Who Counts As Asian?

Image via The New York Times

Being an Asian American comes with its advantages and disadvantages. As a Korean American, I've never had to "prove" to anyone of my "Asian-ness." One could simply look at my straight, almost black hair, my brown and almond shaped eyes, my tan but not dark toned skin, and the lowness of my nose bridge to see that I am, indeed, Asian. For a long time, I didn't realize that it was a privilege to not have to justify my Asian identity to others. In fact, for a long time I lived in my little bubble, thinking that being "Asian" meant being someone that looked like me.

When most non-Asian people think about the words "Asian" or "Asian American," typical countries that come to mind are China, Japan, and Korea, the East Asian countries. East Asian cultures are usually the ones people are most exposed to, and people with these backgrounds are often the ones we see as representing the Asian American community in media. While many South East Asian countries, like Vietnam and Thailand, are also widely accept as being considered Asian, they're often not the cultures that are well known by many non-Asian Americans, and their appearances in media are also less frequent. Filipino people especially often have to defend their Asian identity, with many making the argument that the Philippines' membership to the Pacific Islands makes them "not Asian," despite the country being part of South East Asia.

Image via Teen Vogue

There are also countries that many Asians and Asian Americans frequently forget are part of the Asian community. These countries are often the South Asian countries like Pakistan and India, where people often don't have the stereotypical phenotypes associated with being Asian. Of course, there are also countries in North, Central, and West Asia such as Russia and Armenia which reside in the continent of Asia, but often the people of these countries don't self-identify as being Asian, while many South Asians do consider these residents to be Asian.

In a similar way, many multi-ethnic Asians and Asian Americans are often denied the right to call themselves Asian when their physical appearances do not match the stereotypical Asian phenotypes. Other times, people both of Asian and non-Asian background, "test" multi-ethnic people of their "Asian-ness," with questions about their ability to speak an Asian language or their knowledge of the culture. With multi-ethnic Asians and Asian Americans, often times terms such as "white passing" and "Asian passing" get thrown around and are treated differently based on which ethnic background they seem to phenotypically look more like.

Image via Teen Vogue

This concept of self-identity is very important when thinking about who we "count" as being Asian. I self-identify as Korean American, and when I tell someone that, I know they're not going to tell me that this background that I identify with isn't correct. So why then do so many people deny people from so many different Asian countries the right to being called Asian?

I think there's still this persisting and incorrect idea of Pan-Asianism where there is only one definition of what it means to be Asian. The Asian community, much like other ethnic communities, has such a great diversity within cultures and physical appearances. It's ridiculous to say that a person would have to fit this stereotypical idea of what it means to be Asian in order to identify as such. And while acceptance of South Asians and multiethnic Asians is growing, there is still a lot of ignorance and resistance to allowing these groups of people to be seen as Asian.

It is too often that I see those whose Asian American identities comes so easily to them say something along the lines of "but they're not really Asian." As someone who doesn't struggle with the right to be called Asian, I think it's so important that we as Asian Americans start questioning our own ideas of exactly what really "being Asian" means. Not having to fight for our right to be considered the way we identify as Asian is a privilege (when it really shouldn't be!), so I encourage both Asian and non-Asian identifying people to put behind old ideas of who "counts" as Asian and start appreciating the diversity that the Asian community has to offer.