News / Asia

US Public's Labeling of Chinese Americans as 'Asians' Poses Challenges

Chicago's Chinatown at Chinese New Year, February 17, 2013
Chicago's Chinatown at Chinese New Year, February 17, 2013

This is part two of a three-part series on U.S. public attitudes toward Chinese Americans. For more on this series, please click here.

Why lumping is a problem

Social commentators in the United States say the public has shown a persistent tendency to label Chinese Americans as part of a generic Asian ethnic group in recent years, creating problems for the country's rapidly growing Asian communities.

The observers say Americans typically "lump" Chinese Americans who have a "successful" public image in the same group as other ethnic Asian citizens whose livelihood struggles are little understood. They say such "lumping" has made U.S. society ignorant to hardships suffered by all of its Asian minorities. It also has prompted some ethnic Asian communities to join forces to help their members overcome such struggles.

While Chinese Americans represent the largest group of Americans with Asian roots, they account for just 20% of all Asian Americans. Figures for both segments of the population have risen sharply in the past decade.

Ignorance lingers

The last major survey of American opinion about ethnic Chinese U.S. citizens found that the majority of the general population "cannot make meaningful distinctions between Chinese Americans and Asian Americans in general."

The 2009 report by the Committee of 100, a New York-based organization of prominent Chinese Americans, said the pervasiveness of Asian American "lumping" in public opinion was the same as in its earlier 2001 survey.

A contributor to the 2009 study, Chinese American rights activist and former journalist Helen Zia, says "lumping" remains common in 2014.

"The public's lack of consciousness about who we are, where we come from, and how we are not all the same, is pretty much stuck where it's been," Zia says. "It’s like a broken record."

Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, says many Americans are oblivious to the cultural, linguistic and historical differences between the country's Asian ethnic groups.

"Most whites and blacks think all Asian Americans go to (prestigious universities like) Stanford and Yale, are good in math, and own shops where they make lots of money," Gallagher says.

The Committee of 100's 2009 survey found that 57 percent of American respondents believe Asian Americans "often or always achieve a higher degree of overall success than other Americans." It said those perceptions were unchanged from 2001.

Highlighting the true picture

Gallagher says that in reality, many Chinese and other Asian Americans are struggling financially, live in poor neighborhoods and lack sufficient health care.

Street musician in Manhattan Chinatown, New York City (October 2013)Street musician in Manhattan Chinatown, New York City (October 2013)
x
Street musician in Manhattan Chinatown, New York City (October 2013)
Street musician in Manhattan Chinatown, New York City (October 2013)

​"Those Asian Americans do not have the means to achieve the American dream. They are in jobs that they cannot advance from, and their children are going to face the same situation," he says.

Gallagher says Cambodian and Hmong Americans have particularly high rates of poverty, but their plight gets little coverage in the U.S. media.

"As a nation we are obsessed with focusing on historic inequalities such as those involving whites and blacks, and we don't like to talk about other ethnic groups," he says. "When it comes to Asian groups, the media conversation is about "model" minority success stories, but that does not give people a full understanding of the huge variety of experiences that Asian Americans have."

Some Asian minority groups in the United States have responded to racial "lumping" by creating joint organizations to advance the well-being of their communities.

Gallagher says organizations such as OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates and Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC)  identify themselves as "Asian American" because that is the label that most Americans use for them anyway.

Children in Chicago 'graduate' from a Chinese American Service League program of bilingual and bicultural affordable daycare on August 22, 2013Children in Chicago 'graduate' from a Chinese American Service League program of bilingual and bicultural affordable daycare on August 22, 2013
x
Children in Chicago 'graduate' from a Chinese American Service League program of bilingual and bicultural affordable daycare on August 22, 2013
Children in Chicago 'graduate' from a Chinese American Service League program of bilingual and bicultural affordable daycare on August 22, 2013

​He says Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean and other Asian American communities also realize that they each represent only a tiny percentage of the population of their towns and cities.

"They found themselves in a situation in which they were not going to get any resources from the city hall pie. But, by coming together, they have strength in numbers and more leverage with firefighters, police and schools to achieve the political needs of their communities."

William Wei, a Chinese American professor of history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says another response of Asian minorities to the "lumping" stereotype has been the development of educational programs for Asian American studies.

"These programs have been at the forefront of spreading knowledge about Asian American history and culture," Wei says. "They have been very important in recent decades, because they produced Asian American scholarship that eventually made its way into mainstream U.S. education."

One organization that promotes such scholarship is the Association for Asian American Studies. Founded in 1979, its list of universities with Asian American studies courses and departments has grown into the dozens.

Other forms of self-identification

While some U.S. citizens with Chinese and other Asian origins have embraced the "Asian American" label, most have not.

​A 2012 study by U.S. opinion poll organization Pew Research Center showed that only 19 percent of Asian Americans actually describe themselves as "Asian American" or "Asian."

It said 62 percent of Americans with Asian ethnicity most often described themselves by their country of origin, such as "Chinese" or "Chinese American," "Vietnamese" or "Vietnamese American," and so on. Another 14 percent said they simply call themselves "American."

Pew found that among Asian Americans who were born abroad and immigrated to the United States, the rate of self-identification by country of origin was higher, at 69 percent.

Frank H. Wu, a Chinese American commentator who heads the University of California Hastings College of the Law, says those findings do not surprise him.

"People in Asia don't identify with pan-Asian sensibilities," Wu says. "The notion of a 'united Asia' is associated with imperialism or idealism. People identify much more specifically as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino or Indian and so on. They don't say, 'I'm an Asian'."

Among U.S.-born Americans of Asian origin, Pew said the proportion who prefer to call themselves "American" rose to 28 percent, while the rate of self-identification by country of origin fell to 43 percent.

Sociologist Gallagher says Chinese and other Asian Americans whose families have been in the United States for one or more generations have assimilated into American culture much faster than other ethnic minorities.

"If you are a third or fourth-generation Asian American, you do not necessarily think and behave like people from your ancestral homeland," Gallagher says.

"You don't have that immigrant experience any longer. You're an 'American'."

But will immigrants from China and their descendants ever escape the "Asian” label that is so engrained in society?

It is conceivable. When the U.S. Census Bureau makes racial distinctions, it says they are a reflection of the country's prevailing social attitudes, rather than an attempt to define race "biologically, anthropologically, or genetically."

Historically, many Americans once labeled Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants as non-White races.  Today, the U.S. Census Bureau gives individuals the freedom to identify themselves as they wish.

Graphics by Idrees Ali. Additional research by Haleema Shah.


Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Tour Will Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

US secretary of state to visit 5 countries in the Middle East, South Asia in bid to strengthen economic and security ties, ease concerns over deal with Tehran More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs