Diverse identities, attitudes among Asians in America: Pew survey

Some labels capture identity better than “Asian American”, the common catch-all 36-year-old Shaq Ahsan does not usually use to refer to himself.

Charissa Yong

Charissa Yong

The Straits Times


Asians make up 7 per cent of America’s population, or 23 million, and about 54 per cent of them are immigrants. PHOTO: REUTERS

May 9, 2023

WASHINGTON — Depending on who he is speaking to, 36-year-old Shaq Ahsan has many different ways of describing himself.

“If it’s people who are not familiar with South Asia, like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, I refer to myself as South Asian,” said the analyst.

“But in a group of South Asians, I say I’m a Bengali American or just Bengali.”

These labels capture his identity better than “Asian American”, the common catch-all he does not usually use to refer to himself.

“Asia is such a big continent. You’ve got South Asia, South-east Asia; it’s a pretty broad spectrum,” he said.

“Labelling myself as someone who is South Asian or Bengali American just feels more personal.”

Like him, 52 per cent of Asians living in the United States most often use ethnic terms that reflect their heritage for themselves.

Just 16 per cent call themselves Asian American, and 12 per cent use Asian alone.

These were among the key findings of a first-of-its-kind Pew Research Centre survey of 7,000 Asian American adults on their attitudes towards identity, released on Monday. The survey, which was conducted in English and five Asian languages, uses the terms Asians in America and Asian Americans interchangeably.

Asians make up 7 per cent of America’s population, or 23 million, and about 54 per cent of them are immigrants.

While Asian Americans are often seen by others as a single group, they view themselves in a wide variety of ways, the report said. “The population has ancestral roots across the vast, ethnically and culturally rich Asian continent. For Asians living in the US, this diversity is reflected in how they describe their own identity,” said the report’s authors.

The six largest Asian origin groups – Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese – together form 79 per cent of all Asian Americans.

The survey also looked at how Asians born in the US and those who moved there see themselves, adding that “immigration experiences, connections with home countries and how long someone has lived in the US shape many Asian Americans’ identities”.

The longer immigrants live in the US, for instance, the more they tend to use “Asian American”.

Immigrants were also more likely than US-born Asians to have Asian friends, and less likely to have ever hidden a part of their heritage from non-Asian people.

About a fifth of those surveyed say they had concealed from non-Asians some of their heritage, such as their ethnic food, clothing or cultural practices, with younger Asians more likely than their elders to say they had done so.

US-born Asians were more likely to cite the fear of discrimination, while it was common for foreign-born Asians to say they wanted to avoid prejudice and the extra effort needed to explain their heritage to non-Asians.

Mr Ahsan, who came to America as a baby with his family and became an American citizen at the age of six, did not talk about his heritage much growing up, as one of two South Asian students in his high school.

His college had a more diverse student population, and he made friends with more South Asians, even joining a Bengali student group.

“It was a turning point. From then on, I wasn’t shy about explaining my heritage, culture and language,” said Mr Ahsan, who did not take part in the Pew survey.

It also found a rich diversity of political attitudes, identity perception and social habits among the six largest origin groups.

For instance, about half of all Vietnamese voters identify with or lean towards the Republican Party, compared with roughly two-thirds of Indian, Filipino and Korean voters who favour the Democratic Party.

Just over half, or 56 per cent, of Chinese voters lean Democrat.

Despite the differences, Asians in the US feel connected with one another, with about 59 per cent saying what happens to Asians in the US affects their own lives.

The report cited past research by Pew showing that the rise in reported violence against Asian Americans has been a major source of concern and fear among many in recent years.

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