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. 

Asian American Comm*u n i t y

By Kevin Koo, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

What is community? The word itself, “community”, what does it mean to you? What has it been in your experience, what shapes has it taken, what memories and emotions does it evoke?

When I envision community, particularly Asian communities in America, there’s only so much that I can articulate into words. My attempts to define it becomes limited. I have fond memories of  people, families, homes, places of gathering. There is also a sharing of food, of music, traditions and dance. There are emotions: overwhelming love, compassion, a sense of belonging, support. I feel pride, comfort, sadness, sorrow. But beyond the surface level aura of good feelings, there is deeper meaning. The people in our communities are bound by a shared history, often a shared oppression, common struggle. Homes and markets, churches, temples, places of gathering— these physical locations give us a sense of belonging, anchors to come back to, and harbors us lost ships at sea. The partaking of food and tradition is the preservation of love, of ideas. This is what we do. What our parents have done. What our ancestors have done. It roots us, pulls us into a timeline that threatens to be forgotten. The most basic of ideas, love, blooms into something so much more, something complex. This communal love shields us— it protects us, gives us a place to retreat to, provides a people with which to claim allegiance, stands up for us when we are targeted, fixes us when we are broken.

I’ve lately been thinking about why Asian America exists. Why Asian American communities exist. Is it not because of a lack of? A longing for? Our desire for love springs from a lack of affection. Our support, from hurtful memories of neglect. Our communities have sprouted from a lack of inclusiveness in America. Even aliens need a place to call home. Birthed by a human need for belonging, for a desperate plea for support and validation in a land that rejects every piece of your being, every ounce of your blood and gram of flesh. In a country that has since the beginning been plotting our exploitation, marked our usefulness, commodified us, labeled us as “temporary labor”, our communities are resistance in the most literal sense. Whether we were forced to seek refuge here, displaced from our own homes, brought over with the help of friends and family, or arriving with false hope in the American dream: there was never much of a choice to begin with. Despite this, we have planted our roots, have joined hands, have shielded one another when stones are thrown and hateful words rain down. Here to stay, here to reclaim— or can we even say reclaim when there was no initial claim granted to begin with?

In times when nothing could be done, when the future looked bleak and hopes were dashed— our people held on. Against all the odds, Asians made it. They survived. They started families. They made every effort to preserve their language, their food, their culture. They worked their hardest, fought their best, gave up so much, sacrificed their futures for ours— making every effort to improve the quality of life for our generation, at the cost of their own. Amidst all of the unsolved issues, of mental health, trauma and memories, my parents still try to protect me from the harsh realities that they faced. Thinking that if they sacrificed everything, gave it their all, perhaps their children would be free from all that. Our parents pour their dreams of a better life into these new untainted souls, hoping to experience success vicariously, through our lives if possible. The immigrant story that so many of us have heard time and time again, have become jaded to, have yet to understand its magnitude of self-sacrifice, of the ultimate example of unconditional love and affection. When Asians were being erased from history, our bodies hidden from the spotlight, our voices silenced— our communities built up the foundation for resistance. We were always a fighting people, not much has changed from the initial Asian immigrants in America and us today. Still fighting for the same goals, the same reasons. Racism, immigration rights, gentrification, deportation, citizenship— there is progress, but the struggle continues. 

Communities have granted us the base of our resistance. They are doors that refuse to be shut, stories that refuse to be forgotten. I can’t articulate the feelings, the words to communicate my thankfulness— there are no words that can translate this desire to express such a magnitude of appreciation, let alone any actions that exist to reciprocate it. The individuals who have placed every stone on the path we walk, have broken down walls and barriers, have forced themselves into dialogues and spaces that we take for granted. Who continue to show America that we will not be forgotten. Our ancestors. Our families, parents and grandparents. We truly stand on the shoulder of giants. 

It is not a question of whether we are worth this history of resistance—we are the ones to continue it, our own stories yet to be written. We will remember our histories, center our communities, and embrace our lived experiences and identities. We will never forget where we came from. We will look out for the communities that gave us the space to grow, the histories that led us here, and the stories that fueled our wild imaginations of what could be. We will protect the people that fed us, taught us how to laugh, who told us to stand up for ourselves and prepared us for the harsh realities of the world. We will reach beyond our communities, strengthen the bonds that tie us to other minority groups, stand in solidarity, put our lives on the line for our allies. We will look into our communities, unlearn feelings of hate, engage ourselves in conversations deconstructing race, gender, sexuality, and class. 

We fight for the people who take the time to teach us, to listen to us, encourage us, share with us. For the ones who comfort us, challenge us, who love and care for us, support us in hard times, share in our struggles, who remind us that we’re sane, that our experiences are legitimate, that our feelings are human. For those who pass on everything they can, so that we ourselves can grow as people, join the fight against systems of power, struggles of resistance, and expand that community base. 

To our Asian communities, who fostered us, cared for us, gave us the space we needed.
To our ancestors, the first Asian immigrants, the families that settled here and laid the first stones.
To our own families, our parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunties and uncles.
Thank you.

The Growth Mindset

By Kim Hoang, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

The first assignment I remember procrastinating was in third grade on a project that was assigned weeks before it was due. Of course, I did the whole project the night before it was due, staying up much later than a third grader should (past 10 p.m.) to tape threads and scraps of paper found around the house into a skimpy mobile on a wire coat hanger. I received a D on the project, resulting in not only my own humiliation but also the disappointment of my parents. To my 8-year-old self, this failure felt like the most devastating thing imaginable. 

Throughout my education, the pressure to succeed came from all directions. My parents, who were refugees from Vietnam, were well-meaning as they tried to steer me towards the respected path of a STEM major at a prestigious university. I was in “gifted” classes as long as I could remember, my teachers expecting more of me than I could be taught to expect of myself. I tried to live up to my role as the “smart Asian girl”, holding onto my fear of failure through grade school, college, and now this peculiar period of post-grad life.

At times, I’ve been reluctant to travel to new places, build up the courage to talk to a potential new friend, and try new projects because I would be afraid of not getting it right on the first try. 

Ironically, my fear of failure hasn’t stopped me from failing, but it has made me afraid to try at all. 

Carol Dweck pioneered the idea of the “growth mindset” in which intelligence is viewed as a trait that can be developed. In contrast, I grew up with a “fixed mindset”, thinking I had some sort of steadfast ability that couldn’t be developed any further. Ultimately, I saw any setback as indication that my own intelligence was questionable. 

As a first-generation college graduate, I now work in a high school as a college adviser so I can help students who are in the same place I was not more than a few years ago. My favorite part of the job is being the encouraging voice for my students, something I wish I could have heard more growing up. One student I’ve been working with has applied to and been accepted to more colleges than most of the seniors at my school, yet questioned whether she should even go because she was afraid of being on her own. I told her that college is the opportunity for her to develop as a person, and that she should lean into her fear and embrace it as well.

As I tell my students that they should embrace challenges and that failure doesn’t mean that they are fundamentally lacking in any way, it’s become easier for me to believe it myself. I’ve come to realize that often, the anxiety I may face surrounding a challenge is scarier than the challenge itself.

ECAASU Stands with the #ScientistsNotSpies Campaign, Demands That the U.S. Department of Justice End Racial Profiling

For Immediate Release

NEW YORK – The East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) has not forgotten the experiences of Dr. Xiaoxing Xi, Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li, or Sherry Chen, four Chinese scientists who were wrongfully accused of espionage by the United States Department of Justice. The charges were dropped without an apology or sufficient explanation. 

This May will be the two-year anniversary since the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stormed Dr. Xiaoxing Xi’s home, pointed guns at his wife and children, and handcuffed him against a wall. Soon after, the #ScientistsNotSpies campaign sought justice for Dr. Xi. 

In the wake of the inauguration, the fate of millions of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, precariously sit in the hands of the federal government. Now more than ever, we must take a firm stance against the United States Department of Justice and condemn not only racial profiling, but all unlawful surveillance.

The FBI, which operates under the DOJ’s jurisdiction, has a documented history of interference and violence against civil rights leaders, the Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, etc. The DOJ abuses its power to oppress counter-establishment movements and wrongfully criminalize people of color.

As an organization made of Asian American students who experience the pain of racial profiling, ECAASU stands in firm support of the #ScientistsNotSpies campaign. 

Furthermore, as an organization that prides itself on its vision of a radically just United States, we ask the DOJ to conduct thorough public investigations of their own practices.

To learn more about the campaign, visit scientistsnotspies.org. Sign the petition here. Participate in the conversation with #ScientistsNotSpies.

Kathryn Quintin, Executive Director
Jillian Hammer, Asian American Affairs Specialist

How Storytelling Connects, Empowers, and Frees

By Alicia Soller, ECAASU National Board Managing Editor

I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. Give me a book to read, podcast to hear, or pen to write, and I’m immediately taken to a place of solidarity, comfort, and connection. As a writer I can use this tool to articulate diverse experiences and to share narratives otherwise unexplored. 

Recently I’ve tried to trace the foundations of my affinity for storytelling, and it led me to my childhood, where stories were a powerful force in understanding my roots as an intersectional Filipina American and fortifying my identity. 

A powerful quote by James Baldwin captures this solace:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

My parents are my favorite storytellers and the bearers of family tradition. The stories of childhood and adolescence as 1.5 Filipino Americans shows me narratives I won't be able to find in any traditional textbook and narratives represented in mainstream media. 

I’ve learned that my dad was quite the adventurer in the Philippines. He once recalled how he stole calesas (two-wheeled carts in the Philippines) on his family’s land, gallivanting around with it as a seven-year-old boy.  His stories after he and his family immigrated to Queens, NY painted a complicated picture of what it was like to be an Asian American male in a historically white American part of his neighborhood, and the challenges of asserting his American identity in this community.

My mom to this day refers to the Philippines as home. Her voice takes a certain tone of fondness when speaking about her home close to the beach. Relaying these stories to my siblings and I are the ways she stays connected to her past. From age 8, my mom grew up in many parts of the American South, from West Virginia, to Mississippi, to Florida. Her stories similarly illustrated a complicated story of being Asian American in predominantly white communities--and in states notorious for their history of racial discrimination.

These stories have connected me to something so seemingly distant and have been pivotal to fortifying my identity. These are the lived experiences of my parents and their families, and they have exposed me to the depth of my roots more than any formal education or mainstream media portrayal ever will. 

I’ve questioned so many times what it means to be Filipino American in my own skin when the answers were laced through the stories of my family. These stories connect me to a culture that belongs to me, no matter how far removed I feel from it. I find solace in these stories, because no matter how distant my roots seem, I will always be undeniably connected to them by tradition. These stories will continue to transcend generations and build upon each other and the rich history of lived experiences it has already created. 

There is so much to learn and gain from each other,  and more than ever will we need to expand the narratives that are represented in mainstream media or traditional education to combat dangerous rhetoric and stereotypes that seem to define and oppress marginalized communities. Storytelling expands our minds and connects us to each other in ways arguably no other form of communication can match. Storytelling has incredible power--it connects us, educates us, empowers us, and frees us. Let's make sure our stories never go unheard.