Is “Asian-American” a viable category?

Why not engage in some utopian thinking? Albert makes the case.

Hello dear friends,

Happy Easter/Passover/Tomb-Sweeping Festival! And hello from another national lockdown! Just as he did in his previous appearances, Macron came across Wednesday as defensive and haughty, unable to take responsibility for his government’s catastrophic pandemic response and inept vaccine rollout over the past couple of months. France had 46,000 new COVID cases yesterday and hospitals are at 140% capacity. It’s grim.  

We’ve been thinking more about Asian-America and Asian-Americanness. The Time to Say Goodbye podcast has been essential listening since the pandemic began, and their recent crossover episode with The Dig was illuminating and provocative. In one of its most interesting moments, the host asks about the utility of “Asian-American,” a term for a notoriously heterogeneous group. (A Pew Research report shows that more than twenty million Asian-Americans have roots in at least twenty countries spanning East and Southeast Asia as well as the Indian subcontinent.) In an earlier article, Jay Caspian Kang argued that “‘Asian-­American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-­America.” Tammy Kim disagreed, defending “Asian-American” as a “synthetic term that is still useful.”

Having grown up in Taiwan and come to the U.S. at eighteen, I was suspicious for a long time of the potential of “Asian-American” as a unifying group identity. My skepticism began in college, which I attended in the early 2000s. Every year, the Chinese Student club hosted a “night market,” inviting students from Asian-American clubs to set up stalls with their best imitation of their grandparents’ cooking from their countries of origin: sticky rice, baozi, mango lassi, Thai iced tea.

Such get-togethers are harmless, but in the lead-up to this one a flame war broke out on the club’s email listserv. Some mainland Chinese students had seen Taiwanese flags at a rehearsal event and demanded that they be taken down. The Taiwanese students refused. The organizers tried to defuse the situation by appealing to our Asian-Americanness: we’re all Americans now, they reasoned, so why fight over geopolitical issues going on over in Asia? I found this argument naive, an attempt to diminish “real” political disagreements and passions.

I realize now that I was swayed by my own Taiwanese nationalism, which, as Michelle often tells people mostly jokingly, is one of the few issues that can make me lose my cool. The issue of Taiwanese independence has never been an abstraction to me; the signature historical moment of my young political consciousness was the election of Chen Shui-bian as Taipei City mayor in 1994. Chen was the first politician in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a bloc rooted in dissidence against the authoritarian KMT government, to win a major political post. Other dissidents like him had been disappeared or lit on fire, but he had survived. I was eleven, but I remember the joy I felt when he won, and again when he was elected president in 2000, as if it were yesterday. Even as I write this, I can picture the happiness of my normally even-keeled father, who told me, “We Taiwanese can finally make our own decisions now.”

So the actions of the Chinese students on the listserv angered me. If an innocuous cultural event can reveal such deep divisions between Taiwanese and Chinese communities, I thought, how much deeper were the divides between other Asian-American groups, between Korean-Americans and Japanese-Americans, between Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans? That’s not even to mention all the fraught migration histories, the generational divides, even the cultural differences between Asians and Asian-Americans.

For my part, I tried to attend as many Taiwanese-American club events as possible, and struggled to understand why I never felt at home there. I shared the organization’s explicitly stated goals, after all: I wanted to promote Taiwanese culture and politics, wanted people to learn more about the country’s history and celebrate its achievements. And even though the club never said so outright, I shared the political orientation of many of its members, who yearned for Taiwanese independence.

But there seemed to be a gulf between the experiences of Taiwanese-Americans who had grown up in the United States and those who had recently come from Taiwan. The heterogeneity of Taiwanese experience and identity that I had grown up with seemed flattened in America. Some held quite hardline positions toward Taiwanese identity, regarding any affiliation with members of the KMT as a stain. Those people were not “Taiwanese.” I thought instantly of the many “mixed” friends and family in Taiwan. My cousin, for instance, is a diehard member of the DPP who is happily married to a longtime KMT supporter. They have a model marriage, and they always joke that the only day that they don’t talk to each other is election day.

Others were contemptuous toward recent immigrants. I was shocked when several of my own Taiwanese-American friends made fun of a less acculturated recent Taiwanese immigrant by calling him a “FOB,” laughing at his accent and mocking the way he dressed. They must not have realized I was a recent immigrant too, likely because I speak “unaccented” English. I wish I’d spoken up, but I didn’t. 

In my classes, I discovered the degree to which the very term “Asia” is a construction of Western orientalists, shaped by geopolitical and economic relationships dating back to the nineteenth century. Instead of finding community in groups that were explicitly Asian-American, I felt more connection to my Christian fellowship, which I thought grappled more honestly with the urgent task of creating interracial spaces. Another Asian-American welcomed me to a radical leftist reading group, where I first encountered internationalist, anti-capitalist ideas such as the writings of Manning Marable, David Harvey, Perry Anderson, and Robin D.G. Kelley. In short, in college I embraced arguments similar to Kang’s—I was skeptical about the value of “Asian-American” as a term for political mobilization, and instead threw my energy toward fostering spaces of religious faith and explicit political organizing.

Nandalal Bose, Darjeeling Fog. Bose, who is Bengali, was one of the leading painters in the pan-Asian art movement and embraced Japanese painting techniques.

Does that mean we would be better off jettisoning the term itself, referring to ourselves instead as Indian-Americans or Taiwanese-Americans or Korean-Americans or Japanese-Americans? I don’t think so. To reject the term “Asian-American,” I think, to only identify as Taiwanese-American or Chinese-American or the like, is to submit to the thinking of nationalism and the nation-state, to accept that our collective solidarities begin and end with the nation.

Not to say that nations don’t matter. Of course the national histories of Japan, of China, of Taiwan, of India play a powerful part in shaping the different outcomes of people’s lives. To reject national boundaries is to fail to look reality in the face. It’s utopian.

But why not engage in some utopian thinking? Since graduate school, I’ve come to see the potential in “Asian-American” as a source of solidarity. In the Bay Area I learned about the history of radical Asian-American activists such as the people involved in the Third World Liberation Front, who in the 1960s also asked what binds together a disparate group of people and concluded that the history of state oppression—Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, denaturalization of Indian-Americans—is linked to a struggle against American imperial power in Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. To radicals living under imperial rule in such places, “Asian-American”—even “Asia” itself—represented a type of possible solidarity and resistance.

Since meeting Michelle, I’ve also come to understand growing up Asian in an Asian country was itself a form of privilege. I didn’t inherit the anxieties and fears of the minority obliged to perform under a proverbial “white gaze.” I didn’t notice the slights until Michelle pointed them out to me. I never felt an existential crisis about where I belonged. I knew where I belonged: in Taiwan.

It was in grad school that I began learning about the history of “pan-Asianism,” which transformed my thinking. The heavily anti-Japanese curriculum with which I grew up had taught me that the term was a front for Japanese imperialist ambitions in the 1930s and 1940s to assert power over the region and create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” But as I immersed myself in histories of the region, I learned that aggressive imperialism was only one strand. I learned of Rabindranath Tagore’s invocation of pan-Asianism as a spiritual response to the ravages of Western imperialism and capitalism; I learned that Sun Yatsen used the term in a similar way, to criticize the brutality of gunboat diplomacy and offer an alternate philosophy of power and geopolitics rooted in “benevolence and virtue.” For both of them the word “Asian” could hold together diverse forms of anti-imperial, anti-capitalist critique. 

In recent years, in my course on contemporary world history, I’ve taught the work of Tan Malaka, whose story is one of the most remarkable in the history of decolonization. Born in Indonesia when it was still a Dutch colony, Malaka traveled to the Netherlands to train to become a teacher; it was there that he experienced Dutch racism (a teacher he met was surprised that he could do math), became radicalized, and joined the Communist Party. In 1921, he was a representative at the Comintern, where he argued for an alliance with Pan-Islamist forces in the Dutch East Indies. Like Tagore and Sun, he saw Asia as a possible space of resistance to Western imperial power. He expanded its geographical boundaries to include all of southeast Asia, covering “Annam, Siam, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” and spent his entire career trying to organize revolutionary activity there. Everywhere he went, Malaka was thrown in jail: Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guangzhou, Shanghai.

Like Tagore and Sun and other radicals, Malaka saw “Asia” as a broad canvas rife with potential for revolutionary action, and in turn for universal liberation. I think you can find traces of this radicalism in the “transnationally Asian” media landscape that has emerged in the past decade or so, as Tammy Kim shows in this excellent article.

Elsewhere in the Time to Say Goodbye podcast, Kang describes the recent uptick in anti-Asian violence as a Vincent Chin moment (a friend of his calls it “the Vincent Chin industrial complex”), arguing that now is an important time to think through the long-term ramifications of bringing a new Asian-American politics into being. I do agree with this—it does appear that a new Asian-American consciousness is emerging from this moment, and that’s an opportunity worth seizing. If there’s an Asian-America I want to align with and fight for, it’s the one borne by the inheritors of the radical, liberationist vision of pan-Asianism. It’s one that’s not obsessed with the trappings of national recognition or injury; it’s internationalist in its vision, and concerned with justice for all. 


Links for the week

  • We loved this close-read of Chitarman’s “Shah Jahan on a Terrace, Holding a Pendant Set With His Portrait,” in the New York Times. The interactive display walks you step by step through the cosmopolitanism and artistic genius of the Mughal Empire.

  • In his excellent review of Shaena Lambert’s novel Petra, Stephen Milder offers a brief history of the Green Party in Germany through the prism of Petra Kelly’s complicated legacy:

    But recalling the early green utopias of which Kelly spoke has proven challenging and contentious. For many within the party—who often have little or no memory of its previous incarnation—the Greens’ radical past is problematic, the party’s current popularity seeming to offer evidence that abandoning that radicalism was the right choice. Likewise can one argue that German society’s newfound willingness to address the climate crisis is a testament to the success of the Greens’ political work, and that the party’s transition to less radical, more economically friendly climate solutions is therefore a natural evolution. And especially in the current political climate, in which German democracy is widely perceived to be under threat by populism, touting the establishment credentials of the party is clearly incentivized. There is little advantage to be gained, it would seem, from reminding the public that the party was once seen as the enemies at parliament’s gate.

  • Vicky Gu has a wonderful profile of Lucas Sin, a pioneer in a new wave of socially activist chefs. This quote particularly resonated with Albert:

    Coming to America for college, Sin acknowledges “the privilege of not having to wrestle with your identity, one of the benefits of growing up as a majority in your country. I didn’t really have to think about it until within 16 hours of [travel time] becoming a minority in the United States. The advantage is that I don’t need to go through the often arduous and labor-intensive hoops of explaining my identity, so that my opinion can be heard in a very identity-focused social media space.”

  • Incarcerated people in New York and their advocates have won a major victory: the end of the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons and jails. In late March legislators passed the bill HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which bans the use of solitary for longer than 15 days. This week Governor Cuomo signed the law into bill. Solitary confinement is a common form of discipline that requires inmates to spend 23 hours a day in a tiny room cut off from human contact. Half of suicides in prison are linked to it. We’re inspired by reader and activist Vaidya Gullapalli, who has kept us abreast of this battle and has fought alongside many others to stop such cruel injustice.


Music recommendations for the week

  • Listen to this gorgeous song by the vocal group Saje, courtesy of Kira Thurman:

  • Alice Kao recommends this piece Ave Generosa by Hildegard von Bingen. She writes, “Von Bingen is one of the few known medieval women composers. This arrangement of her music by Icelandic musician Gyða Valtýsdótti sounds otherworldly and haunting, evoking both ancient and modern soundworlds.”

  • K-pop fans: thanks in part to the show “Itaewon Class,” which we shamelessly binged, we’ve now fallen in love with this genre. (Yes, we’re late to the party.) We’ve been listening to “Start Over” on repeat.


Book club: Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, April 30th

We had such a lovely discussion about Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters last week! What a wonderful group of people. Our next book club is Friday, April 30th at 2:45 p.m. ET, when we’ll discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. Please email us for the zoom link.


Checking in with the baby…

Currently she loves hugs and trashcans, and hugging trashcans.