Asian Americans report complicated feelings toward pan-ethnic label, study shows

Story at a glance


  • Pew Research Center released one of the largest analyses Tuesday of the experiences of Asian Americans. 

  • In the analysis, over 250 people helped researchers better understand Asian American experiences.  

  • In order to conduct the study, researchers created 66 focus groups with native- and foreign-born people.  

Most Asian Americans report having a complicated relationship with the pan-ethnic label, according to a newly published survey.  

On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center published its largest analysis on the experiences of Asian Americans, which was based on numerous focus group discussions.  

In a data essay and accompanying documentary, focus group members spoke about the shortcomings of the term “Asian American,” how people of Asian descent will often be treated or viewed as foreign even if they were born in the United States, and the impact of harmful Asian American stereotypes.  


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Researchers highlighted a common sentiment among respondents that using the term “Asian American” or “Asian” is less of an active choice and more of an imposed one.  

“Coming to a big country like [the United States], when people ask where we are from … there are some people who have no idea about Bhutan, so we end up introducing ourselves as being Asian,” one respondent said.  

For the analysis, Pew researchers last fall created 66 focus groups with a total of 264 participants organized along 18 distinct Asian ethnic group origins.  

Focus group members had a range of household incomes as well as ancestral or recent countries of origin including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Chian, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kora and Nepal.  

Several respondents also noted how viewing Asians as a monolithic group is becoming more common since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The first [thing people think of me as] is just Chinese. ‘You guys are just Chinese.’ I’m not the only one who felt [this] after the COVID-19 outbreak. ‘Whether you’re Japanese, Korean, or Southeast Asian, you’re just Chinese [to Americans]. I should avoid you.’ I’ve felt this way before, but I think I’ve felt it a bit more after the COVID-19 outbreak,” one respondent said. 

For the purposes of this analysis, the terms Asian, Asian American and Asians living in the United States were used interchangeably and referred to U.S. adults who identify as Asian, either alone or along with another racial or Hispanic identity.  

Conversations for the analysis were conducted in 18 different languages and were moderated by members of the participants own ethnic groups, according to a release. 

“This study aims to expand the depth and breadth of our understanding of racial and ethnic identity by asking Asian Americans to describe their attitudes and experiences in their own words, without preset response options,” Associate Director of Race and Ethnicity at the Pew Research Center Neil G. Ruiz said in a  Q and A published with the analysis findings.  

Focus group members mainly focused on their experiences living in the United States, immigration and refugee experiences. U.S.-born participants shared how their experiences in how school shaped their identity and the pressures to “fit a certain stereotype.”  

Among the analysis’ findings, one major takeaway was the damage caused by the “model minority” myth associated with Asian Americans.  

“As an Asian person, I feel like there’s that stereotype that Asian students are high achievers academically. They’re good at math and science. … I was a pretty mediocre student, and math and science were actually my weakest subjects, so I feel like it’s either way you lose,” said one focus group participant, a late 20-something year old U.S-born woman of Korean descent.  

“Teachers expect you to fit a certain stereotype and if you’re not, then you’re a disappointment, but at the same time, even if you are good at math and science, that just means that you’re fitting a stereotype. It’s [actually] your own achievement, but your teachers might think, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re Asian,’ and that diminishes your achievement.” 


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