Beyond the Asian Label

As I stood waiting for the waitress to direct us to our table, another waiting customer casually wished me a “Happy Chinese New Year,” then attempted to speak some language that sounded like gibberish to me. Though I frowned in confusion and dismay, the man seemed not to notice, walking away smiling as if it were an accomplishment to have spoken Chinese to a Korean.
Of course, the man probably had no malicious intentions, but his clear assumption about my ethnicity was truly offensive. While I understand that someone who is unfamiliar with Asian ethnicities may find it difficult to distinguish between Chinese and Korean people, it does not excuse ignorant statements or behavior.

This interaction was not the first time I had experienced such confusion surrounding Asian ethnicities while in the United States. On several occasions, I have been incorrectly labeled as Chinese or Japanese, greeted by strangers with an enthusiastic “kon’nichiwa” or “ni hao.” Such exchanges always elicit blunt responses from me, like “I’m not Chinese” or “I’m from Korea.” Interactions like these never fail to feel like microaggressions disguised as savvy recognition of my identity. People asking questions about Asian cultures may feel like they are valiantly striving to appreciate new cultures or people of diverse ethnicities, but their seemingly harmless comments are actually blatant microaggressions.

What these people do not realize is that to be misidentified as Chinese or Japanese erases my actual Korean identity. The more I hear someone conflate Chinese, Japanese and Korean identities, the more I feel the limitation of Asian identity as it exists in the United States. Encountering Asian identity as a massive and indistinct category, something I have often experienced while on this side of the globe, makes me doubt my Korean self. It has begun to feel as though there is no distinction between my own Korean identity and the Chinese, Japanese or Korean-American identities of others.

Each time I have experienced a situation like the recent one with the man in the restaurant, I wonder how it is possible that people can know so little about the massive spectrum of diversity that falls beneath the title “Asian.” In 2011, the continent of Asia was home to more than four-billion people, according to the United Nations. Religious and cultural practices differ not just between countries, but between regions within the countries, towns within the regions. A singular Asian identity is an obvious impossibility, yet time and time again the complexities of the innumerable Asian identities are ignored by or unknown to countless people across the world.

While Andover does not perfectly reflect the general Asian erasure that I find to pervade the United States, conversations about the diversity of Asian identity must continue within our community. Although Andover’s Office of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) is home to many clubs that recognize a multitude of Asian identities, including the Asian Society, the Andover Korean Society, the Andover Japanese Connection and the Southeast Asian Club, these clubs can only do so much to reach members of the community that are uninterested in or unexposed to Asian cultures. One solution to increase visibility of Asian culture on our campus would be to encourage such groups to come together to create a discussion board in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library or Paresky Commons, where club leaders could post a prompt about a particular Asian country, giving students the chance to respond. By inviting more members of the community to join the discussion, we can preclude incorrect declarations of “ni hao” and “kon’nichiwa” and bring awareness of Asian diversity to Andover.