I’m out of topics to blog about this week and I’m too lazy to think hard about race, equity, and policy stuff. Instead, I’ll write about what I know well, what it means to be Asian American. This is a privilege of the blog, controlling the content and unfairly using the pulpit to focus and aggrandize me, I promise not to make this a regular thing.
Asian first or Japanese first?
I’m Asian but haven’t always thought of myself as Asian. I was raised in Hawaii where Asians are everywhere. Hawaii’s Governor George Ariyoshi was a Japanese American governor during my keiki time (Hawaiian word for child). He was the first Governor of Asian ancestry to ascend to governorship in the county, he broke the bamboo ceiling. More recently Hawaii Governor David Ige is the first Okinawan American governor in the nation. This is what I grew up with – seeing Japanese and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants around me.
Growing up in Hawaii I didn’t see myself as Asian, I was seen by my familial ethnicity of Japanese first, and a bit of Okinawan. It was great, I was secure in my ethnic identity. Teachers looked like me, my neighbors and friends were diverse, going to the store we didn’t need to shop at the Asian food store or aisles to find nori, Okinawan sweet/purple potatoes, or mochiko. Visiting my grandparents, we got our doses of Japanese and Okinawan culture and sprinklings of language. One grandma played old school tinny Japanese records and I think my first kid size kimono was a gift from her. My other grandma taught me how to be Japanese and Okinawan through feeding people. Food was her love language, “You hungry? Eat more.” Through her I saw what it meant to be in a Japanese community – you feed each other, literally and figuratively, the aunties and cousins would be over, and the food would spill out of the kitchen and be present whenever people were around.
Ohhh, now I’m Asian
I moved to Seattle for college and it was in college I figured out “Ohhhhhh, I’m now Asian – not Japanese – Asian.” On the mainland, what Hawaii people call the continental United States, label me first as an Asian, and maybe get around to understanding my ethnicity and culture. Being on the mainland I learned as Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) we have to fight to be seen in a way I didn’t feel like I had to Hawaii. Hawaii’s demographics and culture are more centered towards the API experience and the population density allowed us to be seen differently than in the continental US.
Growing up in a state that was “majority-minority,” a term that is now outdated and pejorative but is descriptive of the time, gave me a grounding as an Asian American. I didn’t walk into a room and scan the room to see if there were other Asians because there almost always were other Asians. This is a habit I learned when I started working on the mainland, I scan the room and count to see if there are other people of color. Being part of the majority meant I had safety in numbers, my identity wasn’t unusual in a space like it is now, being somewhere I wasn’t the exception to the rule, and it also meant I was accountable to others who knew how to hold me accountable in cultural ways, not just traditional accountability.
As an Asian American in Seattle, I can see how growing up in Hawaii gave me a different lens to the API and poc experience. In some ways growing up in the majority means I expect things that others may not feel I have the right to expect. Such as I expect APIs and POCs in leadership roles. I expect the Asian experience to be understood as nuanced not as a monolithic group. I expect our identity as APIs and pocs to matter and to be seen as both, not forced to choose whether I am Asian, Japanese, or poc. When I walk into a meeting I expect to be taken seriously and be given the benefit of the doubt because of who I am, not have to prove I belong there. Some people read this as arrogance at worst and self-assuredness at its best, I think it is somewhere between both, and apologetically I don’t know how to think otherwise.
At times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians. I know I have access and privileges because I’m a poc that can code-switch. Growing up in the majority taught me how to navigate in dominant culture – I can speak up, I can bridge communities and institutions, and I work to understand poc cultures. That said at times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians (broadly speaking, not just me), they want to consider us white believing we’ve transcended racism, but if you talk to many Asians we tell a different story. I do my best to own the privileges Asianess has afforded me and my family, but being an Asian with many privileges doesn’t mean I’m white. I can’t walk into a room and trust I will be in the majority, I can’t trust systems to recognize the migration stories, languages and cultures embedded into the API experience, and I know if I step out of the bubble that I created for myself surrounded by strong poc leaders, I am more of the exception than the norm.
API stories and leadership matters. APIs are a rich race group with over 40 unique ethnic groups. Our languages, histories, cultures, and migration stories are different. My API experience is different than others in my extended family and friend network. Heidi and Jondou, two close colleagues who contribute to this blog, are both Asians and their stories are different than mine, yet many look at us as Asians first and assume we are the same.
Some readings to learn more:
- Hawaii’s rainbow of cultures and how they got to the Islands
- A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream
- We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation
Posted by Erin Okuno
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