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

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

Euro falls after European Central Bank announces a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program More

Saudi King’s Death Clears Succession Route

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef is Saudi Arabia's New Crown Prince-in-waiting More

Cloud Hangs Over US Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen

Sources say resignations of Yemen's president, government has left US anti-terror operations 'paralyzed,' yet an American military 'footprint' remains 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.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid