News & Politics

Time to Celebrate Asian Diaspora Month

The problem with Asian American History Month is not the hyphenated identity it celebrates but the term's narrow definition of 'America.'
May is Asian American History month. As a writer with a Chinese surname and Asian ancestors (from both India and China), I have mixed feelings about what we're supposed to be celebrating.

Having any word before the "American" in your description is a mixed blessing. On one hand, you are encouraged to feel that you are interesting because you did not grow up eating Wonder Bread. On the other hand, you are always being asked, "Where are you from?" and when you answer, being asked, "But where are you really from?"

It's a recurring motif for Asian-Americans: If you say you're from Philadelphia or Boston, some people think you're ducking the question. This makes some Asian-Americans angry.

Not me.

My response has been to ask other Americans, "Where are you from?" in return. Sometimes, the puzzled reply is: "What do you mean? I'm from here."

Use that as a conversation starter, and you may broaden somebody's understanding of what it means to be American -- although I'll be the first to admit it's exhausting to go through life treating each social encounter as a diversity training session.

You may also discover that many people do not know very much about where they're "really" from. Yes, you might envy such people because they seem to fit in, but if they are unclear about how they got to that point of fitting in, is that a good thing? I don't think so.

For that reason, I have never wanted -- entirely -- to fit in. While it may be annoying at times to be asked where you're "really" from, perhaps it is healthy to keep thinking about what that question means.

The normalization of European immigration to the United States has deprived many so-called white Americans of a strong sense of their own history. Many Americans of European background feel so thoroughly American that they don't search very hard for that history.

It's different if you're "exotic" -- a term used for Asians quite a bit. If you're exotic, whether you're hated or welcomed, you cling to your history for as long as you feel foreign or "hyphenated."

A number of my American friends of European heritage are quite blank about how their ancestors lived when they got to the New World -- but I have been plied from an early age with stories about my forebears. My parents and other relatives have been weaving this narrative for me ever since I was in kindergarten. As I grew older, I was given more detail, some of it R-rated: a male ancestor (Chinese) who had syphilis; a female ancestor (Indian) whose widowed father put her in an orphanage so he could work in the cane fields to pay off his indenture. These stories are the spoils of hyphenization.

When I have tried to make common cause with my fellow Asian Americans, I have discovered what we don't have in common. My parents didn't come here from Asia but from another part of the Americas, the British Caribbean, where our ancestors had arrived in the 1800s.

As a child, I sometimes grew weary of telling my friends that my parents were from Trinidad -- a country so small nobody knew where it was. It was much easier to say I was Chinese. China is a vast country, everybody has heard of it, and I have a Chinese name. I found myself "passing" for Chinese, a habit I outgrew when I decided it was cowardly to align myself with the bigger nation -- after all, my origins really lay in a small, multiethnic and relatively powerless democracy not far from Venezuela.

And this is why I have mixed feelings about Asian American History month. Despite its name, it is presented as a celebration of the voyage from Asia to the United States, without recognizing other stops along the way, without emphasizing the larger region of the Americas.

Its boosters appear to be wearing blinders about the history of Asian migration -- blinders that sport a "Made in the USA" label. During the last two centuries, people from Asia have settled in other parts of the Americas -- in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example -- and many of their descendants have come North. Perhaps Asian American History month could be renamed, to prevent Asian Americans from losing touch with their global roots -- whether as Americans or as Asians.

Changing the name of the month would be a good place to start. How about "Asian Diaspora Month"?

Tracy Quan is the author of the novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" (Three Rivers.) Her next reading will be on Wed., May 28, 7 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, 1805 Walnut Street., Philadelphia. On June 17, she will be reading in New York. Her web site is Tracyquan.net.
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