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On Culture and Defining It

There was this moment, some time during the early 2010s, when I remember that being Korean suddenly became “cool”.

Children would come to me, the only east-Asian looking kid in class, and ask if I could translate Gangnam Style for them, to which I would agree and make the whole thing up on the spot, unwilling to admit that I knew absolutely nothing past the occasional saranghae.

This was because growing up, the term “Asian American” always had a specific definition. It meant being a child of immigrants stuck between two worlds. It meant eating hot pot one day and In-N-Out the next. It meant attending school by day and hakwon by night. It meant somehow feeling both too Asian and too American at the same time. Two worlds.

As a third-generation Korean American, I was constantly bombarded with this idea throughout my childhood. However, bridging the “two worlds” of identity never felt like an option. To me, there weren’t even two islands to begin with. I didn’t speak the language at home with my parents, we didn’t follow Korean traditions or celebrate their holidays, and I almost never ate rice. The few Asian American characters I saw on TV were usually bilingual, and if they weren’t, it was treated as a joke. As a result, I considered myself Korean in name alone, and I found it unacceptable.

If I wanted to be a true Asian American, at least, according to the two-worlds definition, I would have to actively seek out and immerse myself in the elusive “Asianness” in order to retroactively give myself a basis for cultural heritage. This, as a prerequisite, created a club of exclusivity, and it was clear that I did not have membership.

How can you be a part of Asian America without having anything to celebrate?

Recently, I was a part of organizing an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) cultural festival, and one of our major concerns was trying to represent as many ethnic groups as possible with booths and performances. Asians, after all, aren’t a monolith, and so we spent weeks scouring all throughout the Bay Area to find Hawaiian groups, Laotian groups, Indian groups, and more, just to make sure that we were absolutely checking all of the boxes.

Ultimately, the festival turned out to be a success, and I got to learn so much about the diverse parts of Asia, the continent. However, nothing about it seemed uniquely Asian American to me, in a way that I couldn’t quite put into words. 

I suppose that was to be expected; per the festival theme, there is meant to be “unity in diversity”, and so celebrating the different cultures of Asian ethnic groups is just the logical manifestation of that idea. Still, I found myself recalling my elementary school days once more: where in order to be a part of Asian America, one had to be perfectly in tune with their ethnic heritage and traditions. 

So what is Asian America, really?

For that, I want to shed some light on the beauty of the pan-Asian American label. There is, in our modern day, an active campaign focused on promoting and celebrating Asian American culture (as a direct challenge to the antiquated ideology that promoted total assimilation above all else). I’ve heard some even refer to it as a “golden age” of representation, and the festival I partook in is certainly one such example of the efforts. Because of this, I’ve seen some criticisms of the pan-Asian American label, how it’s too generalizing and erases the very diversity that we’re trying to promote. 

For me, I like to see it a bit differently.   

I never truly connected to its meaning until I began learning about the rich history of Asian America on my own, something I first discovered through academic journals I read for fun, and later, in an Asian American Studies community college course that I took. What I hadn’t realized was that there were so many pivotal historical events I’d never heard of before. 

These were moments like the murder of Vincent Chin, and how it sparked a wave of organized protest by Asian American groups. 

Moments like how the Asian American student rebellions at San Francisco State College emerged out of the civil rights movement. 

Moments like how the Japanese American community was one of the first to defend Arab Americans from the nationwide response that would follow 9/11. 

They were all built on two principles: solidarity and protest.

I realized that Asian America, and the celebration of it, doesn’t have to be limited to the recognition of ethnic diversity. It’s also acknowledged through its own independent culture, one that’s emerged from the cracks that years of discrimination have opened. There is unity in diversity, yes, but there is also unity in the history that brings us together––Asian American history––and in the political categorization we’ve assigned ourselves. 

Maybe that’s what allows me to relate to it so much. Learning more about Asian American history has let me detach myself from the two-worlds definition I was so married to, and determine instead what the term means for me.

Some people take pride in being Asian American by stressing the ethnic heritage they feel strongly attached to, and I personally still want to take time learning and appreciating my Korean background. However, the way I’m able to best participate in Asian America is by cherishing the heritage that I most connect with: the one woven between migrant farmers and student protestors and an ongoing fight for social and political equality. It’s not quite specifically Asian but it’s oh so distinctly Asian American. I think that’s something worth celebrating.

Abby is a Korean American high schooler who loves black-and-white musicals, essay writing, and ethnic studies.

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