'There are no Asians in Asia, only people with national identities, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese and Filipino. But on this side of the Pacific, there are Asian Americans', wrote the historian Ronald Takaki. This quote juxtaposes the diversity and heterogeneity of individuals in Asia with the American reality of their pan-ethnic conflation.
In my recently published Identities article, 'There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States', I explore this idea empirically with a longitudinal study of Chinese international students and their racialisation in the United States. I argue that it is through a process of racialisation – a process that involves learning about the concept of 'race' and one’s own social categorisation under such a paradigm – that those arriving from a country like China or Japan could eventually come to identify as 'Asian' or 'Asian American'.
My study draws on two-stage interviews with 15 Chinese international students. The first interviews were conducted within two weeks of their arrival in the United States. I did so in order to capture the Chinese students’ initial understandings of race and their racial identities, before much acculturation processes could take place. I found, not surprisingly, that most Chinese students at this stage identified strongly with their national identity as Chinese and dismissed the category 'Asian' as a label of little significance to them.
I then waited six months before carrying out a second round of interviews. What I found were striking changes. Consider, for example, the following quote from a respondent named Ruby:
'Before [in China], I don’t really define myself as Asian because you are in Asia. So you don’t realize it. But here, I think because we all look the same – the face – so there’s many things we can relate ... It’s just I never realized it before. But now I think it’s because, hmm, how people treat you – the native American people treat you. Or, as I said, because we look the same, so I get to make friends with – I actually never expect that I would make friends with Asian Americans or people from Japan, that it would be easier to make friends with them than white people. I think it’s because of the community. And because of the sympathy. Because I think you may feel that, oh, she’s in the same position as me'.
This response represents a significant pivot from the first interview when Ruby dismissed the label 'Asian' and insisted on emphasising her Chinese identity. Crucially, Ruby is quite explicit that it was her experiences in the United States that engendered this newfound awareness of the significance of her Asian identity, citing, for instance, how 'native American people treat you', and her consequent feelings that other Asians in the United States are 'in the same position as me'.
I argue that this reveals the underlying process of racialisation in the United States not just for Chinese international students, but migrants more generally. Foreigners typically arrive in the United States with a limited understanding of US conceptualisations of race or the social significance of their own racial status. However, over time, through experiences living and interacting in US society, they become acculturated to US racial norms. It is through such racialisation processes that Chinese international students 'become' Asian in the United States.
Blog post by Keitaro Okura, Yale University, USA
Read the full article: Okura, Keitaro. There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1663053