What is the thin red line between being Asian and Asian American?

Curatorial Statement – What is the thin red line between being Asian and Asian American?


Prior to taking this course, I thought Asian American studies is much easier and relatable than any other humanities course on campus because I felt like I could identify with at least half of the field – at least with the Asian part of the name. However, in retrospect, I have to say that I really suffered throughout the entire 10 weeks. I felt very much lost since the first day of class when we talked about the concept of hegemony and dominant group in American society. At first, I thought that maybe the blame is on my lack of English which makes sense since it is not my first language. But I came to realize that it was more of a cultural issue – that I could not relate any of the class material with myself and my life.

This might sound really odd and it did to me as well. I have more Asian American friends than Asian friends on campus – which is mostly because there are not many solely Asian students here but anyways – and I don’t really feel distant when I am with them, but in class, I felt like I am all alone. Whenever Doug gave us time to discuss in small groups, I literally had nothing to share because I don’t have any experiences related to any topics we dealt in class. This really made me wonder about what is this thin line between Asian and Asian American? We often consider these two identities very similar and often times can’t really distinguish one another judging by the phenotype, but what is this thing that delineates the two, or is it just me feeling that way? Although the course didn’t necessarily touch upon this, this was the big question I always had in mind throughout the entire quarter.

What I realized as we dealt with various modes of popular culture, was that there is no such clear cultural division between Asian-ness and Asian American-ness in American society. Of course, I should’ve known better earlier on that through the eyes of American hegemony, it really doesn’t matter if you are Asian or Asian American – you are still considered a foreigner. I caught this from this one lecture when we were talking about the definition of Asian American. That lecture was especially memorable to me for two main reasons: first, I didn’t know that there could be so many different definitions and descriptions of Asian American, and second, one of the comments mentioned was that the term Asian American means “never American.”

Another moment of realization came when I was watching movies like Flower Drum Song. Speaking of Flower Drum Song, although I was told that the movie is about Asian Americans starring Asian American cast members before watching it, I couldn’t really confidently point out that the portrayals of the characters are distinctly Asian American, and not Asian. The characters were very much shaped in alignment to the typical Asian stereotypes – especially the female protagonist, Mei Li. This made me think that this difference between Asian-ness and Asian American-ness I am feeling is actually subtle and the two are reflected almost identical if not entirely same from the eyes of other races, considering that the way they perceive the two group seems identical based on the characterization in popular culture.

edge of seventeen 2
On a side note, I watched “Edge of Seventeen (2016)” on my way back to South Korea over the spring break few days ago and found this scene in which the stereotypical Asian image was said to a clearly Asian American character (and actor) – I guess this point is just apparent to people like me – super hilarious. Please click on the link and watch the clip!

Food is also another big one that hit me with this Asian vs. Asian American identity. I used to think that the majority of Asian restaurants serve “fake” Asian food, since those cuisines are all modified in more “American” ways – the ingredients, the flavoring, the way of cooking, and so many more. I was that person who would be nit-picky and claim they taste nothing like Asian but everything like American. However, after reading writings, especially the one on Asian American food blogging, and doing the ethnography exercise of an Asian American restaurant, I came to realize that the food I called fake because they taste too much like Asian American is actually extremely Asian to people who have lived their entire lives outside of Asia. They are not being fake; they are producing what they believe is Asian. After acknowledging this, I started to question myself if I can really draw the line between Asian and Asian American food.

Standing at the very last moment of the course, I now realize that this “thin red line” between Asian and Asian American that I was so eager to find out, is actually only visible to me. Maybe, it was just my provincial mindset that kept me inside this little cage that I defined “entirely Asian.” Now I ask myself, why should I be so obsessed with differentiating myself, my race, and my ethnicity? I feel like the question I’ve asked myself since the beginning of the course is almost void of meaning, considering the panethnic world and era we are living in.


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