Forgotten Asians

The significance of recognizing the forgotten West and Southeast Asians.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Sophia Zhao

Growing up looking more like my mother, a Chinese immigrant, than my father, a Cambodian refugee (whom my sister resembles), I never had to face the seemingly endless stream of questions on ethnicity that the other half of my family had to deal with. Growing up looking Chinese, I never had to take a second look at who I truly was. I wasn’t bombarded with questions like “What’s your ethnicity?” or “Are you Asian?”––questions that my sister and father were so often asked, simply because they did not look stereotypically Asian.

Throughout my life, I have always followed my mother’s Chinese traditions. When I was younger, I grew accustomed to the Chinese culture that I was exposed to at home, eating only Chinese food, speaking only Chinese, and celebrating only Chinese holidays. I was so used to being only Chinese that I failed to see the importance of recognizing the other half of my heritage. I didn’t even know what month the Cambodian New Year was in, and I never bothered to learn a single word in Khmer. My father didn’t mind that I was so disconnected from his Cambodian side, as he saw no point in embracing a culture so foreign to Americans. When asked about my heritage, it never comes to mind that I should mention that I am also half Cambodian. I didn’t want people to think of me as less Asian or to ask me what Cambodia is, oblivious to the fact that it is a country in Asia.

This dilemma over my ethnicity—a conflict that I have faced for much of my childhood—is the result of the Asian American monolith that has been instilled in the minds of so many Americans for countless years. This belief fails to recognize the true diversity that is implied when someone says that she is Asian. It has suggested that all Asians are fair-skinned, short, and small-eyed, imposing the model minority myth upon every Asian American and ignoring the existence of essentially every non-East Asian.

The Asian American identity is multifaceted, but through the many stereotypes and myths that have been associated with having such a background, the phrase “Asian American” has evolved into an umbrella term. “Asian American” has managed to obscure, rather than explain, the many ethnicities that exist in Asia. The term has become homogenizing, melding together the various ethnicities that pervade such a continent as a single identity. And while stereotypes may have a negative impact on the East Asians who are targeted by these stereotypes, often creating pressure and evoking a sense of insecurity, West and Southeast Asians aren’t even acknowledged.

It doesn’t matter if I’m from the Philippines, Uzbekistan, or Bangladesh—either way, most people wouldn’t know that I’m from a country in Asia because I’m not Korean or Japanese. Most people wouldn’t recognize me as Asian, and if they did, they’d ask me why I don’t look Chinese. My skin color will be invalidated and used as proof that I’m not really from Asia. My history isn’t known by the rest of the world, and neither is my culture. People don’t know who Pol Pot is or what the Cambodian genocide was, but they know that Mao Zedong did things in China and that Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea.

Asia is so much more than just China, Korea, and Japan; Asia is a continent made up of 48 different countries, 48 distinct ethnicities, over 2,000 dialects and languages, a vast array of skin colors, and an innumerable number of cultural traditions. To stereotype and generalize Asians is to ignore the diversity of such a beautiful continent. It is to ignore the existence of the billions of people that live in Asia and to overlook the thousands of years of history involved with each and every Asian country. West and Southeast Asians are not an anomaly; they may not look like what people think looks Asian—being fair-skinned, short, fragile, small-eyed, and so on—but they are Asian. These words could be used to describe the typical Asian that Americans have grown to become so familiar with, but they would never have the capability of encapsulating the real Asian.

At Stuyvesant, a high school comprised of an Asian majority, awareness of the existence of smaller Asian nations is crucial in allowing students to acknowledge the true diversity among their peers. This idea should be brought into the light through the way that history teachers choose to execute their lessons. Teachers who give insight on historical events should focus more on the history of smaller Asian countries, especially since much of what is known about the rest of the world has become common knowledge.

Beyond the level at which we are so used to, society as a whole needs to work toward recognizing the underrepresented Asians, the ones who don’t come to mind when people think of the ideal Asian. Rather than asking blatant and insensitive questions such as “Are you Asian?” to people who don’t look like the stereotypical Asian, people should be more open to representation by inquiring about what their cultural traditions are like or the challenges that they’ve faced as an underrepresented Asian. It shouldn’t be assumed that every Asian is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese and that if they aren’t, then they probably are not Asian at all. Our society cannot continue to let Asian Americans feel as if they are compelled to fit in a narrow set of stereotyped standards that either validates them as a “true” Asian or completely deprives them of their heritage.

As for myself, I’ve learned to love and appreciate my multi-ethnic heritage. Every day I am exposed to more insight on the history of my southeastern country, the endless hardships that my father encountered, and the significant traditions that have shaped my father into the man he is today. Having parents from both a well-known Asian country and an almost invisible Asian country has allowed me to realize the existence of Asia as a whole and has given me an entirely different perspective on the undeniable reality of what it means to be Asian. Today, I am no longer afraid to embrace the other half of my heritage that I had once been ashamed to even mention, and I am eternally grateful for the ways in which being half-Cambodian has impacted me.