I think being considered Asian American is a little bit of a misnomer, not because I think the term is inadequate, but of how quickly someone’s history is dismissed once you hear or see that term. It’s as if once you add the “American” addendum to the “Asian” label, people think they know you.
It’s what a lot of the Chinese and Japanese American activists from my research on Asian American activism in the 1970’s struggled with. It’s what I’m still struggling with.
I’m going to be clear about this. Being Asian American does not mean we only consider our Americanness and Asianness in isolation. I believe that our identity as Asian Americans has to be intricately tied to our history as a diasporic people. We are and have always been in movement, sometimes by choice, but often times through force.
For today’s highlighting of AAPI figures, I’m thinking a lot about how our histories of immigration & displacement, and the interconnected legacies of imperialism shape our identity and our future as a force for progressive social change.
A lot of what I know about my identity as an Asian American is informed by those in the Asian diaspora who actually aren’t “American”. I believe we learn a lot about ourselves when we think about just how broad our community can be.
Arundhati Roy has been my favorite author since high school. The God of Small Things entirely changed my ways of thinking. I had never felt so strongly connected to a novel before. When Ammu tells Rahel that the things you say can make people love you less, it felt like my lungs collapsed. I remember saying horrible things to my mother as a snarky teen, and Roy just knew how to tear into my heart, but in the best way possible. And this was a work of fiction.
Her non-fiction writing, I didn’t discover until later. Her biting criticism of British imperialism, of Hindu nationalism, of forces that tear apart families and countries speaks to me in ways that I never knew was possible. The way that I think about myself as a colonial figure, as simultaneously oppressed by white supremacy but also as an oppressor who benefits from Western imperialism and U.S. nationalism makes me uncomfortable and extremely angry.
I think, as Roy’s novels and articles have taught me, this kind of uncomfortability is the beginning of a deep interrogation of how we fit in the world. While #APAHM is a celebration of our accomplishments and the triumphs of our ever-widening community, it must also be a call to reflect on our harrowing past, and how we can work to move forward together.
What authors, thinkers, and artists in the Asian Pacific Islander diaspora have pushed you to think beyond the limits of a fixed nation-state based identity? Share with me your thoughts!