Whenever I receive emails from the Asian American Cultural Center, I am struck by a sense of irony. The AACC administers student groups related to the cultures of Asia, almost all of which are centered around Indian or East Asian cultures. It does worthwhile work and occupies an important and necessary niche in campus life — it provides a home for international students, it funds exciting events and is currently undergoing rapid and positive growth. From an outsider’s perspective, the cultural center’s name, “Asian American”, affirms the duality of the people it serves, who live with both Asian and American cultures. But this duality hides the term’s reductive singleness.
By grouping an entire continent’s peoples under one title, “Asian-American” is a false identifier, a construct that denies the diversity of Asian cultures. One could argue that “Asian-American” is just a convenient geographic grouping, but culture is not uniquely determined by geography. If “Asian-American” is a convenient grouping, then it is only convenient for people who are not part of it.
Asia is a collection of countries whose common trait is that they are in neither Europe nor Africa — the Middle East, Central Asia and Asia Minor are all grouped together in an incoherent landmass. There are vast cultural differences across the continent. India, isolated by the Himalayas, is ethnically, religiously and linguistically distinct from the rest of Asia. And yet, although there is very little shared culture between India and East Asia, their cultural groups are housed in the AACC. Although not every nation-state can have its own cultural house or club on campus, it does not make sense to put Asian-Americans together into one cultural house. Its constituents simply do not see themselves as a single unit.
Although Indian and East Asian cultures overlap very little, people from these places who live in the United States do have some undeniable similarities. They occupy similar socioeconomic positions, are usually highly educated and often work in analytical professions like engineering and medicine. But this is not evidence of cultural similarity; it is the result of selective immigration policies written into U.S. law. It has historically been easier for Asians who possess these traits to immigrate to the United States. These are not components of some unifying Asian culture; they are American values that have been foisted upon the Asian-American population.
This lump-sum identity has real repercussions. For example, a while back, I ran into a friend of mine. He was laughing uncontrollably because, as he exclaimed between convulsions, “His name is Ling. It’s actually Ling!” Clearly, he thought the name sounded funny, a joke I failed to enjoy. Many Asian-Americans have similar names, but use shortened versions or English aliases in everyday life. And I decided not to tell him that Ling was also the name of my best friend in high school — and I didn’t tell him how frustrated I was by his callous laughter. My jeering friend is no anomaly. American culture disdains Asian-Americans. For much of “The Big Bang Theory,” Raj Koothrappali, the show’s Indian lead, cannot talk to women unless he is drunk. “The Big Bang Theory” is one of the most successful shows on television.
By labeling Indians and East Asians as one group, we define them exclusively by their similarities, the majority of which are shared stereotypes from American culture. They are the people with the unpronounceable names. They are good at math. They speak Python more fluently than English — and they speak English with an accent. To be Asian-American is to give a fake name at Starbucks. It is to see degrading and emasculating portrayals of yourself and your family on TV and feel glad that most scenes have no Asian characters in them at all. This is the extent of the Asian-American heritage, the only context in which the grouping makes sense. No cultural house is needed to experience it.
A perfect solution would require substantial changes to American culture, but in the interim, maybe the Indian groups should be administered separately from the East Asian ones. Or maybe the name of the cultural house should be changed to something that more accurately captures the diversity it comprises. After the ouster of the center’s director last semester, this school year marks a new beginning for the AACC. In that spirit, it should remake itself as a multicultural house, without the illusion of a single Asian identity.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .