Oriental / Asian / Asian – American / Asian American

Adapted from a letter I wrote on March 7, 2005 to the Daily Illini that was, of course, not published.

I thank you for your coverage of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month’s events (March 7th’s ” Asian-Pacific community celebrates history through beauty pageant“), but there are a couple of corrections that desperately need to be rectified: the terms “Asian-Pacific” and “Asian-American” are inaccurate. A better (though not without its own issues) term is “Asian American” without the hyphen because it denotes an American who is of Asian descent. The term “Asian” is used to describe what kind of American I am, because I am an American. The color blue-green is not half blue and half green; in the same way, “Asian-American” is not half American and half Asian. American and Asian identities are not mutually exclusive. “Asian-Pacific” without “American” would refer to a person whose political citizenship is in Asia or in the Pacific Islands. However, even that term does not make sense because one’s political citizenship cannot be linked to a continent; it must be linked to a country.

The term “Asian American” was first coined in 1967 by then student activist Yuji Ichioka, founder of the Asian American Political Alliance. He founded “Asian American” in resistance to the more commonly used “oriental,” a politically loaded offensive word that has condescending, colonial and marginal connotations. Yuji did not include a hyphen, and God rest his soul, neither should we.

While there are some who prefer to call themselves “Asian-Americans,” or “Asian” or “Korean,” etc., using the terms “Asian American,” “Asian Pacific American,” or more specifically “Korean American,” or “Chinese American,” and so forth is more widely practiced. UCLA, home of the nation’s leading Asian American Studies programSan Francisco State University, the birthplace of Asian American Studies and home of the nation’s only College of Ethnic Studies, and our very own Asian American Studies Program here at the U of I, do not include a hyphen.

Whether we prefer “Asian American” or “Asian Pacific American” is a whole other issue, and I defer to the Association of Asian American Studiesto answer that question.

Sarah Park 
graduate student