Sivanthy Vasanthan: Schrödinger’s Asian

Sivanthy Vasanthan

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017 - 5:38pm

Anyone who has ever met me knows that asking about my racial and ethnic identity is the quickest way to confuse me. But there is one particular question that perpetually haunts me: Am I Asian? The answer: maybe? I find myself selectively identifying as Asian American. Sometimes it just depends on the day. Other times, it’s based on whom I’m with. Most often, I’m not just Asian American but I’m South Asian American; the South is key. Looking back, I’ve realized that throughout my life, the fluctuations in how I’ve identified as Asian American have been heavily influenced by various Asian-American peers, particularly East Asian Americans.

I definitely did not start identifying as Asian American until I was in middle school. The Asian-American student population at my middle school was equal parts East and Southeast Asian American; I was one of the few South Asian-American students there. I remember asking my friends if they thought I was Asian American and they immediately responded with “Yeah, of course. What other continent are India and Sri Lanka in?” This reassured me that I was undoubtedly Asian American; what else could I be?

That changed in high school. At my high school, the Asian-American student population was mostly composed of East Asians, and there were fewer South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander Americans there. Many of my Asian-American and white peers would say, “No way you’re Asian, like you’re not Chinese” or “Being Indian isn’t the same as being Asian.” My experiences in high school taught me that here in America, Asian is equated with East Asian.

What is interesting is that when I asked my parents whether I was Asian, they were surprised that I did not already know the answer. My parents spent much of their lives living in England. They have told me on multiple occasions that based on their experiences, in England the Asian identity is equivalent to being South Asian. It took them quite a while to recognize that here Asian is equated with East Asian. This showed me just how relative and subjective (and let's not forget confusing) the Asian identity can be.

Many large Asian-American student organizations, including Uncover: A/PIA and the United Asian American Organizations, have pushed for more diversity, inclusivity and representation of the Asian-American identity. More often than not, I tend to identify as Asian American within these spaces. Despite this, there are still quite a few student organizations that claim to be pan-Asian American but have little to no representation of South Asian Americans, Southeast Asian Americans or Pacific Islander Americans. Also, when I am with individual Asian Americans or smaller friend groups of Asian Americans, I don’t really feel Asian American. I’ve come across comments from my East Asian-American peers that include “You’re not Asian. You’re different” and “But, like, real Asians, like, you know what I mean.” To be honest, no I don’t. I genuinely have no idea what you mean.

I’ve basically lived all 21 years of my life as an American-Born Confused Desi (even though I was technically born in Canada), but now I’m also an equally confused, maybe fake Asian American as well? Yikes.

Disclaimer: My experiences in (self-) identifying as an Asian American or people dictating whether I am Asian American have been neither positive nor negative experiences for me. They just happen. I’ve always been curious and perplexed about how the Asian-American identity seems to be extremely relative, flexible and subjective.

With that in mind, here are some questions that I often find myself thinking about:

1.     What does it mean to be Asian or Asian American?

2.     What does it mean to be a real Asian American versus a fake Asian American?

3.     If there is no singular Asian-American experience, why is Asian American tantamount to East Asian American?

4.     Why do Asian Americans who are not of East Asian descent often find themselves having to justify or qualify their identity with a prefix?

5.     Why do people not want the Asian-American identity to be as diverse and inclusive as possible?

I’m not sure that I know, or ever will know, the answers to any of those questions. However, I think it’s important for Asian Americans to have conversations about these kinds of questions. And while I’m not sure I will ever be wholly comfortable identifying as Asian American, only time (and maybe the opinions of other Asian Americans) will tell.