Stories that Shaped My Understanding of Asian America

Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Month!

I want to preface this with the disclaimer that this blog post is on Asian America and the Asian American diaspora only; I cannot speak for all the diasporas internationally. I have no doubt that there are intersectional experiences, but those stories are not mine to tell–only amplify.

The Asian American experience isn’t a monolith either. Even the phrase Asian American Pacific Islander is contradicting, and frankly, a poor way of lumping a multitude of ethnic identities together. It invites a coalition without truly considering the history of violence and colonialism behind such action.

Growing up, I never identified as an Asian American. Raised in Little Saigon, California, we identified ourselves accordingly to our ethnic identity. I am Vietnamese. My friends are Korean. We never attached the ‘American’ behind the identity. We celebrated our cultures at home, school cultural showcases, and night food markets. We talked about bun bo hue and Korean rice cakes and ramen but never the politics of food or labor. In a way, I think that I’ve always felt foreign then. It was like we grew up in a separate community and then there are the Americans. It wasn’t until going to a predominantly white institution for college that I recognized Asian America as something more. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer and one of my inspirations, has written that the Asian American identity is political. Its past and present have always been political because the identity itself is an effort to redefine citizenship and community. So within the only two Ethnic Studies classes offered at my PWI, I learned about Yuri Kochiyama, Vincent Chin, Grace Lee Boggs, Larry Itliong, and nameless activists whose labor constructed Asian America. I learned about the violence that plagued Chinatowns, the policies centered around whiteness, and the resistance and coalition of the Third World. 

But what does it mean to be an American? To watch as our country expand its imperialism abroad? To deny access to the most marginalized members of our community? Sure, there are positive messaging of what being an American means: patriotism, belonging, diversity. But for all of its melting-pot-culture, the Americaness attached to identities cannot only be celebrated. It must be remembered as we examine the history of violence that replicates itself today. I, myself, don’t really have an answer on Asian America. I can only try my best to understand and grow with the political identity, constantly trying to redefine both the Asian and American. 

Stories of Asian America mostly center around the common themes of labor, immigration, exclusion, and belonging. I’ve curated a list of stories that truly shaped my understanding of what Asian America means, but also stories that captured such raw emotions of the identity itself. 

Novels

Texts

This is not an exhaustive list.

The identity is constantly changing and so is America. No one story can thoroughly capture every identity and every experience. But as more AAPI stories are being ushered forward, I encourage you to examine how you yourself view Asian America. Why do we uplift stories by Asians in the West but dehumanize Asians in the East? Why is it that there’s only a certain type of story that gets to be told? Why is it that we must mention the culture of Asian America when asking people to accept that we belong?

If you made it to the end, I’m impressed! Thanks so much for reading, and I hope that you’d pick up one of these stories soon.

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