“I grew up trying to be white,” said Taiwanese-American Edie Tsong of her experience as an Asian-American in central Pennsylvania where Tsong, now a Santa Fe resident, saw few representatives of her race and culture. Her experience may not be that unique.
“Asians and Asian-Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners,” says Christine Phan, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, echoing Tsong’s sentiments. “In the eyes of Americans, they’ll never be American enough, but in their countries of origin, they’re too American.
“We’re stuck in this perpetual gray area.”
Based on 2010 U.S. census data, some 5.6 percent of all Americans identify themselves as Asians. In Santa Fe, Asians only make up 1.6 percent of the population. But whether it’s here or elsewhere in the country, the stories, lives and identities of Asian-Americans are often erased and pushed aside — even in May, which is designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
That’s also true in terms of Asian representation in the mainstream media. Peng Yu, a lecturer of Chinese foreign languages and literature at UNM, said, “Although the numbers show that Asians are definitely growing in the population, the mainstream media tends to consider Asians as a very small minority.” A multi-university study conducted in 2016 reported that Asian-American Pacific Islanders make up only 6.9 percent of television-series regulars.
Tsong has noticed this: “There’s diversity in the supporting characters, [but] the protagonist is usually white.”
And many such representations can strike some as unsatisfactory or stereotypical. “Women can be dragon ladies or China dolls. Men are too often either seen as emasculated or lecherous or both. Once most East Asians were seen in meek servant roles, but in modern films, martial artists predominate roles for both men and women,” according to an Ithaca College Library textbook article, “Portrayals of Asians in Film and Television.”
It is stereotypes like these that illustrate a subtle but very real form of racism for Asian-Americans. Christine Phan put it like this: “Racism and discrimination have always been present in my life. Usually it came in the form of ‘jokes’ about eating dogs, being super smart or having small eyes.”
A 2009 survey by the U.S. Justice and Education departments found that bullying against Asian-Americans was at the highest rate of any ethnic group at the time: “54 percent of Asian-American teenagers said they were bullied in the classroom, compared with 31.3 percent of white students who reported being bullied in school, 38.4 percent for black students and 34.3 percent for Hispanics.”
In addition, “62 percent of Asian-
American students reported being bullied online up to twice a month, compared with 18.1 percent of white students.”
Phan has experienced bullying. “I remember in elementary school, kids would run up to me and pull their eyes back and say ‘ching chong’ and, honestly, I didn’t think much of it,” she said.
This idea of “not thinking much of it” is not uncommon either. “There is a kind of silencing, the racism … is a little more subtle,” Tsong said.
What can be done to make a difference? According to Tsong, “I think that we just have to share our stories on the most intimate level. … Every story has to be told.”
Ying Xu, who teaches Asian-American literature at UNM, agreed. “Each of us, besides participating in activities in our own community, should connect with other communities,” she said. “[This] approach of cross-community community engagement is particularly significant for the Asian-American community, though the term itself is problematic as it tends to further divide people into societal-imposed subcategories such as Vietnamese-Americans or Indian-Americans. Thus, we need to break boundaries by interacting with people outside of our circles and community.”
The singularity of the Asian-American experience should be considered anything but a negative story. “Being Asian-American is a core part of my identity, who I am, how I grew up and how I see the world,” Phan said.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily surrounded by other Asians, I was able to grow up in a multicultural environment. Looking back, I’m very grateful because I think living here has made me more open-minded and curious to learn about other cultures while also staying in touch with my own culture.”
Generation Next staff reporter Ramona Park contributed to this story.
Natalia Payne is a freshman at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at email@example.com.