Asian? American? Both?

This is an essay I just finished for my cultural anthropology class. It was probably one of my favourites to write, as I’ve been contemplating these topics for a while and the assignment gave me the opportunity to solidify and further explore my thoughts.



When I visited Korea with my family two summers ago, every Korean person we met would immediately ask us where we were from. I thought that coming to the country of my heritage would grant that I would be able to escape this question, but apparently not; in Korea, I was the American, the foreigner. But when I came back to home, the same question persisted. “Where are you from?” “Montreal.” An awkward pause, and then I pick up what they really meant, and I clarify, “I’m ethnically Korean.” Here, even in my home country, I am still the foreigner, the Asian rather than the American. Why is it that people rarely identify me as I actually am, an Asian-American?

What does it mean to be American? How is American nationality defined? Is the United States of America a nation? A nation is a group of people united by a something shared or in common; this can range from a shared history, religion, race, or history (Khandelwal March 2, 2016 lecture ). How does America fit into this definition? America is unique in that it is a country of immigrants, where the native inhabitants were conquered to pave the way for people to settle. It was founded as a state, having a centralized government and organized labor (Khandelwal March 21, 2016 lecture). Originally, America was a nation-state, a state over a group of people with the same ethnicity and history, but as time passed, America became a beacon of new opportunities from people around the world. As people poured into the country, American-ness shifted to fit anyone; now, anyone could be American.

However, if I stand side by side by a white friend and a stranger is asked to point to the American, he or she will most definitely choose the white person over me. Does this then mean that being American is synonymous with being white, or having white characteristics? Does this then mean that a person of color can never be truly American?

Laura Ring explored the boundary of nationalism in her ethnography Zenana, where there was a tension between the definition of being Pakistani and being from an ethnic group. In the case of Pakistan, nationalism was aligned with Islam whereas ethnicity was seen as being Hindu. The mentality towards ethnic groups like the Sindhis was that ethnic groups in Pakistan was “read as a kind of excess (Ring 2006:11)”, as if they didn’t fully fit into society and, perhaps, would never fit in.

In Pakistan, because of the diversity in ethnic groups, the government chose to unite the country under Islam. Urdu was implemented as the national language and Islam became synonymous with Pakistan, as something that anyone, regardless of his or her ethnicity, could participate in. In this effort to establish a Pakistani national identity, however, ethnic groups were painted as the threat to unity, since they were diverse and had Hindu roots.

Pakistan’s nationality is easier to pinpoint that America’s because it derives from a religion; in America, nationality is defined by language and culture. In America, everyone speaks English. Ethnic languages have to temporarily be put aside, or permanently erased, to learn English. But after mastering English, one must adapt to the American culture of individualism that is can be a stark contrast with an immigrant’s heritage country. Even after mastering both the language and the culture, a person in America can still be identified primarily by their outward appearance. Immigrants are often frustrated that how they identify themselves “is irrelevant to the American reality (Fish 2008:208).”

So then, how does once achieve American-ness? Must an individual with a foot in two different nationalities choose one over the other? This is how I’ve mediated the two different cultures in my personal experience. When I am with Korean people, I instinctively become the American. When I am with non-Korean Americans, especially non-Asian Americans, I gravitate to my Asian culture. One can almost say that I have the luxury of choosing between two different cultures.

But even this is not an accurate representation of the cultures I embody. I am not fully Korean or fully American; I am a fusion of both, a result of heritage and my upbringing in an American environment. But a nation of “Asian America” does not exist. People like me, who are officially labeled as diaspora, are a product of globalization, possible through the recent connectedness of the world. Diaspora cannot return to their home, because their place of origin is also bound by a certain time in history, the time when they left. For people like me, home is defined by family and memories rather than a country.

In this sense, diaspora are outside the scope of the nation-state and nationality. Much like how hunter-gatherers aren’t attached to any country, diaspora float in between states in constant tension. Diaspora often hold dual citizenships, or have different citizenships across generations; therefore, often states have no qualms about diaspora. The tension, then, lies within diaspora and between diaspora and locals. So then, can someone be both Asian and American? Logistically, yes-but internally, the question of diasporic nationality (nationalities?) lives on.


1 thought on “Asian? American? Both?”

  1. *snaps*
    Yes. As an Asian-American I too struggle with not being “White- enough” and not being “Asian-enough”. Instead, we must learn to embrace both cultures of our identity, for that’s what makes us special and different.

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