Looking back on the semester I have realized the unique lens that taking this course has subconsciously forced me to look through; its curious, understanding, relentless, and open minded. All of the interactions I partake in, whether it be seeing someone old, meeting someone new, trying something, or going somewhere, I feel the need to reassess how I had previously labeled these situations. Why would an Asian American studies course about pop culture provoke me to reconsider all of my preexisting and developing views?
Throughout the semester we have attempted to unwind what “Asian American” really means. I think what I’ve learned is that it means anything, everything, and nothing all at the same time. How is this possible?
Asian American encompasses such a vast amount of peoples and cultures, how could it possibly be defined. It means anything in the sense that people have the freedom of creating their own identity; a girl with an Japanese great grandfather could consider herself Asian American at the same time a boy with two Chinese parents who was born in the United States could consider himself American, there are no rules for how Asian you need to be to be Asian American or how non-Asian you need to be to consider yourself American. Identity comes from within and what you identify with is a personal experience. Asian American can mean everything in the sense that it is far too broad of a category to properly describe something. Consider the California roll, one of the most utilized examples of something that is “Asian American”, the California roll is a piece of Japanese inspired food containing some Japanese food resemblance with some ingredients from California. Considering this to be “Asian American” takes sushi to represent “Asian” and avocado to represent “American”. Obviously this is taking it a bit too literally, but what can describing something using the term “Asian” accomplish? The clumping together of all cultures located on one continent. A continent. Not a town, not a city, not even a country, but a continent. One thing I’ve come to appreciate in my studies of Chinese and other parts of East Asia is that “Asian” is not a particularly descriptive or helpful adjective, nor is “American”. Perhaps we should call the California roll “Californian Japanese,” perhaps I’m just being picky. Though this maybe a silly example, shouldn’t we do away with the use of “Asian” as a standalone notifying adjective? Using “Asian” on its own to describe something may run the risk of perpetuating the all too prevalent stereotype that Asia is a homogeneous continent full of soy sauce, rice, and red colored decorations. On the other hand, people with all types of Asian and American decent come together to create Asian American student organizations, unions, forums, etc. in order to share experiences and work towards a stronger community. This instance challenges the idea that “Asian” is too broad of an adjective, as a community has been built off of the umbrella term. Lastly, Asian American really means nothing specific at all. The vastness of this category provides little insight into a person’s background; Asian American is a term truly defined by the individual uses of it.
So, what is the point? If it cannot be defined exactly, and its meaning can shift, what is the point of Asian American studies? There is an entire department dedicated to Asian American Studies; there must be a point. Well, this is the point. This realization that all encompassing umbrella terms can serve endless purposes, they can be a way to bring people together, a way to generally refer to geographic origin, a way to perpetuate stereotypes, away to identify yourself, etc. Understanding that there is no rigid definition, standard, or cookie cutter explanation of or expectation for “Asian American” is the point. Understanding that Asian American is not a static, predetermined term and that it is fluid, that is the point.
So to answer the original question as to why I feel the need to reassess my views on nearly everything; the answer is to rename, to re-categorize, to re-understand, re-determine the names I have given things and strive for more true and flexible understandings in a world that is imperfect and utterly impossible to define.