The Core of Asian American Identity

Asian Alliance for Mental Health
5 min readSep 30, 2021

By Patrick Tang, UW Sophomore

Photos by Patrick Tang

What does it mean to be a third-generation Asian American? Well, that would depend on who you are asking. Contrary to popular belief that all Asian Americans share similar experiences, our experiences do not fit neatly into a monolithic category. Similarity exists, but this does not equate to sameness. One angst experienced by my generation of fellow Asian Americans is the constant need to explain why our backgrounds do not uniformly mirror each other and that we do not know every Asian person out there. If we are feeling extra generous, we might even pull out a map to show the vast geographic areas covered by the ginormous identity container, “Asia.” Everyday conversations often overlook the diversity of cultures and ethnicities within Asia, as well as how that affects the Asian American experience. To have me define what it means to be a third-generation Asian American is problematic — hence the identity crisis experienced by my fellow Asian Americans. For me, it’s a crisis involving the powerful tension between not being “Asian enough” and not being “American enough.”

Not Asian Enough

Growing up, I was taught to always respect my elders. My grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life. But, I don’t really know anything about him. I know that he liked to drink Blue Label Johnnie Walker, shoot the rabbits eating his cabbage in the backyard with his slingshot, and the reason that my family came here to America after being taken prisoner in the Korean War. I don’t know anything else about my grandpa. Not even his name. When he passed away a couple of years back, I realized that I never was able to have a heart-to-heart talk with him. He spoke broken English and I do not speak Korean. My parents only spoke English with me and my sister. I will always regret not knowing who he was and his experiences as both an immigrant and a prisoner in the Korean War. When I went to his funeral service, the only thought that ran through my mind was that I was not Asian enough to speak Korean…

There are a couple of Asian stereotypes that I’ve always heard growing up. Asians get good grades and Asians can’t play sports. I am a living contradiction of both of those stereotypes. UW was one of my “reach” schools. My SAT scores were so low for the caliber of classes I was taking and definitely below average when you look at the 2019 and 2020 incoming freshman statistics. Looking back, I am so thankful that my parents forced me to rewrite my college application a countless amount of times. Compared to other Asians, I am a second-class representation of the “smart Asian” stereotype. However, I make up for my less than stellar grades with my athleticism. I’ve always been a multi-sport athlete who’s played competitive soccer all my life. Even after moving out of the house, I can still hear the mantra of my parents,“Stop going outside so much. Sit down and study!” ringing in my ears. I guess I am not Asian enough to have that perfect 4.0 GPA…

Not American Enough

Growing up, I noticed that to some extent, my White friends can openly discuss their mental health with their parents. In contrast, in Asian homes, there exists a large stigma around mental health that makes it difficult for children to openly discuss their mental health. This is because our parents and grandparents have embraced the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality to overcome the many challenges associated with their life as an immigrant. I am no stranger to the stories of the struggles that our grandparents experienced in order to grant us the American life. However, this knowledge places immense and overwhelming pressure on us to succeed. This approach to life, especially when it relates to mental health, cannot be passed onto our generation. Although I would like to discuss these feelings now, I am not American enough to comfortably discuss my mental health with others…

As I grew older, my identity as an American slowly started to diminish, while my resentment to the seemingly innocent question of “where are you from?” escalated. I’ve lived in the U.S. my entire life. I eat more burgers than kimchi, listen to Eminem more than BTS, and use a fork more than chopsticks. I’ve never even visited Korea, my “home country.” That one singular question, “where are you from?” represents the wall that keeps me from identifying as an American. At some point, I got tired of trying to explain to people that I’m from Minnesota and not from Asia. Instead, I’ve started to say what people want to hear, and I tell them that my family is from Korea. In those moments, I wish to be only American…

I have an identity inundated with demeaning stereotypes throughout American history. One stereotype that stuck out to me would be comments on my Asian appearance. Slanted eyes, short height, small “assets.” The first time I realized I was Asian in appearance occurred when watching a Youtube video titled, “which race would you not date?” Nine out of ten people stated that they would not date an Asian or more specifically, Asian men. Unlike Asian women who have been fetishized in the West, Asian men have been desexualized and belittled. I am not American enough to be more than just a racial stereotype…

What Am I?

Am I Asian or American? I would say it’s both in a very contextualized way. Identifying as only Asian takes away a large part of my experiences growing up in America and my familiarity with American culture. It also works to perpetuate the stereotype that Asians can never be “American.” This line of thinking assists in maintaining a racist system that harms Asian Americans. On the other hand, identifying only as American dismisses my heritage and the experiences of my ancestors. In a very important way, it also dismisses the many systemic barriers that Asian Americans face in America. So, my identity is not simply what I define it to be. My identity should also consider the systems that help shape my experiences.

So if I’m too Asian for White people, and too White for Asians, where do I belong? What is my identity? This is the crux of the identity crisis that many of my fellow third-generation Asian Americans experience. Many of my fellow third-generation Asian Americans may identify with the term “In-betweeners” used by YouTubers like Wongfu. This term is seductive in that, on the surface, it helps to capture the feeling of being neither here nor there: not being “Asian enough” and not being “American enough.’’ What this term does though is that it takes away our sense of belonging to a specific community. We are neither here nor there. We exist in this nebulous place of “in-betweenness.” However, we are here. Living, laughing, and crying. So, what makes up “here?” That is for each of us to decide. Here, for me, is in America with my friends that I call “family.” I belong here with them in America with my unique story of being Asian and American.

Many thanks to our photographer Patrick Tang for sharing this article in our Summer Blog Project! Stay tuned for more narratives! If you would like to contribute a story regarding Asian mental health, please contact aamhuw@gmail.com for more information.

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Asian Alliance for Mental Health

We aim to de-stigmatize mental health through open dialogue and multimedia storytelling to bring visibility to mental health issues within Asian communities.