On Asian American Pacific Islander Representation

I can’t recall how many times someone of non-Chinese ethnicity has come up and greeted me with a quick “nihao.” While I am Chinese American, these experiences don’t give me a sense of solidarity or friendliness, which I believe is often times the goal. Instead, feelings isolation and otherness follow, as I question why these people don’t see me as an American first. I believe the perception of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners” in this country is exacerbated by the lack of representation of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in multiple facets of life. From the political sphere to the media to CEO positions to something as mundane as children’s toys, Asian Americans are largely missing. This lack of representation contributes to a multitude of other issues that I believe continue to suppress Asian Americans, despite the fact that this, too, is our country.

The lack of representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in both local and national levels of government means that, in some cases, our basic needs have been neglected. Chinatowns, for instance, started as an effort of ghettoization. The inconsistency of the San Francisco fire department’s response resulted in the Chinatown creating their own hydrant system to ward off fires started by outsiders. While the tension between white Americans and Chinatowns is not what it used to be, the environmental and basic safety issues in Chinatowns continue for residents today. Several urban planning initiatives have ignored Chinatown residents, demolishing and forcing relocation, encroaching on their neighborhoods or dividing them all together with highways. A 1981 dispute in the New York Chinatown over garbage collection again showed that it was not accountability on the state’s part, but resident action that resolved issues for the Chinese Americans in the community.

The issue of representation for Asian Americans in government is evident, as there are a handful of Asian Americans in Congress, none currently serving in the Presidential Cabinet, and just two current Asian American state governors. This deficit does not come with a simple solution, but I think that the efforts of organizations such as OCA and CAPAL are making a great effort to encourage Asian American/Pacific Islander leadership and advocacy in young people. Furthermore, I believe that the role of the President, the highest office in our nation, should be attainable to naturalized citizens. An amendment to the constitution is necessary, so that young Asian American children can have the highest of dreams for their futures.

How can children imagine themselves in these high power positions when they can’t see themselves in meaningful roles in books, movies, and even toys? In 2011, American Girl retired their Asian face mold, leaving current Asian American girls without a doll who represents them. In her place is a racially ambiguous doll who could be potentially Asian, Latina, or even white. This sense of invisibility from small aspects of life, like toys, to larger areas, including American history, make it harder for young Asian Americans to find idols with whom they can identify, contributing to a sense of isolation. Currently, Asian American teens have the highest suicide rate in the country, a statistic that I find absolutely unacceptable.

The cultural competency of therapists and mental health professionals as well as being able to offer more services in Asian languages are a couple of critical aspects in addressing mental health matters within the Asian American community. In addition to response services, I believe confronting mental health also requires a lot of preventive work. Providing Asian Americans with more role models and non-stereotypical roles in the media is a measure that I think could really positively contribute to resolving some of the current concerns.

It is for these reasons that articles like Nicholas Kristof’sThe Asian Advantage” further marginalize and are a slap in the face to AAPI communities that have historically suffered and continue to suffer today. The fact that the average American citizen let alone an otherwise respected journalist could come to such a public conclusion about the Asian American community further shows how hidden our issues are on a national level. In a racially contentious time, there are many problems facing the Asian American community, but I think the lack of representation is at the fore of many core systemic issues and must be actively addressed.

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