Tag Archives: Asian American


20 Years Later, Margaret Cho Looks Back on ‘All-American Girl’

All Grown Up

Margaret Cho reflects on All-American Girl, 20 years after its primetime debut on ABC.


In the history of network television, ’90s sitcom All-American Girl faded in and out faster than a thumbprint on a Hypercolor T-shirt.

But for people who looked like me, it was monumental.

On the evening of September 14, 1994, Asian Americans from coast to coast sat in front of their TV sets and held their breath as the opening credits appeared and a spunky Margaret Cho walked down a staircase in a ripped denim jacket and feathered bangs, while talking like a Valley Girl on a Zack Morris-style cordless phone. Collectively, we murmured to ourselves, “Please don’t let this show suck.”

All-American Girl was the first network sitcom to feature a predominantly Asian American cast—a milestone that brought tempered hope for a group that had for decades been reduced to kung fu fighters, dragon ladies and kooky bucktoothed neighbors in mainstream media portrayals. Cho played Margaret Kim, a college student living at home with her culture-clashed Korean American family that included her bookstore-owning mom and dad (Jodi Long and Clyde Kusatsu), older brother (B.D. Wong) and zany grandmother (Amy Hill).

ABC billed the show as based on the comedy of Cho, a then-25-year-old rising star on the stand-up circuit, loved (and sometimes hated) for her loud, raucous and unapologetically crude routines. (“I wanted it to be called ‘The Margaret Cho Show’ because I am such a f-ckin’ egomaniac,” she said onstage before the pilot aired.)

But The Margaret Cho Show it wasn’t, and that may have doomed the series from day one. Instead of inspiring laughter, All-American Girl mostly brought looks of confusion. Critics panned the show for its bad jokes, stereotyped characters and banal storylines that endorsed, rather than shattered, ethnic myths. The show’s ultimate cancellation after 19 episodes sent Cho into a spiral of depression and drug addiction, as detailed in her 2002 autobiography, I’m The One That I Want.

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Twenty years later, Cho, 45, has gained perspective on the experience, and with the progress in the media and society over the past two decades, holds high hopes for Fresh Off The Boat—a new ABC sitcom based on Eddie Huang’s bestselling memoir about growing up as a hip-hop loving kid in suburban Orlando. It’s the first network TV show since All-American Girl to be centered on an Asian American family.

Cho talks with KoreAm about All-American Girl and what it meant for Asian Americans, who almost never saw faces like theirs on TV. Perhaps writer Philip W. Chung summed it up best when he wrote in a 1994 Los Angeles Times column: “The most incredible thing about the series is that it even exists.”

Where were you in your life just before All-American Girl?
I was doing stand-up comedy, and I was traveling a lot and working a lot. I was still really young, but I wanted to become an adult, and comedy was what I thought would be the fastest path to adulthood, and it really was. I never thought about the overreaching kinds of things like race and identity. I just wanted to get out of the kind of environment that I was living in. I didn’t want to do what my family expected of me. I wasn’t going to school at the time, so that was already, like, amazingly weird and brave for an Asian American.

How did the show come about?
TV networks were giving development deals to stand-up comedians. There was a lot of that happening, a ton more than now.

Did you have much creative control?
No. No. I didn’t know how to get that, and it was never offered to me.

What did you think when you first read the script?
I thought it was really too much of a kids’ show, and it wasn’t really what I did as a stand-up comedian. They had understood me as a performer wrongly. But I wanted the show to be on the air, so I wanted to be whatever they wanted me to be. For me, this could be job security in an industry where you never know if you’re going to work again. So I just wanted to do anything to make sure the show would happen. I didn’t feel like I had the choice to argue for what I needed.

As the star of the first Asian American family sitcom on network TV, the pressure must have been immense.
I was alone in the situation. Nobody had any advice for me. I couldn’t ask anybody because nobody knew what I was going through. I was the only person who had ever done this. I had nobody who could tell me what the right move was. I was too young to understand what to do or how to deal with it, and everyone just wanted to get a show on the air. And people didn’t realize that having the first Asian American family on TV comes with a lot of cultural baggage that needs to be addressed.

And to top it off, you were criticized for your weight. (In I’m The One That I Want, Cho wrote that she was forced to lose weight rapidly—30 pounds in two weeks—which led to serious kidney failure.)
That was a major thing that came up with the initial camera tests. But it had never come up throughout the development process, and it wasn’t until we were very close to shooting that I heard that complaint. It’s a really terrifying thing to be told, “Well, you don’t qualify for this job that you’ve been a part of all this time because you’re too fat.” I have a feeling, though, that it really wasn’t about my weight. Why wouldn’t they have said something much earlier? I think they just didn’t know how to photograph Asian faces. Asian American faces, at that point, were so foreign, and they didn’t know what to do with people who were different.

When the show aired, what was the reaction from the Asian American community?
The reaction was very mixed. A lot of the younger people were excited about it because it was the first time they saw Asian Americans on TV. That’s a really big deal. Other people were angry that it wasn’t what I normally did as a comedian. And I think other people were, like, waiting to be offended by the show, but were more offended by the fact that I was chosen to do that role. My comedy is much more edgy than anything I would do on mainstream television, and my move toward mainstream television was somehow considered an offensive thing.

People were also concerned about whether you were “too Asian” or “not Asian enough.”
The weirdness of being the first Asian American—I guess, for lack of a better word—star, is that people are constantly judging you. They’re asking, ‘Where do you fit on this idea of who we are?’ With ethnic identity, there’s a right way to be and a wrong way to be, and that’s a really weird thing. The panic comes from not seeing Asians Americans on television, so the few images we do have of them become overly scrutinized.

If you’re coming into visibility, you’re the first person to write the story, and it’s very hard to do that first. What is your identity if you’ve never seen yourself before? How do you carve it out of nothing? That’s a really challenging thing as a performer.

What the All-American Girl did was point out that we are invisible. You don’t understand invisibility until you realize that you’re not invisible anymore. It absolutely was more important than just television or just entertainment. We’re talking about this idea of visibility versus power in society. It’s a huge, huge thing.

In the past 20 years, how have media portrayals of Asian Americans changed?
There still is a lot of invisibility. But it’s better. Certainly, it’s better. There are many more Asian American characters, and the entire industry has expanded exponentially. There are so many television channels and so much more media, including online, and everything that we didn’t even have before. Now people can sort of enjoy [shows with Asian Americans] for the comedy itself, and the humor comes from this organic place. It’s a good thing.

What are your thoughts on the next Asian American family sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat?
I love what they’re doing with Fresh Off The Boat. It’s really funny, the cast is really talented, and the writing is really strong. I really love Eddie Huang’s point of view and perspective. His humor is close to what I would want to do if I were to create a show. It’s like, how do you figure out who you are when you don’t see yourself out there? Here’s a kid who does just that. He finds himself. I think that’s really powerful.

Eddie and I have been in really close contact since the show started, and I feel like, oh my God, my experience actually is really valuable here. I’ll tell him things I wish I had known. What people are buying, in his brand and his image, is identity. His fans want to see themselves in him. This show can be an extension of that, so I think I’m helping him understand his importance, even though I didn’t understand mine at the time.

Cul-Intro-AS14-americangirl Cul-Intro-AS14-FOB
(ABOVE) The cast of All-American Girl; (BELOW) the cast of Fresh Off the Boat, based on Eddie Huang’s book, to premiere in 2015 on ABC.

What’s new in your life?
I’m working on standup. I’m doing a new record and a new tour that I’m about to go on the road with. I’m back to doing what I really love.

How do you ultimately feel when you look back on All-American Girl?
In the end, I was really grateful to have done it. It really helped me understand a lot more about show business. When re-watching the episodes, I totally forgot some of the stuff that had happened because we were immersed in it. I was just trying to survive within the work of it. I just wanted to keep it going. I wanted to stay alive.

The cast was very close. I’m still friends with all of the actors. B.D Wong and Jodi Long, I see more often.

I’m really grateful for the effect that it had on people who grew up watching it. For a lot people, it was the first time that they saw Asian Americans on television, and that’s really cool. I feel like it did accomplish a lot. It didn’t do exactly what I thought it was going to do, but in a lot of ways, I think it did more. It was a good way to grow up.

This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/Sept. issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


Justin Chon Rules The Streets in ‘Revenge of the Green Dragons’

Sonny looked around the poolroom at the Green Dragons and sized them up: they had fancy clothes, and money, and beepers, and did not go to school. They had cars. On the spot, he decided to become a member.

It was an easy choice for a teenager who grew up in the underworld of New York City’s Chinatown in the late 1980s. Fredric Dannen extensively chronicled the short-lived and chaotic rise and fall of the Green Dragons in a 1992 New Yorker piece, “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” where the excerpt above comes from.

This week, Revenge of the Green Dragons, a new film based on the article, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It looks to add another chapter to gang and mafia lore, and the names attached give it unique credence: Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) directed the film, with Martin Scorsese (The Departed) as executive producer.

Korean American actor Justin Chon plays Sonny, inspired by the “Sonny” from the New Yorker piece. After joining the Green Dragons, he quickly rises to prominence within the gang alongside his close friend and brother Steven Ng (Kevin Wu). In the midst of violence and ill-fated love, however, their relationship begins to fray, until Sonny is forced to seek revenge on the very gang that made him.

Chon spoke to KoreAm earlier this month about the new role.

Sonny (Justin Chon, left), with love interest Tina (Shuya Chang).

What was it like to play your first character in an action crime drama?

Chon: The thing about Sonny, my character, [is] I don’t have big monologues or speeches—a lot of it is told through my presence, or my looks. That was really challenging, because the audience needs to understand how I feel without me saying anything. It’s hard to predict and act accordingly.

Getting to an emotional place without having dialogue to ramp me up, or prep me into getting a certain stage, is very hard. It’s like asking someone to go from zero to 100 in a split second. That required a lot of emotional preparation. I think that was the hardest for me.

What is the relationship like between Sonny and Steven?

They’re pretty much like brothers. They’re not brothers by blood, but when they come to the U.S., Sonny loses his mom, and Steven’s family takes him in, not willingly, but it was kind of put upon them. They’re the same age, and they end up becoming like brothers. Their dynamic is different, though, because Steven is more hotheaded than Sonny, who’s more street-smart and has a lot of heart.

As he grows up, I think he is more introspective, and he thinks a lot more before he does anything, as opposed to Steven, who’s just instinctual, animalistic. They start to grow apart because Sonny starts to question why he lives the way he does, as opposed to Steven, who wants to be a gangster.

Green Dragons leader Chen I Chung (Leonard Wu) performs an execution while Sonny (Chon) and Steven Ng (Kevin Wu, right) look on.

Did you read up on the history behind Revenge of the Green Dragons before taking on the role?

I read the New Yorker article, but you have to be careful with these things because it’s based on true events, true people, and a lot of them are alive still.

There’s a lot of research that I did do, but to a certain extent there’s some fictionalized stuff. I [took] my own liberty to make my own interpretations, and I think most of my research just came from what gangs there were at the time, what areas they hung out at, how did they dress, what was their hair like. After I did my research, I took my own interpretation and made my own choices.

How challenging was it to take on a character who is Chinese?

[At first], the directors were scared there would be backlash from the Chinese community casting a Korean kid as the main lead. There was a lot of debate about that. I acted, I did my audition, and I thought I did a great job, and they [agreed]. I met with them again, and they said, “Hey, we’ll be honest with you. If you were Chinese, this would be easy, an easy choice, but the fact is, you’re not.”

It’s tough being an actor and not only [am I] having a tough time being an Asian American actor, but now I’m being subdivided even further by being a Korean American actor. I have a tough time booking Asian roles because I’m not, “whatever” enough.

But I always believed that true talent—if you work hard at your craft—shines. So in this case, it worked in my favor. They believed in me, they really thought I could pull it off. … I literally got cast and I flew out the same day, with the clothes on my back.

The hardest thing was, there’s some stuff I say in Cantonese, and Cantonese is hard. There’s like, [nine] different tones. Mandarin, there’s four. You say a little bit wrong, and it sounds funny.

Sonny tries to get through to a stern Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.), the founder of the Green Dragons.

This was your first time shooting with Hong Kong directors. What was the experience like?

The style of shooting was new to me. The way they shoot is really fast. I’m used to doing a rehearsal first, and then blocking it out, and setting up for lights and whatever, but a lot of [Director Loo’s] sets have practical lighting, and you just shoot really fast. A lot of days, you finish after eight or nine hours, but you only get, like, one or two takes [per scene] … because [the director] feels, if you didn’t get it on the first take, it’s not going to get any better than that.

I learned a lot from both directors, I learned about how they shoot in Hong Kong, a lot about filmmaking. It was just different. I’m an American actor who’s worked with mostly American productions, so it opened my eyes to how other people do it around the world.

It was a great experience; I made some really good friends. It was dark—the movie’s dark, but it pushed me as an actor, too.

You can now watch Revenge of the Green Dragons via stream on DirecTV, or wait until Oct. 24 for the theatrical release from A24 Films.


Images courtesy of A24 Films

Bill Yoon Final

I Am KoreAm: Bill Yoon

I am KoreAm and proud because (cont.):
My grandfather Choong Sup Park was on the first boat of Korean immigrant laborers to leave Korea in 1902 for Hawaii.

My grandfather Kyung Hak Yoon was one of the first Koreans to immigrate directly from Korea to San Francisco in 1903.

My grandmother Rosa Sunoo, was on the ‘Lost Ship’ of Korean immigrants that was sent to Mexico instead of Hawaii in the early 1900s.

My grandmother Chung Kyung Park, and [grandfather] Choong Sup Park were childhood sweethearts who grew up in the same village, Jeon Ju. Choong Sup worked for 10 years to save enough money for Chung Kyung to come to the United States so they could be reunited.

I own Koreana Gifts and Arts (koreanagifts.com), the oldest Korean Gift Store in the United States. We have many vintage and rare Korean items from the 1950s and 1960s. We may have the largest collection of vintage traditional Korean Dolls in the world. And we are the largest supplier of traditional Korean Drums and traditional Korean Dance Equipment in the Los Angeles area. Koreana Gifts was originally opened in 1961 by John and Cathy Han.

Bill Yoon1

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
My mom, Gloria Insook Yoon. Gloria is known as The Hommy, and I have done a series of comments on my Facebook page called “The Hommy Chronicles” detailing my life with The Hommmy since 2010, when my sister Leslie passed and I moved The Hommy in with me. I bought the house my parents bought in 1954, so The Hommy is very comfortable living with me.

Gloria is 93 years old, has a pacemaker, is blind due to macular degeneration, is mostly deaf, and has major back curvature from being stepped on by a horse as a child. But her mind is still sharp, and she has a phenomenal memory.

I have also had many good friends who have been with me for decades and I am thankful that I have so many good friends. I could say Jesus Christ, but I see Jesus in my mom every day.

Tell us about a unique or quirky habit of yours.
I never tell anyone how smart I really am. My close friends know, but few other people are aware.

My IQ was estimated at 170+ in high school. I had the second highest SAT scores in my high school, and the highest ACT scores.

I skipped 1/2 of the 2nd grade and 1/2 of the 6th grade, so I graduated a year ahead of my peers.

I was accepted by UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Cal Tech when I graduated high school in 1974.

I used to belong to Mensa, but was never active in Mensa.

I am both right brain and left brain, technical mechanical and creative artistic.

If you had to describe yourself using three words, they would be…
Passionate, Creative, Kind

If you could be anybody besides yourself for a day, you would be…
Present – Pope Francis
Past – Leonardo da Vinci

What are your pet peeves or interesting things about you that you dislike?
Cell phone use while driving. I used to autocross and race my 1975 and 1984 Honda Civics, so I have major issues with anyone who is not paying attention to their driving. Plus my father Harold was a big-rig diesel driver for 50 years, and he always made me drive the right way. Both hands on the wheel, always in the right gear, eyes ahead and behind constantly, monitor all the traffic around you all the time. When I would leave my hand on the gear shift after shifting, my dad would hit my hand hard and tell me to put both hands on the steering wheel when I’m not shifting. Thanks to my father, I can upshift and downshift a manual transmission without using the clutch.

Name one of your favorite things about someone in your family.
My mom still has a great sense of humor and is very funny. And she used to fix everything around the house. My mechanical aptitude comes more from my mom than my dad.
One day my mom was eating cookies in her bedroom.

I asked her if she had been eating cookies because I saw the cookie crumbs, and told her I could see the crumbs and now her bedspread was dirty.

My mom looks at me and smiles and says “It’s not dirty, it’s crummy.”

I had no response for that.

What is the kindest thing that someone has ever done for you?
There are so many kind things that my family and friends have done for me. One thing that sticks out is when we had a memorial for my father Harold in 1999 when he passed. My sister had a few friends show up, my brother had a few friends show up, and about 50 of my friends showed up and took up five whole tables. I have always thought that was remarkably kind of my friends to show their support for my family that way. I have some of the best friends in the world.

If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be and why?
I want to go back to Korea (I was there in 2007), and would love to take my mom Gloria with me since she has never gone to Korea. I want to take her to Jeon Ju to see the village where her mother and father came from.

I know the South Korean government offers free trips for US military veterans of the Korean War. Why doesn’t the South Korean government offer free trips to the surviving Korean Pioneers? There aren’t that many left, and the numbers get smaller every year. Many of the early Korean Pioneers have never been to Korea. The South Korean government should step up and right this wrong.

It was the early Korean Pioneers who kept the dream of Korean Independence alive for decades during the Japanese Occupation of Korea. They were the ones who led the Korean Patriot Movement. They were the ones who sacrificed to collect money, food, and medical supplies to send to Korea in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. They were the ones who lived through years of discrimination and racism to pave the way for all future generations of Korean Americans in the United States.

Do the Right Thing.

What is the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
As a general rule, I don’t eat weird things. I’m a meat and rice guy, and wherever I go, cows die.

Do you have any words that you live by?
Be Kind.

Tell us about the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done is to deal with my severely injured back through the years. I have torn ligaments in my lower back, and when I was 21 I was told by everyone that I would would never run and jump again. I told all the doctors and nurses that they were wrong, and that I was going to play basketball again. I was a basketball junkie for decades. Since I injured my back, I played basketball, played tennis, practiced Kung Fu for seven years, rode a mountain bike, and took up rock climbing, even though I was told I couldn’t do any of those things.

If you could choose one song to describe your life, what would it be and why?
“Desperado” by the Eagles. The words have always spoken to me.

What takes you out of your comfort zone?
Loud stupid people.

Is the glass half empty or half full for you?
Right now, half empty. But if I can raise the funding for the Los Angeles Korea Town Mural Project, it will be overflowing.

It’s my dream and my vision. I know I am an extraordinary art teacher, and I want to give an opportunity to low income Korean American students who can’t afford to pay for after school classes or tutoring. I believe I can teach these art students more in 6 months than most teachers could teach them in two years. My middle school students’ artwork was far superior to any of the artwork coming out of the local high schools.

Who is someone you look up to and what about them inspires you?
Dr Ken Fong. Ken is the senior pastor at Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, and a close friend. Ken is one of the people I know who could have done anything they wanted to do. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, anything. But he became a pastor to follow Jesus and serve God.


If you would like to participate in I Am KoreAm, you can find more information here. Students and alumni, be sure to also check out Student Spotlight and Alumni Catalogue.

Suzanne Kim Doud Galli Final

I Am KoreAm: Suzanne Kim Doud Galli

Describe your background.
My mother is Korean. My father is German and Irish.

What issues going on in the world, and/or in the Korean American / Asian American community affect you the most?
World: The stability of the Korean Peninsula is something I think about and along those lines, reunification. I strongly believe we are one people.

Community: I worry about health issues in the Korean community and about giving the younger generation the tools to succeed in America. I want to encourage philanthropy in our community.

photo 2 (1)

If you could choose one song to describe your life, what would it be and why?
“Wait A Little While” by Kenny Loggins

What do you feel is your most attractive physical feature?
Before or after photoshop? I think my cheekbones are serving me well.

What takes you out of your comfort zone?
Any form of confrontation.

Is the glass half empty or half full for you?
Half empty! So much to do still!!

Who is someone you look up to and what about them inspires you?
My grandfather Kim Sang Kwon was an amazing man! He was an educator, author, pastor and … prince. He was loving, strong, intelligent and hard working. He braved many adversaries yet persevered by sticking to his beliefs and faith.


When people look at me, they would never guess that I…
I secretly love Cinnabon and eat them every time I am in an airport.

If you were given the opportunity to travel to one place in the world, where would it be and why (money is not an issue)?
Hellooooo … Korea!! It would be great to be able to for an extended period of time. I would like to drink from the river in Pyongyang one day–they say women who drink from that river are very strong minded.

Would you rather be rich or famous?
I wish I were very rich so I could give more to people who need it.

What is your best and worst trait?
Best: I am kind and caring. Worst: I love to complain.

photo 3 (1)

What was the last good book you read?
Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander

What has given you the most pleasure in the last year?
I love my German Shepherd.

What food do you absolutely HATE?

Tell us about the last time you had to ask for help.
I ask for help daily. I have the best staff. I hate to talk on the phone so I ask my assistant to call for me.

What would be your ideal vacation?
Hanging out in cafés in Myongdong


If you could go on a date with any Korean/Korean American/Asian American celebrity, who would it be and why?
Are you kidding?? Have you heard of or seen Daniel Henney?! Oh my!

(Of course we have.)

Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Early bird.

What quality do you appreciate most in a friend?
Unconditional love.

What is one characteristic you received from your parents what you want to keep, and one you wish you could change?
I will keep tenacity and get rid of the whininess.

If you knew you couldn’t fail and money was no object, what would you like to do in the next five years?
I would like to set up an organization that galvanizes the Asian American community to be more philanthropic, whether by volunteering, giving money or serving on boards. It would be great to have resources to educate younger professionals and students on these issues through educational seminars, community round tables, service projects and position papers. Oh wait! We have the organization already–Jade Philanthropy Society! But we need more resources!


If you would like to participate in I Am KoreAm, you can find more information here. Students and alumni, be sure to also check out Student Spotlight and Alumni Catalogue.

Lydia Suh

Student Spotlight: Western Kentucky University’s Lydia Suh

Give a little description of your background (where did you grow up, etc.).
I have always lived in small towns where the Asian population is little to none. I never thought it was weird being the only Korean in my class. To me, it was weird when tons of Asian people were together; I felt out of place.

Your go-to food place:
Since I’ve been in California, Chipotle.

Tell us about your favorite and least favorite classes.
My favorite classes are labs because they are hands on. I like being able to move around and actually do something rather than sit and write notes while a teacher is lecturing.

Do you have a worst roommate story? Let’s hear it.
When I was in 7th grade I went to summer camp. My roommate had a baby doll that she thought was real, and it was creepy. I would walk into the room and turn on the lights, and she would quickly turn them back off because the baby was sleeping. It was definitely an experience.

Who has been an influential figure in your life?
My little sister has been really influential because she is always there for me. She is so strong and can make light of any situation. If you need to laugh she’s the first person you should talk to.

If you could sum up your life as a student in three words, they would be…
Stressful, time-management, fun.

Is there anywhere in the world where you’d want to study abroad? Where is it, and why?
I would love to go to Europe because I’ve never been. I have always loved traveling, and a couple of my friends studied in Europe last semester and loved it.

What was the hardest thing you’ve done so far?
College, because you suddenly become independent and you have to find the right balance between school and fun.

What song is representative of your life right now?
“Long Way Home” – 5 Seconds of Summer

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully I’ll be able to support myself with a job that I enjoy.

What was the last book you read…for fun?
The Maze Runner

What does your typical day consist of?
Wake up, get stuff done, eat, hang out with friends, sleep.

What does your typical night out consist of?
Spending hours figuring out what to do because all my friends are indecisive, then ending up going to steak’n shake, waffle house, or IHOP.

If you had to evacuate your dorm/apartment/house immediately, what one item would you grab on the way out?
If I was at home I would grab the photo albums, but if i was at the dorm it would be my laptop.

Apple or Android, or neither?

Mac or PC, or neither?

What’s your favorite tree?
Pecan, because there was a pecan tree in my backyard growing up and we would always pick the pecans and eat them.


If you would like to participate in KoreAm U’s Student Spotlight feature, you can find more information here.


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COMMENTARY: In Asia, Cheating to the Test


CNN recently reported that college applications from Chinese foreign students to the U.S. sounded exactly the same.

In fact, one admission officer read a phrase in one of the applications that sent up red flags: “Insert girl’s name here.” The number of Chinese students in the United States has reached 235,597 as of 2013 but admissions officers said that “as many as one in 10 applications to U.S. colleges by Chinese students may include fraudulent material, including phony essays and high-school transcripts.”

Cheating is a worldwide phenomenon, and is a challenge even here in the United States, but in Asia it has reached near-crisis levels. Last year, riots broke out when teachers at a school in Zhongxiang, in China’s Hubei province, tried to stop students from cheating. Parents fought police when they found out their children were prevented from cheating. It’s only fair that their children should cheat, they reasoned, since everyone else was cheating as well.

To do well on tests is the end point, not necessarily to learn. So much so that some years ago Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, posed this question in the title of his book, “Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West.” A rhetorical title surely since Asia, from Confucius down to dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (the creator of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing) to writer Haruki Murakami, abounds with philosophers, artists and thinkers. But Mahbubani does have a point: The majority of the population tends to fall into conformity and while a few are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the majority measures success via material gains and it begins with doing well on tests, ethical considerations be damned.

Is this a uniquely Asian problem? Intellectual laziness is a major issue here in the United States too, and students buy homework online to avoid thinking the way they download music from iTunes. But America still values those who think outside the box, originality. We immortalized Steve Jobs for his inventions. We mourn comedian and actor Robin Williams’ passing for his unique, brilliant and fierce brand of humor. Williams invents words without thinking, jokes fall out of his lips unrehearsed and we all roar in laughter, awed by his inventiveness. The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick—these are encouraged still in America.

I learned to say “I disagree” to my father in English when I first came here at age 11 from Vietnam at the family table. In Vietnamese, it would have sounded harsh and unfilial (unbecoming of a filial son), and unthinkable. But the “I” fell off my tongue much easier in English. It allowed me to separate myself from the clan, the collective. It allowed me to think for myself. America encourages rebellion against the collective: follow your dreams.

Alas, back in Asia the ego is still by and large suppressed. The self exists in the context of families and clans. It is submerged in the service of shared values and ritualized language. A student raising his hand to disagree with a teacher would make a rare sight, indeed, in Vietnam, and may in fact be seen as a direct challenge to authorities. You are measured by how well you do on tests, end of point.

A professor friend of mine teaches Asian American studies at a college here in the Bay Area. Every semester she catches her students cheating, mostly in the form of plagiarism. “I said to the class, ‘three of you plagiarized,’” she once told me. “’But I’ll be nice for once. Just rewrite and slide the new midterm essay under my office and I won’t flunk you.’” Three days later, she found 11 new essays under her door upon the deadline. “A lot of them are foreign students or immigrant kids, and they are not confident with their own voice.”

When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it’s no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.

Asia has become an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. China’s economy will soon surpass those of the United States and Europe. Friends of mine in East Asia are quite proud of this fact. But to them, I often ask, “What does all that mean?” Materialism, after all, is not an ideology, it’s selfishness writ large. To create a viable civilization it starts with clear moral values regarding pedagogy, a shared sense of purpose, and a critical mass of thinkers and inventors. That is, it usually takes a lot of thinking and imagining and re-inventing for a civilization to have its sphere of influence emanating beyond its borders.

And my suspicion is that it usually starts in the classroom.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media, where this story was originally published. He is also the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His latest book is “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.

Image via Schools.com: Screen capture of INFOGRAPHIC: Cheating in School: How the Digital Age Affects Cheating and Plagiarism.


Infielder Darwin Barney Joins Dodgers


The Los Angeles Dodgers has acquired second baseman Darwin Barney, who was designated for assignment by the Chicago Cubs last week. A Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner at second base in 2012, the Asian American ballplayer is expected to add depth to the Dodgers’ infield as a utility man.

The Dodgers will send a player to be named later, likely a minor leaguer, or cash considerations to the Cubs in exchange.

Barney has also played third baseman and shortstop in the last five seasons he spent with the Cubs. The Dodgers are thin on middle infielders behind starters Hanley Ramirez, Dee Gordon and Justin Turner, as bench player Chone Figgins is on the disabled list with a hip injury.

The 28-year-old is a standout defender at second base. His fielding percentage eclipsed the .990 mark in each of the last five seasons. His acrobatic defensive plays have made highlight reels several times over the years on local sports TV and ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Despite his defensive prowess, Barney has failed to impress as a hitter. His career batting average is just at .244 with 18 home runs. His struggles at the plate became worse this year as he is only hitting .230, but the Dodgers will remain hopeful that he can continue his moderately successful streak against National League opponents. He is hitting .273 average in 107 games against NL West opponents.

Barney, who identifies himself as one-quarter Korean, one-quarter Japanese and half-Caucasian, grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. His maternal grandmother is Korean, and his maternal grandfather is Japanese, though he once told an interviewer that he used to think he was Hawaiian. He talks about his background with interviewer Rick Quan in this 2011 video posted by Hyphen Magazine:


Asian Americans: The New White?

Asian Americans are held up as the great success story, on the fast track to assimilation. But this has put us at the center of the debate about fairness in this country, raising the question: Are we becoming white?

story by Eugene Yi
photo illustration by SUEJEAN AHN
photo by MIKE LEE

In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the U.S. for decades, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”

Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during the age of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the yellow peril and Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book which argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelations, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.

Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. A few months ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written prior on the topic. This one, from 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”

To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the Internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.

CS-Minority-0714-1harvardScreenshot of a website set up by the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks testimonials from people who think they were rejected by a school over race. 

So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.

Thanks to people like Volokh, the occasional overrepresentation of Asian Americans has been cast as a question about the basic fairness of this country. It’s rare for Asian Americans to be at the center of an issue of such import; we are still often invisible, after all. But whiteness has so many connotations that it’s difficult not to be disquieted by this type of talk. More than just a political question, at its root, it is a more personal matter, one that touches on the very nature of being Asian American itself.

* * *

We all knew what the acronyms meant. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s, I heard it plenty. UCLA: University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. Or U C Lots of Asians. UCI: University of Chinese Immigrants, or University of Civics and Integras (To the millennials, those were popular with the rice-rocket set back then). A ton of Asians went to UCs, and multiple acronyms existed, which speaks to both how obvious this phenomenon was, and to the endless creativity of procrastinating students.

When my high school class started hearing back from colleges, one of my Latino classmates received acceptances from a few schools that I had not gotten into. His application essay had been a gritty account of growing up in a tough part of town, errant bullets embedded in the drywall in his childhood bedroom. Mine was an existential deconstruction of Alphaville’s 1984 new wave hit “Forever Young,” a 500-word cri de coeur set to sighing synths. Though one might be tempted to pin his better fortunes on his race, I think the essays probably say it all.

I remember we all compared admissions letters, and shared in the realization that it would be a different letter—the financial aid package—that would determine where we’d end up. The aforementioned classmate mentioned how much money he’d received in financial aid, and boasted that he could lend us some. In a fit of adolescent pique, I blurted that he shouldn’t be proud of the fact that his parents hadn’t worked as hard as mine had.

A file photo from Oct. 23, 1996, when UCLA students, surrounded by Los Angeles Police officers, staged a sit-in in West Los Angeles, during a protest against then-ballot Proposition 209, which ended many aspects of affirmative action in California. 

It was a brutish outburst, a dumb thing for a kid to say. I didn’t know anything about his family or their story. I certainly didn’t know anything about affirmative action. And I cringe at the memory now, because I am dismayed that it sounded so much like a talking point for anti-affirmative action activists. They argue that success is being penalized, and Asian Americans are proof of the need to do away with the consideration of race. Some cite studies remarking on the difference in average SAT scores between the races, or talk about suspiciously consistent percentages of Asian Americans in Ivy League student bodies. One recent example is a set of websites seeking testimonials of people who believe they have been rejected from a school because of their race. Set up by the Project on Fair Representation (essentially a one-man operation helmed by Edward Blum, a former investment banker and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), the goal is to gather enough potential plaintiffs to challenge universities that use applicants’ race and ethnicity as admissions criteria. Many of the pictures used by the websites, despite denials from Blum, feature Asian or Asian-looking people. Smelling a rat, Julianne Hing, who wrote about the effort for the progressive news website Colorlines, pointedly asked, “How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s race war?”

All of this pits Asian Americans against underrepresented minorities, and is a continuation of the history of weaponizing the model minority myth. Sociologist William Petersen coined the expression “model minority” in a story he wrote in 1966 for the New York Times Magazine about the success of Japanese Americans. Indeed, it was called “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” But he didn’t evince an obvious agenda, and approached the topic with the mannered caution of a trained academic. He goes through the litany of crimes committed against Japanese Americans: discrimination, suspicion, internment, deprivation of basic rights. He allows himself to drop his objectivity only when marveling at their success, at how far they had come, “by their own almost totally unaided effort.” Petersen contrasted the Japanese American experience with that of other groups, including, interestingly, the Chinese, whom he did not see as being successful.

Kurashige, the ethnic studies scholar, wrote about the ways that the African American and Japanese American communities interacted in Los Angeles following World War II in his book, The Shifting Grounds of Race (2008). Japanese Americans returned to L.A. after the internment, and initially struggled to get back on their feet. Alliances formed between the Japanese American and African American communities to fight for common goals. But as Japanese Americans’ lot improved, tension between the two communities emerged, he argued.

“The ideological characterization of Japanese Americans as a ‘model minority’ to be integrated served to stigmatize the others as ‘problem minorities’ to be contained,” he wrote.

Criticisms of the model minority myth generally mention the widely divergent outcomes for different groups of Asians. While some groups are doing well, others lag behind, with educational outcomes and household incomes at the bottom end of the spectrum. Much academic work has been done adding needed nuance, yet the impression still exists. Sociologist Nadia Kim took her stab at trying to complicate the picture in her drily titled 2007 paper “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature.” The paper reads like the academic equivalent of a diss track. Asian Americans, she wrote, “do not desire a white identity.” A sense of mission is readily apparent, and her language is often accusatory, full of italics and verve.

CS-Minority-0714-3saynosca5AP Photo/FRANK WIESE
Asian Americans protest a Senate Constitutional Amendment in California that would have asked voters to consider eliminating California Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban.

Regarding the 1965 law that opened up the country to immigration from Asia, and its policy of favoritism for educated professionals, she wrote it had been enacted “as if to engineer a model minority.”

Regarding intermarrying: “[C]ontrary to popular wisdom, the second largest proportion of marriages is not Asian-white couplings but interethnic marriages, that is, marriages between different Asian ethnic groups.”

Regarding financial success: Asian American poverty is at “a rate considerably higher than for white Americans.” And individual income lags behind comparable whites.

And regarding the idea “that European immigrants were once not white but later became white. Such a claim has not been conclusively supported by historians themselves.” Their whiteness was never questioned, she argues, citing a study showing that Italian Americans, unlike Takao Ozawa, were never denied citizenship. Additionally, Kim brought up the history of European ethnic groups shoring up their whiteness by literally attacking African Americans. More recent history provides troubling parallels. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans in the leadup to the L.A. riots in 1992 may not have been about shoring up whiteness, but it certainly created tension between Korean Americans and African Americans, adding another example to an established pattern. Proximity to whiteness is often affirmed by distance from blackness.

* * *

Affirmative action again stirred controversy in California earlier this year. I watched with great interest. Usually, it’s the white conservatives using Asian Americans to make an argument against the policy. This time, it was Asian Americans making the argument themselves.

A bill, known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, would have put the issue of race in college admissions back in front of the voters. The use of race has been illegal since 1998. After the ban of the use of race went into effect, admissions rates for black, Latino and Native American students dropped precipitously across the University of California system. White and Asian American rates remained largely unchanged. Student enrollment for fall 2013 in the UC system showed Asian Americans made up 40 percent of the undergraduate population, a massive overrepresentation for a group that makes up about 14 percent of the state’s population. Depending on one’ s political persuasion, one could see this as either cause to unite to increase diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, or, just rewards for hard work, something to defend. It was a classic wedge issue.

An ad hoc group of mostly first-generation Chinese and South Asian Americans waged a fierce online campaign against SCA 5, full of hyperbolic language and rumors about the bill. One op-ed on the website Siliconindia called it “The Most Racist Bill in the History of California.” SCA 5 became “Skin Color Amendment 5” in other tellings. Crude pics repurposed the “I Have a Dream” speech and the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have him make the case against affirmative action from beyond the grave.

Polling data generally shows that Asian Americans strongly favor affirmative action. This had put Asian Americans in alliance with other communities of color. But in this case, these new activists’ voices were louder, and it was enough to compel several Asian American state lawmakers to back away from what they initially thought was an uncontroversial bill. Asian American Republicans sought to capitalize on the split, announcing their opposition to affirmative action.

Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley staged this “protest” of affirmative action on Feb. 26, 2003, holding a bake sale with treats priced according to the buyer’s ethnicity, gender and social status. 

I’d always wondered if or when this particular shoe would drop. Amy Chua recently made herself a celebrity as the Tiger Mom, raising model minority cubs. But she’s not stumping for education reform, or denying pee breaks in public schools to keep kids on task, or whatever. But with the protesters in California, a new reality seems to have emerged: There are Asian Americans who are willing to take the model minority myth, and march in the metaphorical streets. And if that means scuttling political orthodoxy and solidarity with other communities of color, so be it.

Instructive parallels exist in other communities. Historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, of Washington University, wrote about the activist history of New York’s Puerto Rican community in her book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and Puerto Ricans activists often fought alongside each other until the ’70s, when the coalition started to fray. Several factors contributed to an eventual split, including the growing political influence of Puerto Ricans who had entered the middle class. Fissures started to form along class lines, according to Lee.
“The middle class was able to dominate the conversation by the ’70s. A lot of these middle-class Puerto Ricans started to prioritize job security, and started to choose narrow political goals, versus broader visions of rebuilding a new society,” she said. Some middle-class Puerto Ricans even trotted out a familiar argument: that they shared a common path with earlier waves of European immigrants, overcoming prejudice to reach an attainable American dream through bootstrapping alone. But at that point, entry into the middle class had proven elusive for the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans.
There are echoes of this line of thinking when Asian Americans take up the argument for merit in education. For some, status in the middle class is a birthright rather than an aspiration. Much of the SCA 5 activity was focused in the ethnic suburbs around Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, well-off parts of town with more recent immigrants from China and India who might be less interested in broader messages of solidarity. This, despite the fact that the majority of Asian Americans still support affirmative action, and that, importantly, some Asian American groups are lagging far behind others.

“I think for better or worse what we were seeing in the SCA 5 battle is … Asian Americans expressing a greater sense of agency for their own purposes, which are moving in contradictory political directions,” said Kurashige. “Therefore, we ought to expect not a simple shift in any specific direction, but some heated debates and struggles to define Asian American politics in the 21st century.”Outside of education and the tech industry, though, the issue is not as contentious, according to Vincent Pan, of the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Nearly all Asian Americans agree with affirmative action in employment hiring and promotion, public contracting, judicial, media and political representation—and so we can appreciate the need and benefit for affirmative action,” Pan said. “It is highly inconsistent and detrimental to abandon it with respect to higher education admissions.”

* * *

One hundred years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Asian Americans having this place in the racial hierarchy to even prompt such conversations. For most of the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., violence and xenophobia ruled. The biggest mass lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871, where anywhere from 15 to 21 Chinese people were killed, depending on the account. Anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II led to the internment of more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered during another rising tide of anti-Japanese hysteria. More recently, South Asians have been targeted and murdered following the 9/11 attacks.

“History tells us that anti-Asian discrimination won’t go away so quickly. Just because right now, we find ourselves in a semi-white position, it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever,” said Lee, the historian. “We still hold a fairly precarious position.”

It seems anytime an Asian country becomes the enemy, Asian Americans become the target. Being an “other” in America is never far from having violent consequences. How many of us second-generation Asian Americans have held our breaths and waited for potential fall-out with every ominous “China Rising” headline or when it’s revealed that the perpetrator in some heinous crime in the U.S. is Asian? Or, for that matter, recent mass shootings that seem to be partially inspired by some very twisted neuroses rooted in being Asian?

Amy Lee places flowers at the gravestone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, at a 20th anniversary memorial at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit on June 23, 2002. Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. 

This push-and-pull at the core of Asian American life—white/not-white, and foreigner/native—seems to have cycled over the course of American history. No matter how close to white Asian Americans might become, this perpetual foreigner status remained. For most Asians in America, after all, the experience of other-ness is seared into us. When you walk into a room, you look around and count the Asian people. It’s a defining experience for people of color in this country. And it helps explain some of the curious political behavior of Asian Americans.

Generally, one of the best indicators for political allegiance is income. By that metric, Asian Americans should be pretty Republican. But instead, Asian Americans have shown the greatest shift to the Democratic Party of any group in the last 20 years. More than three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for Obama in the last election.

“Asian American political behavior is counter to what traditional political science research would predict,” said political science professor Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, in an email interview. “Further, wealthier Asian Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian Americans.” She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments where two groups of Asian Americans were asked about their political allegiances. One group, though, was primed with what they called “racial microaggressions,” where a white lab assistant would say something all too familiar to any Asian American: “You speak good English.” “Where were you born?”

Asian Americans who had been primed with a microaggression allied themselves significantly more strongly with the Democratic Party, 87 percent to 76 percent. The results seem to indicate that not only are Asian Americans aware they are still considered to outsiders, but that one of the two political parties is perceived not to welcome outsiders. Which, incidentally, is the party most associated with xenophobia, exclusivity and a certain strain of American whiteness.

* * *

I recently attended a panel where one of the panelists, an Asian American businessman who’d worked for some of the largest firms in the country, said that if one believed in a bamboo ceiling—a limit to how far an Asian American could rise—then one must believe in the existence of a “short” ceiling, an “ugly” ceiling, a “fat” ceiling. Being Asian is, according to this telling, an overcomeable condition—nothing that a diet or some platform shoes couldn’t help with.

Many would respond by pointing to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of corporate America. But the businessman’s words make it seem as if it’s just a matter of time. As Asians, as perpetual foreigners, as “others,” we might still do our little headcounts when we walk into a room. But the rooms, for some, are getting fancier.

The criticisms of the model minority myth are myriad, and valid. But what truth there is to it must be reckoned with. If whiteness can be defined, at least partly, as the lack of impediments to success, then it might be hard not to find this aspect of whiteness readily present in the Asian American community.

Two different Time covers that are essentially making the model minority argument—(left) the infamous 1987 “whiz kids” cover, and (right) the 2011 “tiger mom” cover. 

There is another aspect to this lack of impediment, though, one that has nothing to do with whiteness. The non-European wave of immigration that started in 1965 scrambled America’s racial logic, forcing new lines to be drawn beyond the old black/white and foreigner/native. We live in a country that’s, really, just starting to contend with the second generation of this wave of immigrants. Even though Asian Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, there are times when I marvel at how accustomed I’ve become to seeing faces that look like mine. Any reader of this publication is familiar with the ways Korean Americans are contributing to popular culture and mainstream society. There are moments when I just scratch my head in amazement, wondering, “What aren’t we doing?” There are still things to fight for, of course. Asian American men are still emasculated, as evidenced by any of the seemingly annual studies on how poorly they do in online dating. In popular media, there’ s still more Mr. Chow from the Hangover movies, than Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead. Asian women continue to be exoticized. The consequences of “otherness” will linger, publicly through discrimination, hate crime, violence and privately, in undiagnosed ways.

There is a real phenomenon at work: the normalizing of people of color. But far from making the country post-racial, it seems to have grown hyper-racial. Two conversations are happening simultaneously: both whether, and how, race matters. The success of a person of color means either the proclamation that race doesn’t matter in American life, or the argument that one is ignoring the myriad ways it still does.

There is a reading of this phenomenon that could see this period as birth pangs of some society that is closer to some inclusive ideal. But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being “merely” American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

But different facets of whiteness don’t just fall like dominoes. Whiteness is an ill-defined complex of traits and tendencies. And it’s an actual field of study, with many universities offering classes in whiteness studies. Oft-quoted is W.E.B DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D., from Harvard, and one of the foremost minds on race relations in the era just after slavery. He wrote, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” The author James Baldwin, another masterful commenter on race in America, wrote in his essay “On Being White … And Other Lies,” “No one was white before he/she came to America.”

Evelyn Yoshimura, the community organizing director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit in L.A., told me a story once about Harry Kitano, an old lion of Asian American studies at UCLA. He used to rail that Japanese Americans were not going to be around for long. Because of their economic success, because of their assimilation, because of their rate of intermarriage, they would just be gone, integrated into the white mainstream.

At first, she said, that seemed to be the case. Japanese Americans intermarried at high rates, assimilated quickly and left Little Tokyos and Japantowns for the suburbs. Community organizations limped along, hosting their events for a dwindling number of people.

Then, some hapa kids started showing up at the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Then more. Enough so that the tournament started to grow. Soon, other programs grew as well. And now, the community’s leadership programs, training sessions and their basketball leagues are bigger than ever.

No one was Asian American before they came here. Someday, Asian Americans may exist in a space independent from notions of whiteness or non-whiteness. But for now, Asian America is something being invented, every day, bit by bit, 18 million people engaging in a collective act of creation. There is yet, it seems, further to go.

Correction added: The previous version left ambiguous the degree of middle class attainment among Puerto Ricans. The wording has been changed to clarify that only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans entered the middle class and helped divide African American-Puerto Rican political alliances.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).