What does it mean to be a Southeast Asian alien in Asian American spaces?

By Huy Tu, ECAASU National Board Associate Director

Disclaimer: I am writing this piece through the lenses of me being a Southeast Asian queer and trans international student, as I mainly speak to my experiences in the past year in America. I acknowledge that I may not be the best person to talk about those with all of the privileges I have as still being light-skinned and having the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Being an international student growing up in Vietnam, I came to America when I was a young and naive 17-year-old brat to pursue the western education in the “land of freedom,” and to carry my parents’ and elders’ dreams on my weak shoulders. 

It was important for me when I started realizing that I was being boxed into a race coming to America, like I have to process that South Asian, Pacific Islander, Central Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian identities are being flattened and compressed to a single term of “Asian”. It didn’t bother me for a long time to be honest since I am still in the process of engaging with the context of race and the history of racial conflicts, especially for the Asian community in America. However, from countless encounters of being mistaken for either Chinese, Korean or Japanese, and how clubs, organizations, scholarships, entertainment, etc. that are available are mainly for East Asian American communities, it has been interesting to say the least... for now.

I am not calling out people who find home in the term Asian-American as part of their identities as I am not American myself, but there are definitely discourses, inaccessabilities, privileges, and oppressions of the system that people are perpetuating and keeping alive that need to be considered, unpacked, and dismantled. 

I started questioning these things during a visit to my family friend’s house for winter break two years ago, since my family is on the other side of the globe. The food was great and all, but all of the conversations at the kid table included a cousin getting a good dentist job offer, another one enjoying the great “diverse” working environment at Google, and one talking about how Korean women are prettier than Vietnamese women (they didn’t say a specific reason, but I bet it was about fairer skin, but who knows), so I stood up to get more chè hạt sen (sweet lotus seed gruel) to distract myself. The Korean relative of the family asked me where I am from when we were in the kitchen and if I know Vietnamese, and I responded that I was born and raised in Saigon. I felt her intense gaze on me up and down for a second and then she said, "but you don’t really look like a Vietnamese." I guess she could see the mixed expression of annoyance and confusion in my face, so she quickly followed up with “in a good way,” though she said it was because she thought that Viet kids, when she visited Vietnam, were darker and do not have the same fashion sense as mine. My English was also pretty good, according to her.  Problematic old me quietly responded "thank you." I took my sweet gruel to the corner of the room and was just casually web browsing in the corner for the rest of the night with a burden of thoughts like "what does AAPI representation look like" and "what does the AAPI community stand and fight for in America?"

So like I mentioned previously, what does it mean to be “Asian American” (not even Asian American Pacific Islander) in claiming the title of most self-proclaimed pan-Asian inclusive organizations and spaces nationally and locally? Yet, the faces I see in the leadership positions, the kind of work they do, and the things they support are predominantly East Asian focused! Most or even all the time, they have fairer skin, fit under the trope of the “model minorities” and “good immigrants,” holding higher social statuses and having more capital resources. They don’t look like people I see in my community. They don't look like us. If it is not the continuing perpetuation of anti-blackness, the capitalist system, and xenophobic mindset, then I don’t know what is.

How do Asian American organizations help free all of us with East Asians further perpetuating anti-blackness, the capitalist system, and xenophobia? Many sources, including the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice in 2013, indicate that Southeast Asians are exponentially growing communities, yet we have more disadvantages, obstacles, and oppressions. Coming to the US, we’re not supported as much as the East Asian communities due to many of the support programs having been liquidated by state and federal legislatures. For instance, in California, Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans have the lowest educational attainment among Asian American ethnic groups countywide and are less likely than the average adult to hold high school or bachelor’s degrees. We are also exponentially more likely to be incarcerated with the prison system as well. It is apparent that there are other countless areas that I can continue to list such as healthcare, education, capital income, etc. The struggles and oppressions continue to be erased and silenced due to the overwhelming and disproportionate representation and prioritization of an East Asian agenda while the Southeast, South Asian, Central Asian, Pacific Islanders, etc. are not given voices.

What does it mean when people feel more compelled to mobilize and fight for freedom and acceptance under this oppressive regime with a strong focus on the hyphen and Americanness? In order to be seen and to be able to have a voice in the room, they have to center their Americanness instead of unapologetically liberating our Asianess of all... 

  • With the recognition that we are standing on the stolen land of indigenous people 
  • With the recognition that a lot of us are here because of the colonization of our ancestor’s lands (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Korea, Japan, etc.) by White / Western “civilization”
  • With the recognition that the term Asian American has become naturalized or depoliticized and erases people’s colonial origins 

Did our ancestors fight for our rights to become American or to live “equally” with other people on this land? Emphasizing the Americanness can be one of the most imperialist things to do in this political time, in my opinion. 

Moreover, the international and especially undocumented Asian communities are forgotten and forsaken in this fight and struggle because of this centering of Americanness. We are not even included in the name, so how are we supposed to have the voice in that space, especially when we are more targeted and vulnerable in the processes of incarceration and deportation because of ICE (Immigration Custom Enforcement)? Statistically, 13-15% of the people being deported every year are undocumented Asians, but have undocumented and international folks, and folks with green cards been centered in this fight? It is disheartening to see that even though the majority of the community is composed of immigrants and many are sympathetic to the plight of those of us who are undocumented, an established support system remains an unmet need.

To be honest, there is a lot more I can say about this. This is not a hate note to continue dividing us (as a white person would say usually) but a note of critical and radical love to remind folks that we can’t really fix or win this fight if we don’t know where the discourse is, and who needs to be in this room and be prioritized the most. I do not have the solution to this myself, but I think there are many voices that are missing, and I want to make room for those including myself. In the future, I may or may not be able to get my green card or even citizenship in America (with more and more introduced bills limiting my way to access those), but again, I won’t find home or comfort in the term Asian American. It is important to be aware of your identity, but that one exclusive term has not and won’t represent equitably the different communities of Asian and Pacific Islanders. I also do not believe that being American would save my people or my community or stop undocumented + on green cards + international Asian folks from being incarcerated and deported, and I strongly feel that being American would not be right for my Vietnamese-ness.