Negotiating the Hyphen in Asian-American


When I wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, I do not see an Asian face. I see me. I see Amy.

It’s not until I step outside and interact with others that I am forced to realize: I am an Asian female, and I look different.

For example, just the other weekend, I was out with five other friends who were also Asian. As we were entering a restaurant, a woman stopped us to ask: “Are you all part of an Asian thing?” (True story.)

We were all too shocked to respond.

The woman then took our silence as confusion and clarified: “I mean, are you all coming from the same function? Like an Asian function?”

At that moment, we were not seen as full Americans. We were seen as Asians, and it was somehow very important for that woman to figure us out.

As Ken Tanaka brilliantly points out in What Kind of Asian Are You?, Asian-American identity is questioned on a daily basis.

And in this case, even our friendships were questioned. We must have been hanging out together only because of our shared Asian-ness.

And although this happened weeks ago, I still keep thinking back on this incident and the person I see in the mirror.

When do we stop being American and start being Asian?

Why, for instance, do we not ask African-Americans if they are coming from a “Black thing” and question which part of Africa they are from originally?

Is being Asian and American mutually exclusive? How do we negotiate the hyphen in Asian-American?

To a certain degree, I have embraced being Asian and its half-true stereotypes.

I am still a bit self-conscious when I buy sushi at the supermarket or order dishes called Mandarin Sesame Chicken Salad, but you know what? I am Asian, and I like Asian food. I dig Korean barbecues, I crave spicy ahi tuna all the time, and I think white rice tastes so, so good.

Growing up, my family owned a Chinese restaurant. I’m good at math. And yes, I used to play the flute.

However, I also know that by checking off the box marked “Asian/Pacific Islander,” I am being placed in a broad category composed of many different religions, cultures, geographies, and languages. The term encompasses Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Laotians.

Which brings me to my second point: Although I embrace being “Asian” and what society has defined as being “Asian,” I intend to speak up for myself.

“Don’t you all eat (insert dogs or cats)?”

When I hear that question, I know that “you all” actually means East Asians, and I am being asked to represent an ambiguous and incorrect idea of Asian. At that moment, the fact that I was born and raised in the US is irrelevant.

In response to this question, I ask, “Who do you mean by ‘you all?’”

I clarify that “I am from South Florida” and that “No, Floridians do not eat their pets.” Neither do Asians.

These stereotypes assume that my Asian-ness debunks any sort of American-ness. Since I look Asian, I must be different from other “normal” (read: white) Americans.

As an Asian-American female, I am still the victim of Asian fetishes.

Look no further than Creepy White Guys on Tumblr for proof of the daily struggles Asian-American women face when using online dating sites.

Since I look Asian, I must have a small vagina. Since I look Asian, I must be sexually subservient. I must also, as it were, speak softly with my head bowed.

But only by debunking these false myths can we regain our balance on the tightrope.

We all need to speak up for ourselves and against across-the-board stereotypes.

Most of the time, I overcompensate my American-ness to reclaim that hyphen in Asian-American. I pay the price by disowning my Asian-ness.

For me, part of negotiating the hyphen in Asian-American means feeling comfortable speaking Mandarin in public.

I still hesitate over speaking Mandarin in public with my family because I am hyper-aware of the looks I get from others. These looks, whether they intend to or not, mark me as a perpetual foreigner.

All of a sudden, I feel the urge to insert some English into my conversation. I need to show people that I can speak English, too, and I do not have a foreign accent.

The more people emphasize my Asian-ness, the more I push it away.

But you know what? I am Asian-American. That means I am not fully Asian, because I was born and raised on American soil; yet I am not fully American, because I eat and actually prefer “strange” foods.

I am that hyphen in between. And only I get to define what that means.

I get to speak my native tongue whenever I feel like it. I get to listen to K-pop and hip-hop without having to explain myself or feel embarrassed.

It means I get to be friends with and date people who look like me without it being “an Asian thing.” Because it’s not an Asian thing or an American thing. It’s my thing.

When I hang out with people who do not look like me, it’s also not an American thing or me “selling out.” It’s my thing.

In the end, it’s not about negotiating the hyphen in Asian-American. It’s about redefining the hyphen.

There should be no negotiation. I will not allow my Asian-American identity to be held hostage. I will not be forced to negotiate my Asian-American identity under other people’s terms.

Being an Asian-American means being me. I set the terms.

The hyphen in Asian-American means being both Asian and American. It means not allowing either my Asian-ness or my American-ness to define who I am as a human being.

It’s about staying true to the person I see in the mirror every morning.


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Amy Sun is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She currently lives in DC and rues cold weather. Amy coaches new teachers in the classroom by day and teaches graduate-level classes by night. She watches at least two cat videos each day, loves to talk about zombie apocalypse escape plans, and needs to get paid for her people-watching (because she is very good at it). Read her articles here.