It has become more and more apparent to me that the experience of an Asian person is so drastically different from that of an Asian American’s.
An Asian who grew up in her own country (like myself) didn’t have to struggle to be recognized or represented in books or other media. In Taiwan where I was born and lived until my late 20s, the demographics were almost 100% ethnic “Chinese.”* Even if, like most young people, I experienced much self-doubt and dark days when constructing my own identity, dealing with my “ethnicity” was never part of that process.
On the other hand, my young Asian American students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Indian) must contend with the fact that their ethnic backgrounds are a significant part of their identity forming process. Even in a city that is highly diverse, they still belong to only about 12% of the total NYC population (and about 6% of the U.S. population.) This means that if you evenly spread out all Asian Americans in NYC, there is about 1 person of Asian heritage per 10 people in any room. We can further break down the population by ethnic groups. For example, there are about 20,000 ethnic Japanese and 100,000 ethnic Koreans living in New York City (approx pop 8.5 million). This means that you will have to put about 500 people in a room to encounter a single Japanese person and about 100 people to meet a Korean person. It is then of little wonder that many things that do not bother me in the least might really offend my Asian American students: I was never under the threat as being “the other” nor would I ever have to explain or defend my culture to my peers.
Since I can only consider Asian American youth experiences, as an “outsider,” the only way for me to learn is first to not impose my own past experiences onto them and then to keep listening to Asian American friends and students so hopefully I can gain some degree of understanding in order to act as a supportive and effective ally.
* Due to the complex modern history this accounting is not truly accurate: there are those who migrated from Mainland China in 1949 (14%), those who had migrated from Mainland China some 400 years ago (84%), and the aboriginal tribes, who were colonized and have lost most of their cultures and languages (2%).