to find some way to be implemented into your personal culture. And so, we make that the Asian American experience, because we’re not—it’s not just one specific thing. It’s also how you interact with these other cultures growing up, and how they affect you later down the line.

Theresa C., WWU, Class of 2021

[Being mixed] really does feel like its own identity, and at first, I feel like even a lot of mixed kids themselves first see it as, like, literally mixing two identities together. But as you get older, you definitely notice that it is in itself its own unique thing. So, when people ask about one side or the other, it’s kind of disappointing because you never really fall into either side; there are always nuances, because of whatever other identity you have. So regardless of whatever white experiences I have, there’s always going to be some other part that’s going to intermix and mingle with it, so it’s not even like an authentic “half white, half Indian” experience—it really is its own weird thing. And I think people really don’t recognize it and I guess I get disappointed because it’s harder to explain things about myself or just why I am the way I am, because I don’t even know where it mixes and then where it doesn’t.

Theresa C., WWU, Class of 2021

I know for [my dad], his home always will be [the Philippines]. But we live here, and a couple months ago he told me that this was the longest he’s ever lived in one place, longer than when he’s lived in his childhood home. And then we’re all here. Our family unit is here. I mean, yes, where we are, that’s where we go home to, but this is our home. We built a life for us here. And, especially over the past five years, I’ve gotten closer with my cousins that live in the Philippines [. . .] and I understand that aspect of family will always be, you know, a part of home. But when I think about home, I think about this house, even though home isn’t a building or a place where you dwell. But I think of Bellingham.

Andre, WWU, Class of 2022

Every time I went [to the Philippines] I’d be super aware that, like, I can’t understand shit. Just walking around and hearing all these voices, or listening to a TV at home with relatives, or even listening to my relatives when they weren’t talking to me, I’d be aware that I can’t understand anything and that there’s this whole disconnect. It was kind of discouraging, like, here I am trying to be a little bit more Filipino, or trying to embrace more of my Filipino heritage, and yet there’s still that huge gap. And so, experiencing trying to go one way [American] and then realizing I didn’t really want that, and then trying to go the other way [Filipino] and then realizing there’s still this distance that I need to put in work to cover—after experiencing both sides, I’m a little bit more comfortable with where I am sitting in the middle. Especially starting college, [getting involved with the Filipino American Student Association], and meeting a lot of other people who are in the same boat as me.

Gretchen, WWU, Class of 2022
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