“Asian American”: The Holes in the Asian Umbrella

Southeast and South Asian students reflect on what the word “Asian” really means to them, as well as on the inclusivity of the term in the broader Stuyvesant curriculum.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Tahlly Puangsawas

The term “Asian American” was first coined in 1968 during a time of change for many minorities in America. Activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka seized the opportunity to increase the visibility of Asian Americans and formed the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) as a way to join different categories of Asian Americans together without using the derogatory term “Oriental.” Eventually, they joined together in the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition between different minority groups, and organized the longest student strike in American history.

But what was once a term used to unite Asians together is no longer quite as all-encompassing, because it now holds connotation with only one group of Asians. So how can a term that was meant and made to represent all Asians not represent all Asians? Freshman Fabiha Khan illustrated this paradox: “When I think of the word ‘Asian,’ generally, I think East Asian only because I feel like that’s the stereotype,” she said. “You don’t really think about Southeast Asian or South Asian as much because typically for South Asia, we get grouped into India. People just think of us like we’re all Indian, which isn’t really true.”

Junior Tahlly Puangsawas also resonates with the feeling of being left out of the broader term, despite acknowledging why the term “Asian American” carries such a large connotation with East Asia. “China is a huge country, and it makes sense demographically that you wouldn’t think of a small country. When you think of ‘Asian,’ you’re indirectly referring to East Asian people,” she said.

Puangsawas cited how the continuation of this mindset is bolstered by social media: “I see this a lot on TikTok, where people are always talking about how Asians are really smart. And even though I think that stereotype expands to the entire demographic in terms of Asians, the comments specifically [talk] about East Asian people [...] but they weren’t mentioning any South Asian ethnicities, or Southeast Asian ethnicities,” she said.

Even a diverse school like Stuyvesant has the potential to get lost when representing East Asians. Because of this, senior Shreyasi Saha changed her definition of “Asian” when she came to Stuyvesant. “Honestly, my perception of the word ‘Asian’ has changed because of this school,” she said. “In middle school my population was more mixed. I just always thought of any person from any part of Asia. But coming to Stuy, [the population] is very East Asian. [...] Because of the way everyone talks about [being Asian], it’s very much just [East Asian-focused].”

The East Asian-centric “Asian” nature of Stuyvesant is a phenomenon that many students have observed. However, junior Tegris Lin Zheng thinks that instead of Stuyvesant actively pushing this agenda, it has more to do with the ways in which we grew up that maintain this status quo. “A lot of us grow up and East Asians tend not to interact as much with South Asians. From what I observed growing up, and also at Stuy, [...] none of the adults are actively telling us, ‘Oh, no, these two groups should be separated.’ It’s just kind of how it tends to turn out because East Asians and South Asians have different experiences,” Zheng said. “So then East Asian students tend to congregate with other East Asian students, while South Asian students tend to congregate with other South Asian students.”

This then creates an irony behind “Asian American” as being too broad of a term as well as being too narrow in mainly describing East Asians. An anonymous sophomore echoed this sentiment. “[The term] feels kind of singular, because a lot of times it’s more about an East Asian person when people use it [...] so when you use ‘Asian,’ people use it for East Asian, and then you have to be specific for South Asians and Southeast Asians. And then for West Asia, people usually use the Middle East. So that term [Asian] feels like it’s for one person,” they said.

This problem can be seen through arguably trivial activities like filling out a survey, as junior Jamie Sifat explained: “It’s always terrible when you have those surveys, and they say, ‘Asian slash Pacific Islander.’ And I [think], ‘Oh, so it’s the entirety of Asia, plus the islands [and] the Pacific.’ So it’s awfully broad.” He compared this experience of being grouped as almost a double standard that isn’t applied to other continents, especially Europe. “If you see on a resume that [a] person is Asian, it’s not clear at all. I don’t think it’s a useful term in and of itself. It’s like saying somebody’s just European. They come from Europe, but they could be French, German, Polish, Russian, Spanish; you wouldn’t do that for European peoples.”

Students agree with this dissonance in different ways. “I identify as South Asian first and then Asian, because South Asian is more specific and more accurate to my culture. I feel like it’s an important distinction to make, so people actually understand what I’m talking about [when I say] where I’m from, as opposed to just Asia,” Saha said.

On the other hand, the anonymous sophomore still identifies as Asian and deals with the misunderstanding afterward. “I like to say that I’m Asian; I do have to specify that I am South Asian, [but I say that I’m Asian] because that’s how everyone’s used to understanding it.”

Freshman Jonathan Metzler takes the label, not as separate from being Asian, but just a part of it. “I identify as Southeast Asian, because being Southeast Asian is important. And I think people don’t really realize that [it] doesn’t mean that you’re different. It’s just part of your identity,” he said.

How we choose to represent ourselves may be affected by representation in the broader context, affecting how we perceive ourselves in society. Khan expressed the lack of consideration for Asian culture in America, a Eurocentric country. “There’s not that much still done [for Asian representation]. I know we obviously had a day off from school [for Eid], but [other holidays] don’t follow the regular calendar, they follow like the lunar calendar. [...] What would happen if Eid was on a Tuesday, and we didn’t have that day off?” Khan said. “There should be cultural inclusivity there. And also there were some AP tests [near] Eid, [but] we don’t really see an AP test on Christmas. So why is there an AP test on Eid?”

Even at Stuyvesant where the Asian population is greater than 70 percent, it seems that the representation ranges from being very inclusive to lacking inclusivity. To Sifat, the English department does a wonderful job of representation. “We read a lot of books by Brown authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, such as The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies. [...] And there are even passages in test prep books that are about Brown families. It’s kind of wild. So I think the representation is really good where it matters,” he said.

However, this inclusivity isn’t reflected so much in Global classes, as Metzler pointed out. “When I came to Stuy, I was glad that there [was] at least some Asian curriculum because early in middle school and elementary school, I learned about the American Revolution three times in three separate grades. [...] But then also, Southeast Asia is left a little bit out of the mix. We haven’t touched up on anything in India. The most we talked about was how the Spice Islands gave spice to Europe, but, again, that’s literally Eurocentric in talking about the Spice Islands.”

Khan expressed a similar sentiment in the social studies curriculum lagging behind. “In Stuy, there’s a lot of Southeast Asian and South Asian representation only because we as Southeast Asians and South Asians [...] all like to show our pride in our own cultures, which I really find nice. Our curriculum, not so much,” she said. “I remember in Global class we read through India in two weeks. And we stuck with East Asia for a good two months.”

Due to the limited days and extensive curriculum in social studies classes, this kind of inequality tends to be the nature of the beast, and is likely unfixable in a short period of time. In a situation like this, Zheng feels that the amount of change that can actually happen is limited. “I feel in our brains, there’s always a disconnect between South Asian and Asian, probably because of colorist ideas that we’ve been unconsciously taught as we grow up. I don’t know what we should do about it or if [we] should do anything—we probably should—but, I don’t know what it is,” he said.

But perhaps there is an easier way to enhance the inclusivity of Southeast and South Asians. For Puangsawas, the best method of change is facing our own prejudices. “We just need to broaden people’s perspectives and enlarge the idea of what it means to be Asian,” she said. “I don’t think that necessarily means making up a new term, or changing the term, but rather changing what we think the meaning behind the term is.”