Asian Americans are not a monolith. That was the resounding response to a study by Pew Research Center that sought to illuminate the many meanings of what it’s like to live in the United States as an Asian American.
In the fall of 2021, Pew undertook the largest focus group study it had ever conducted — 66 focus groups with 264 total participants — to hear Asian Americans talk about their lived experiences in America. The focus groups were organized into 18 distinct Asian ethnic origin groups, fielded in 18 languages and moderated by members of those ethnic groups.
No single experience defines what it means to be Asian in the United States today. Instead, Asian Americans’ lived experiences are, in part, shaped by where they were born, how connected they are to their family’s ethnic origins, and how others relate and interact with them.
The Asian label used in the U.S. represented only one part of how most Asian Americans think of themselves, the study showed. Recently arrived Asian immigrant participants said they are drawn more to their ethnic identity than to the more general pan-ethnic Asian American identity. Meanwhile, U.S.-born Asian participants said they identify as Asians but also, at other times, by their specific ethnic origins and as Americans.
Another common finding among focus group participants was the disconnect between how they see themselves and how others view them. Sometimes this led to maltreatment of them or their families, especially in events such as during the Japanese internment during World War II, the aftermath of 9/11 and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
I recently spoke with Asian Americans in New Jersey to get their perspectives. Here are their thoughts on what it means to be Asian in America.
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Paul Yoon, Fort Lee
“I think it’s great to be an Asian in America because I get to be part of the greatest experiment in the history of the world — to create a country made of people of all races and skin colors,” said Paul Yoon, an American born Korean who lives in Fort Lee. Yoon is an attorney who is also a member of Fort Lee Borough Council. He was born in Philadelphia and now lives with his wife, Judy, and two children, ages 8 and 3.
“As you often hear, our diversity is what makes our country great — as we can incorporate great foods and cultures and traditions from all nations,” said Yoon, 48. “A big challenge, however, is maintaining your culture and heritage while at the same time assimilating with all other cultures in what some call the Melting Pot of America, in which diverse cultures and ethnicities come together to form the rich fabric of our nation today.”
Yoon is thankful to be able to contribute Korean customs, traditions and ways of thinking to people of other backgrounds who all pledge allegiance to the United States. He is also grateful to be able to contribute aspects of Korean culture into a collective American identity.
There are many categories in how people identify on many forms and applications these days, Yoon said. Identities such as white or Asian American or African American or Hispanic American are probably way too broad, Yoon said.
“I mean how many countries are there in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America and Latin America?” Yoon asked. Countries like Turkey and Russia are in both Europe and Asia, he noted.
“But I think it was a way for our country to keep inventory of our racial makeup and use it to progress and improve this multicultural experiment,” Yoon said. “I think given the technology these days and electronic forms and applications, these categories should eventually identify people more specifically to get a more accurate picture.”
People might get offended when asked where they are from because they feel their American-ness is being attacked, Yoon said.
“I don’t see it that way. I think — for the most part — that the question is a genuine curiosity into your background and that the person asking would like to get to know me better,” said Yoon.
“Obviously, there will always be ignorance and hate in this world. But the way I see it, all you can do is lead the best life that you can possibly live and do your part to affect change one person at a time.”
Sapna Gupta, Short Hills
“As an Asian American woman, I have always felt very welcome and comfortable in the U.S.,” Gupta said. “I came to this country in 1987 as a young bride. We have lived all over, including the Midwest, the South and now the Northeast.”
Gupta, 56, her husband, Manoj, and three adult children, Priya, 28, Rohan, 20, and Riya, 20, love to celebrate both Indian and American festivals near and far from their Short Hills home. These celebrations help the second generation feel close to both cultures, Gupta explained.”Over the years, I have felt a great degree of freedom living in the U.S.,” said Gupta, a graphic designer and community leader. “However, as an Asian American woman, one does have to go the extra mile to be accepted.”Since there is a large and vibrant Indian American community in New Jersey, it lessens the longing for being in India with the exception of seeing immediate family, Gupta said.”I have seen many changes in the U.S. from an Asian point of view — from not finding anything vegetarian in restaurants to having many suitable choices now,” she said. “People being more aware of India as a beautiful country with abundant resources versus viewing India as a land of snake charmers, elephants and mud homes. I thank social media, news media and the internet for this change.“
Mary Chao covered North Jersey’s Asian communities and real estate between 2020 and January 2023. She is now a correspondent for Newsy.
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