Sarah Mizes-Tan, Host: My mom’s side of the family immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, shortly after the Korean War. My grandfather spent half of his life in Korea before settling in Maryland, but every year when his birthday comes around, he sings this song…
[Soundbite: Sarah’s grandfather singing “The Star Spangled Banner”]
He’s probably the most patriotic person I’ve ever met. Because of how he came to this country, he sees the United States as the good guys. And my grandfather sees himself as a true American.
[Soundbite: Sarah’s grandfather singing the end of “The Star Spangled Banner” while family cheers him on]
I grew up in a household that very much believed in the feeling of the American dream, and the idea that we were both Asian and American.
[Music starts and fades in, “Dusting”]
But I also think this might not always square with how this country sees us — most white Americans see my grandpa as an elderly Asian man with a Korean accent. And my experiences growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood … and even, in present day, with how people who looked like me were treated during the pandemic … It felt like for Asian Americans, being an American was conditional.
[Music fades out, “Dusting”]
For my whole life, I’ve used the term Asian American to identify myself, but sometimes I feel like this word is something that’s still undefined.
[Theme song begins and fades under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
We’re a broad and diverse group of people with different backgrounds, but I want to talk about the experiences that connect us, the feelings that are universal to being Asian American.
And sometimes that feeling is being of two or multiple worlds, feeling in between. Whatever being Asian American is .. Let’s define us on our own terms.
I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan and this is “Mid Pacific” — A podcast exploring Asian-American identity.
We’ll be right back.
[Theme song comes up and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Welcome back, I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan. Asian American is a term put on us — it’s a word that I check on the census, so I wanted to ask my friends and people I know, just to start, what does Asian American identity mean to you, and what terms do you use to identify your background?
Here’s my colleague, reporter Janelle Salanga.
Janelle Salanga: I choose Filipino, Filipino and Chinese, for getting super specific I’d say Visayan and Chinese because both my parents are from that region in the Philippines.
Sarah: They say they actually avoid using Asian American.
Janelle Salanga: I think it’s also partly, moreso that I don’t want to be American, I don’t want to be branded as American, but I do feel some guilt about that. because of people who are like, oh it’s so great here, you should be glad to be here, and my parents too are part of that, you’re so lucky to be here, would you want to grow up poor in the Philippines?
Sarah: I also spoke with a friend, Monika Lee, about how she identifies herself.
Monika Lee: Yeah, so usually I introduce myself as Chinese American.
Sarah: But Monika is also an adoptee and she was raised by a Japanese-American family who had been incarcerated during World War II. She says her family felt uncomfortable having her learn any other language aside from English.
Monika Lee: It’s actually really sad, the intergenerational trauma that led them to the decision to not put me in Chinese school, because my grandpa who’s Japanese was interned. They just learned to be as American as possible, they don’t want to give me any markers that would make me different or stand out in any way.
Sarah: She says there isn’t any other place in the world she’d feel she belongs than America.
Monika Lee: I’ve not been back to China as an adult, but I know if I did, they wouldn’t look at me and say oh look, you’re Chinese, they’d look at me and say I’m American, but here in America, they look at me and say, what are you, great question, this is a fun game show I like to play.
Sarah: Monika says she’s thought a lot about what makes her Asian American. And she told me she thinks being Asian American feels like she’s living between two worlds.
I think this is a pretty familiar feeling for a lot of other people who are categorized under this word.
[Transition music begins and runs under, “Palms Down”]
[Soundbite: Montage of voice messages]
Ruby: Hi, my name is Ruby from the Bay Area, I identify as South Asian, both my parents immigrated here from India and I have always thought about my Indian identity first even though I’m born and raised in America
Jessica: Hi, my name is Jessica Chang Irish and I identify as an American Born Chinese.
Ryan: I’m Ryan Liu, I generally identify with being Cantonese, but I also identify with being an Angeleno, being a native Californian, and sometimes, depending on the news of the day, yes, I’m an American too.
Sarah: This podcast is called Mid Pacific in part to embrace that feeling of in-betweenness, and to talk about what being Asian American means to us. When we come back, we’re going to dive into that more. Stick with us.
[Transition Music fades out, “Palms Down”]
[Soundbite: Sounds of Bruce Lee fighting begins]
Sarah: Mid Pacific is a term I actually first heard in reference to actor Bruce Lee:
[Soundbite: Bruce Lee movie montage continues and fades out]
Lee was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong. He was one of Hollywood’s very first and most prominent Asian American stars, and his life became a testament to the power of being of two worlds. In many ways, I think he was misunderstood by both American and Asian media.
[Soundbite: News interview with Bruce Lee]
Anchor: You ever think of yourself as Chinese or do you think of yourself as North American?
Bruce Lee: You know what I want to think of myself as? As a human being. … We’re all one family, but we’re all different man.
Sarah: Bruce Lee struggled very publicly with questions about belonging, a feeling a lot of us can relate to. And I want to explore this more, so I spoke with two people who have been chronicling Bruce Lee’s life.
Bao Nguyen: Hi my name is Bao Nguyen, and I’m a Vietnamese-American filmmaker.
Jeff Chang: And my name is Jeff Chang, I’m of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent, and I’m writing a book on Bruce Lee called “Water, Mirror, Echo on Bruce Lee and the making of Asian American”.
Sarah: This term, Mid Pacific is something that I heard when watching the documentary about Bruce Lee, and it just kind of stuck in my head because it seemed like such a perfect summation of the Asian-American experience in a lot of ways. Can you explain, how did you guys learn about this term and what is its history?
Bao: Well, just in my research, you know, for "Be Water," I read a lot of different books and biographies, and one term that I heard was Mid-Pacific Man to describe Bruce Lee. And this term is something that I've never heard before, but it was used as a term to describe him, mostly among Hong Kong journalists, as a way to kind of describe a westernized Chinese. I guess there could be an equivalent today of calling someone an ABC or something.
In Vietnamese, there is a term called Viet Du, which means Vietnamese overseas. So I kind of saw it as equivalent of that. I didn't really look into the terminology, and it wasn't until I heard from my friend Jeff Chang that there's a lot of deep history behind it.
Jeff: One of the things Bao and I had done together was a video series named after this book that I'd written called We Going to Be All Right. And in it, there's a an essay called “The In-betweens.” And it was something that we both really vibed over. We have like much different stories about our sort of whatever our Asian-American is Asian Pacific Islander, Asian-American Pacific Islander ness, however you want to describe it. But this is something that we bonded over was this notion of being in between. And I think that the idea of the Mid Pacific kind of captures that.
Bao: The issue is that it places us Sort of between two identities that are more projected on us by external forces. John O'Donohue, he's a poet. He says that your identity is not equivalent to your biography, and I think that is something we are wrestling with, especially as a quote unquote AAPI community. And I think everyone, not just the AAPI community, but everyone that's a human being wrestles with that question or that idea that your identity is not your biography.
Sarah: What do you guys think defines Asian-American identity in this country? Is that even a fair question to ask?
Jeff: There’s so much discourse about it, it makes me feel great. Me and my partner, we're just having this discussion the other day, you know, like some days, it's like, we don't want to be Asian-American. You know, it's embarrassing to be Asian-American and other days. It's sort of like, yeah, like, you know, loud and proud and everything in between all the feelings in between. So the one thing that is clear in this particular moment is that violence is defining what it means to be Asian-American.
Bao: Ocean Vuong says this really beautiful line in his book Appropriately Gorgeous. He writes, because a sunset like survival exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen. But to be seen allows you to be hunted. And I think we've been so trying to fight for our visibility, to be seen to be called Asian American or to to to to kind of self proclaim or to proudly proclaim this identity of Asian American. But it also in a way puts a target on our backs, right? Sadly. And I hope. For me, being anything, being a human, being Asian-American and being Vietnamese, being American, it's all a journey, right? We have to always recognize that that fluidity in that, that evolution of identity, otherwises will get stuck in many ways and not be able to define who we are on our own terms.
Jeff: Be water my friend.
Bao: I mean, just get Bruce Lee to say it. I mean, you should just just end it with Bruce Lee.
[Soundbite from “Be Water”]
Bruce Lee: Now you put water into a cup it becomes the cup…water can flow, or it can crash, be water my friend.
[Transition music begins and runs under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Bao and Jeff mentioned that violence is a big part of what defines Asian-American identity, especially now. So hang onto that idea, we’re going to be looking a little more closely at that in a later episode. But though Bruce Lee is one of the most famous Asian Americans, the word Asian American didn’t even exist for most of his life.
[Transition music fade out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Asian American is a relatively new term that’s now been widely accepted, but I started thinking about its history when I heard from a man named Gene Yoon, who lives in Lake County California, who says he just wants to be seen as American.
Gene Yoon: When the term Asian American first came into my consciousness when I was a youngish teenager in the early 80s, I never really liked the way that sounded to me because it sounded like it was a political term being used as a racial term.
Sarah: Gene is right actually — Asian American is a term that’s both political and racial. It’s a word that was first created in 1968 by two students at Berkeley, Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who wanted to create a term to unify a group of people who were often lumped together, in part to build political power. Here’s Catherine Ceniza Choy, an Asian American studies professor at UC Berkeley.
Catherine Ceniza Choy: Prior to the 1960s, who we think of as Asian Americans, those people of Asian descent were usually known by names and often derogatory names that were not chosen by them.
Sarah: She says many people forget that Asian American was actually a word created to tie Asian Americans to the fight for racial justice for all people of color.
Catherine Ceniza Choy: It is a category and a term with a history. It was rooted very much in political solidarity with other racialized groups.
Sarah: That being the case…
Catherine Ceniza Choy: On the one hand I think it has been quite successful in ways that so many Americans and Asian Americans may not realize. The fact that the term Asian American is so widely used today.
Sarah: But even when the word was created there were concerns about categorizing a diverse group of people as a monolith, and questions around if these groups really had anything in common with each other.
Catherine Ceniza Choy: Now there are limitations, one of the impacts was a concern about marginalizing, so even from the beginning, this panethnicity, this coalition building, there were issues in terms of what unites us as a group.
[Theme music begins and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: I agree that some people think there are issues when it comes to what unites us. I believe there are common threads that unite all of us who are categorized under the banner of Asian American, and I’d like this podcast to explore those points of connection. Personally, I feel Mid Pacific … and sometimes I wish I could be a little more firm in my identity … like my grandfather.
[Theme music up and then back under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Stick around for our next episode, where we’ll talk about some of the first Asian American enclaves in California - Chinatowns - and what their existence means for Asian American identity today.
[Theme music up in full and fade out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
[Theme music starts in full, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: “Mid Pacific” is a CapRadio production, reported and hosted by me, Sarah Mizes Tan.
Our producer is Jen Picard. Associate Producer is Jireh Deng. Antonio Muniz mixed the sound.
We had editing help from Nick Miller and Shayne Nuesca. Sally Schilling is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to Alyssa Jeong Perry.
Chris Bruno is in charge of marketing. Our designs were created by Marisa Espiritu. Renee Thompson is our Digital Products Manager.
Our theme song is Can’t Hold Us Back by Polartropica. You can find it on iTunes or Spotify.
To make sure you don’t miss a single episode, be sure to subscribe, follow or add us to your podcast feed.
Thanks for listening to “Mid Pacific.”
[Theme music swells for chorus and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]