• Project Angel Island

Are All Asians the Same?

By: Himani Mehta


I touched upon this question in a previous article about affirmative action and I’ll touch upon it again: Is it fair for the western world to treat Asians as one homogenous group with the same experiences and opportunities?

When you hear the word, “Asian,” what do you think about? My family is from India, which any third grader can tell you is located in Asia. So then why have I constantly been told, “You’re not Asian, you’re Indian!” while simultaneously forced to mark the “Asian” category on forms because there’s no category for Desis? Why do movies always think they’re doing their part to include Asians by including one Eastern Asian character when our entire continent is clearly so diverse?

Race-based studies and even programs for the underprivileged children often do not recognize Asians as minorities despite the fact that by the time Asian American students reach the end of high school, 7 out of 10 of them are not prepared for college-level coursework. This is one of the many detrimental effects of the “model minority myth,” which portrays all Asian Americans (as well as Pacific Islanders) as overachieving students with “tiger moms” who force them to excel in math and music.

This overachieving stereotype stems from the fact that many Asians have come to the US on work visas since around the 1960’s. Those workers often come from places where the culture puts a high emphasis on education for social mobility and thus push their children to excel in school. But the Asian continent is so diverse that it’s almost primitive to characterize all Asian immigrants as such.

Just like anywhere else in the world, Asian immigrants come from all walks of life. Many Asians are refugees of war (especially Southeast Asian immigrants after the Vietnam War) and don’t necessarily have the same resources--or the same means to afford homes in high-income areas--as other Asians. Some immigrants are victims of extreme poverty much worse than we see here in the US, looking to create a better life. Other immigrants arrived as a result of family plans that allowed them to come over after family members who were already in the US. The bottom line is that not every Asian immigrant’s top priority is for their children to excel in school. Some are just barely managing to get by. But the fact that large institutions are so quick to throw such a heterogenous population under one homogenous label has dire implications.

In the medical field, for example, knowledge on the health and bodies of the AAPI population is often either limited, skewed, or flat-out inaccurate. According to a study published by experts Ariel T. Holland and Latha P. Palaniappan, “Although demographic information has been collected on Asian-American subgroups for quite some time, the U.S. Census often reports on population characteristics for Asian Americans as a group. It was not until 2000 that the Census separated Asians and Pacific Islanders in data reports… Although the separation of Asian from Pacific Islanders is an improvement, differences among diverse Asian-American subgroups are often masked when data are reported for these subgroups as an aggregated (clustered) group.”

This perceived homogeneity has led to unfair extrapolation (for example, results from a study done on Japanese patients being extended to other Asian patients), much like how many of the same stereotypes hold for Asian people across diverse backgrounds.

Aggregation is extremely harmful in education, especially when it comes to sub-groups that don’t fit the overachieving stereotype. As Samoan-American Lucy Hu recounts, “In higher education, Pacific Islanders’ inclusion in ‘Asian-Pacific Islanders’ closes them off to attention and support in attaining educational achievement.” Robert Teranishi, professor of education and Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the API umbrella perpetuates the myth that all Asians and Pacific Islanders are academically advantaged, which ‘is misleading and really damaging,’ and ‘it renders these communities invisible.’”

It’s also very problematic to label all South Asians as “Indian,” especially when the cultures are all so vastly different. Those of Desi descent also include people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and the Maldives alongside India. Each of these countries has not only its own culture but also various ethnicities within themselves.

Throwing Desis, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and Eastern Asians (among other groups) under the same umbrella term of “API” is a form of cultural erasure that has negative implications for almost every aspect of their lives.

This isn’t about creating divisions between people; it’s about recognizing diversity so we can all, as a collective, do better to create equal opportunities for everyone.


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