Better World

6 things to say to your kids today to teach them “Asian” isn’t enough

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There are at least 18.9 million Asian Americans living in the U.S. But have you stopped to think about what that means? Do your kids know about the incredible diversity that exists WITHIN the label “Asian”?

The “Asian American” label and identity can be complex, but there are plenty of parts that kids can understand! Read on for ideas of how to expand your family’s understanding of the diversity around you—with a helpful script for what to say.

“Asian American” is often too general

You can start by explaining to kids, “The word ‘Asian’ includes people who can trace their roots from one of 48 different countries. Asia is the largest continent in the world, in both size and population.”

“So most Asian Americans would call themselves something more specific like ‘Filipino’ or ‘Sri Lankan’ before using the label ‘Asian American.’”

When various Asian populations first migrated to the U.S., they didn’t group themselves together under the “Asian” umbrella. And to this day, about two-thirds of Asian Americans still identify most strongly with their specific ethnicity, not the label “Asian American.”

But “Asian American” can be useful

“The label ‘Asian American’ was invented in 1968 by activists who wanted to bring people together to fight the unfair treatment that a lot of different Asian groups were facing.”

“For example, Chinese people would be hurt when Japanese people were treated unfairly, because most non-Asians didn’t know the difference between the two ethnicities anyway.”

“Many people still use this ‘umbrella’ term Asian American because it makes them feel stronger together and motivates them to support people of other Asian ethnicities.”

Plus, the new term was a welcome alternative to the commonly used (and sometimes derogatory) label “Oriental.”

How “Pacific Islander” was added

“Pacific Islander was added to the Asian racial group on the U.S. Census in the 1980s. Even though they’re not grouped together on the Census anymore, some people still use ‘API’ to be more inclusive.”

“But many think these groups shouldn’t be lumped together, because the Pacific Islands don’t have that much in common with other Asian countries.”

Being grouped under API can erase many of the issues Pacific Islander communities face, like poverty, health disparities, and loss of control over their own land.

Many Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian people also believe that their important racial and cultural experiences get lost when they’re under the Asian/API racial banner.

Seeing beyond East Asian

“When most people hear ‘Asian’ or ‘AAPI,’ they first think of East Asian cultures like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. But there’s a whole lot more under the umbrella, of course.”

Try this activity:

  • Look at a map of the countries of Asia, and a map of Pacific Island nations.
  • Say the name of each country.
  • Notice how Asia stretches as far west as Turkey and as far east as Japan, and how the Pacific islands are scattered across the largest ocean in the world.
  • Does that change your idea of what “Asian” really means?

Diversity within specific groups

“A lot of countries in Asia and the Pacific are very diverse. So even saying something like ‘Chinese American’ is not always specific, because China is a huge country that has more languages than all of Europe combined.”

Just one example: China is home to 56 ethnic groups and 302 languages. Plus, there are over 40 million people of Chinese descent who live in countries other than China.

Since people from Asia and the Pacific have been moving around the globe for centuries, AAPI people you meet might be more recently “from” a country in Latin America, Africa, Europe, etc.

Different waves of immigration

“Some Asian families have been in America for centuries, and others have just arrived. So depending on when and why they arrived, these communities could have totally different experiences.”

Asian communities began settling in America as early as 1763 for Filipinos, and 1849 for Chinese immigrants.

Many, many other Asian immigrants arrived after 1965 when anti-Asian immigration rules were expanded. Others arrived as war refugees from countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia.

Some API families never had to immigrate at all, since they were from territories/states like Guam or Hawaii that came under U.S. control.

Many other ways to be Asian

“There are a lot of other ways people fit into the ‘Asian American’ label. Asian American people might be from a multiracial family, or adopted, or have a non-Asian name. They might speak an Asian language, or not.”

Almost a third of Asian American newlyweds married a non-Asian person—so as you can imagine, many Asian American children and families are increasingly multiracial.

In addition, 17 percent of all adoptees in the U.S. are Asian, and 90 percent of them are being raised by parents of a different race—adding to the rich complexity of the Asian American identity.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.