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Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience: Notions of Identity

The third and final “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Experience” panel discussion focused on how AAPI communities see and describe themselves and how these communities are seen and are described by others—and why that matters.

Moderator and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian turned first to returning guest panelist Pawan Dhingra, Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, president-elect of the Association of Asian American Studies, and author of a number of books, including “Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian Americans and the Challenge of Multiple Identities.”

“When we say, what is somebody’s ‘identity,’ what are we talking about?” Simitian asked.

“Identity distinguishes us from other people, but it also connects us to groups at the same time. Ethnicity is part of it. But I’m also a father and a professor,” said Dhingra, who referred to himself as Asian Indian.

“It’s a really key part of how we understand ourselves, and how we go about our daily lives, how we go about our social lives, how we make decisions about whom to marry, where to live, what kind of jobs to get, who to vote for,” he added. “All of these things are influenced by our various, multiple, intersecting identities.”

“Do notions of identity separate, as well as connect, people?” Simitian inquired.

“It does create disconnection,” Dhingra responded, adding that the challenge is seeing commonalities among separate identities. “I not only think of myself as an Asian American, but as a person of color, and realize that I have connections with other people of color that might not be as strong as my connection with other Asian Americans—or other Indians in particular—but are still meaningful.”

“If we want to see ourselves as one nation, a common people,” Simitian followed up, “Is a focus on ethnicity problematic, serving to fracture our sense of community?”

No, said Dhingra. “One of the premises of America is e pluribus unum [out of many, one], so by definition America has not been a place that says, ‘You must be only one kind of person to identify with this country.’ That has never been an ideal. Maybe in some ways its practice, but never its ideal.”

Panelist and Foothill College President Thuy Thi Nguyen, whose family joined the post-Vietnam war diaspora as refugees when she was three years old, concurred, saying she identifies as American through her ethnicity.

“My lived experience, culturally, has a Vietnamese flair to it, eating Vietnamese food, speaking Vietnamese. I’m married to a Vietnamese American,” said Nguyen, the country’s first Vietnamese-American college president. “Being able to then appreciate the country as a new American, an immigrant, that allows me to identify as an American.”

Panelist Philip Yun, President and CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit World Affairs, spoke of growing up in a small town in Southeastern Ohio, where he had few interactions with Asian Americans, “let alone Korean Americans,” he said.

“I learned about being Korean American mainly when I was in college. That’s a very big part of me, yet at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, being from Ohio has become increasingly a part of my identity as well,” he said. “Most people, when they look at my face, they don’t think Ohio, let alone southeastern Ohio. Somehow, it’s a way for me to define myself and differentiate myself from everyone else.”

Do college students, Simitian asked, “have a different take on these issues of identity by virtue of their time of life and their age?”

“It’s discovery mode. They’re coming out of their homes, their community, their neighborhood schools, and going into a space where there’s much more diversity,” said Nguyen, noting that in 2021 more than one-third of Foothill College’s 12,000 students identified as Asian and Pacific Islander (API), surpassing both the white and Latinx student populations.

One in five API students at Foothill further identify as mixed race—a significant factor in shaping their perspective on race in America, Nguyen added. “They see the difference between how one parent navigates the world than the other parent. If they look more like one parent than the other parent, they also have a very different racialized lived experience,” she said. “To that extent they’re much more in tune around the issue of race.”

Dhingra posited that for the growing number of people identifying as multiracial, context is key: “Identities are not things that we have inherently in us and we just pull out. If you grow up among a lot of multiracial individuals it’s more likely you’ll identify as multiracial. That in and of itself will be a meaningful identity,” he said.

“But,” he added, “If you’re one of the very few ones in your neighborhood or in your school, you will gravitate more towards one part of your background than the other, and that will depend on your parents, on how your classmates see you, how your teacher defines you, how your soccer coach talks about you. All of these things influence the trajectory of multiracial individuals.”

Simitian moved to geopolitics, and America’s evolving place in the world. “What’s the impact of that on the American view of the Asian American community?” he asked Yun, a U.S. Department of State senior policy advisor under President Bill Clinton and scholar specializing in North Korea and Asian affairs.

“There’s an undeniable connection to what’s happening here and what’s happening outside our borders,” he said. “When tensions escalate between the United States and an Asian rival overseas, in some cases Asian Americans or people of color become a target of anger. I think this is particularly true in times of rapid change and transition.”

The rash of anti-Asian hate incidents stemming from anti-Chinese sentiment during the pandemic was the latest example. Yun referred to the 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin by two white autoworkers in Detroit, when Japan was starting to become an economic rival of the United States—spurred in part by its success in the auto industry.

“They thought he was Japanese,” said Yun, citing World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as further examples of why “it’s really important for us to understand and be aware of what’s going on internationally, because it will come back and affect us.”

Would a greater understanding of world affairs have an impact here on the way the Asian American community is perceived and/or treated? Simitian asked.

Yes, said Yun, if it led to awareness of the difference between those who live in a foreign country and Americans whose ethnicity is related to that country.

“I call this the ‘hyphenated American dilemma,’” Yun said. “It’s the idea that in the back of people’s minds, because of how we look, we’re somehow not really American, and our patriotism is questioned.”

“This issue of ‘American enough’ comes up a lot in the conversations I have with friends and colleagues,” Simitian said. “What’s that about, and how does it play out in people’s daily lives?”

“That’s a great question,” Dhingra responded. “Even if we fully identify as American, we still represent two sides of a coin. Asian Americans always get seen as a potential foreigner, and as having to prove our Americanness.”

Nguyen talked of growing up speaking Vietnamese with her family and watching Vietnamese kung fu instead of Disney shows. “That experience is actually very American. There’s nothing foreign about it,” she said. “We need to redefine what it means to be American.”

How does the notion of foreignness, asked Simitian, square with the ‘model minority’ appellation?”

“Asian Americans often have to battle with this duality of being praised, and being suspect at the same time,” Dhingra said. “When Asian Americans are doing well and are seen as the model minority, what helps explain their achievement, according to the stereotype, is in part their foreignness. So, while we applaud you, we’re still suspicious of you because you might take your great skills and accomplishments and end up turning against us.”

Yun observed that the ‘model minority’ label has also been used to “pit different minority groups against each and look at things as a zero sum,” he said. “When you have model minority as in ‘good,’ that implies that there is a not-model minority, thus ‘bad.’”

The stereotype also fuels undue expectations and emotional stress from within. AAPI students, even in elementary school, can be under intense pressure from parents, teachers, or their communities, said Dhingra, author of, “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior are Not Enough.”

“Every generation is more aware of on-the-ground realities around stereotypes that are false, that are misleading,” he said. “Just because they know that as Asian Americans they’re seen as a model minority and that’s a ridiculous stereotype and it’s not true, doesn’t mean they can escape the mental health burdens that come with that notion.”

Culturally entrenched expectations or biases—Dhingra cited the stigma around seeking mental health care as an example—are reasons to view identity through a critical lens: “We should be mindful when identity can be helpful, and when it can actually keep us from doing things that we should be doing.”

Might richer personal experience and opportunity stem from “picking and choosing from our multiplicity of ethnicities, identities, cultures, and histories?“ Simitian wondered aloud. “We can say, ‘There’s a lot I can learn over here, there’s a lot I can learn over there.’ Some of it may be relatively superficial, some of it could be absolutely essential?”

“I completely agree,” Dhingra said. “If we have that more open mindset—as I tell my kids, a growth mindset—then you allow for having elements of this part and that part, and you create a hybrid notion of self, one that is not limited by one group versus another group.”

Many facets of culture are of an era, rather than “beyond time,” Dhingra continued. “What it means to my grandparents to be Indian, is not what it meant to their grandparents to be Indian. It’s always changing. If we know that to be true, then we can’t say there’s an inherent Indianness, or Koreanness, or Vietnameseness. When we come to a new country or a new environment, we should be thinking, ‘What about this place and its ways of life should we be embracing as a family, or as a person, or as a community?’ and not assuming that our way, inherited from way back, is somehow timeless and always good.”

Not that “hybrid” identity is easy to accomplish—or without drawbacks. “If I’m somewhat Indian and somewhat American, then people may say, ’You’re not really Indian,’” Dhingra explained. “But people only say that if they have a relatively narrow and fixed understanding of what it means to be of an ethnic group. We ourselves, not just society at large, communities themselves, have to get away from this narrow notion of what it means to be of your group.”

Simitian turned to listeners’ questions, starting with: How are Pacific Islanders’ experiences different, and how do these groups connect to the larger Asian American collective?

Nguyen recalled participating in a professional development exercise that assigned points based on personal experiences of privilege and opportunity. “If you stand in line based on your score, you see the color line. Almost all of the time Pacific Islanders are closer to Latinx and Black Americans than to Chinese Americans or Vietnamese Americans,” she said. “The lived experience of privilege for Pacific Islanders is very different.”

Simitian noted that the “Understanding” event series had been in May—Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. “Is that a misnomer?” he asked. “Should we put that to rest or restructure it in some way?”

“I think there’s an open conversation of how much Pacific Islanders should be connected with Asian Americans,” Dhingra said. “Either way the Pacific Islander experience needs to be attended to on its own. It can’t be as an addendum to an Asian American framed conversation to do it justice.”

Another listener question: Do we hold on to one identity or another out of habit? Or out of fear?

Identities, said Dhingra provide a powerful sense of meaning and belonging: “They help us understand our place in the world. We may hold on to them too long—who we are may change, and we’re not recognizing that. That’s true regardless of ethnicity. There are a lot of ways we may hold on to the past longer than its useful.”

Simitian returned to the phrase e pluribus unum for his final query: Is it possible in an increasingly diverse country to create a sense of unity? If so, what will it take to get us there?

“Words matter. Leadership matters,” Yun observed. “We need to keep remembering what we do and how we do it is going to make a difference.”

From Nguyen: “If we all recognize that diversity is our strength, then that is our unity. It is strategic for a country to constantly innovate. It is strategic to be a place that’s connected to the world in all different ways.”

Dhingra answered by way of a metaphor from America’s national pastime—baseball. “We don’t want a country full of outfielders only, or second basemen, or catchers, or even pitchers. You’re not going to have a team, you’re not going to do anything, unless you have people in all the positions,” he said. “Diversity is essential for progress.”

This post is adapted from the virtual panel discussion, “Understanding the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience: Notions of Identity,” held on May 27, 2021. The full video is available here at, where you can also find more information about the three-part series.