Emil Guillermo: Asian American? Do we know how we all feel about living in America?

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“Asian American” is one big umbrella in our American cocktail, but what do we really know about each other and how we feel?

For example, Filipino Americans are beginning to break through on the big screen. Yes, Nico Santos was in “Crazy Rich Asians,” but now Jo Koy is out with his Steven Spielberg-approved “Easter Sunday,” a film about Filipino American life in the enclave south of San Francisco known as Daly City. Catch it in theaters. But mask up and don’t catch anything else.

This week in Seattle, the Filipino American National Historical Society is holding its national convention celebrating 40 years of existence. Readers of my columns here know the group exists, but do others?

Conferences and movies may be deeper dives than you want to take. But what if you just wanted to know how Filipinos felt about their lives in America? And how it’s connected to yours, Asian or non-Asian.

The Pew Research Group has come up with a new tool based on 66 focus groups with 264 people, going over 18 Asian ethnic groups in 18 languages.

And they’re all asked this question: “What does it mean to be (you can pick an ethnicity from Bangladeshi to Vietnamese and everything in between) living in America?”

I wanted to see what Filipinos over 50 thought about that question and this was the answer:

“I am just experiencing a current identity crisis with myself as a Fil-Am because of what has happened in the past year with COVID…There’s this struggle in me that I’m, well, I’ve been forced to assimilate (in the U.S.) and now what do I do? I still feel like I want to share my culture (and) I want to talk about it, hence my career as a teacher.”

I read that and related instantly. “Current identity crisis” indicates we as ethnic Americans are constantly evolving in our relationship to this country.

“Forced to assimilate.” Was it forced? Reluctant? It happened.

“Now what do I do?” Well, she could go see the Jo Koy movie with her non-Filipino friends and then see me talk at the FANHS Conference about my new solo stage show.

But you see how just reading a quote can make us understand another fellow Asian American traveler. It also manages to capture a feeling of alienation that we all recognize, whether we’re first generation, second generation, or even third.

The tool is called an “interactive quote sorter.”

It’s a helpful tool, at least to develop a basic understanding about one another that might lead to a deeper sense of empathy.

For example, the tragic news of four Muslims recently killed in Albuquerque has left the entire Muslim American community in a state of “managed panic,” according to a report in Monday’s New York Times.

On Sunday, the FBI and local and state authorities asked that anybody with knowledge of the shootings come forward. Aside from a dark-colored, four-door Volkswagen sedan listed as a vehicle of interest, there are few leads.

But no one is calling it a hate crime yet, not until a motive has been established. Still, there is that sense of fear. One man is quoted as saying he won’t go back to the Muslim center because he feels like “bait.”

As I read the story in California, I went to the Pew tool, and put in “Pakistani, Under 50.”

And here was a quote that came up from a U.S.-born man of Pakistani origin, 30, answering the question, “What does it mean to be Pakistani living in America?”

“You’re Indian,” the man said. “You’re not Pakistani, and for the rest of the world, like we’re not even a blip on the map. Nobody cares unless there’s an attack. That’s the only time we’re relevant in the news—like that’s why we’re invisible. People don’t even know anything about us, nor do they care to so if you’re standing in a sea of brown, you’re just brown. That’s it.”

Eerily, the quote from interviews at least a year ago captures the feeling now. And yet, here we are with a string of killings where Pakistani Muslims appear to have been ambushed and targeted and the FBI and police are at a loss.

The quote tool is my favorite among the set of research aids from Pew. I like less the 30-minute documentary that was released simultaneously, about which I have a slight complaint. In the doc, we hear from Chinese Americans, including a father and his son. There are Japanese Americans talking about the internment. And Pakistanis and Sikhs, who talk of 9/11 and discrimination Muslims face.

And then it’s over. All important stuff, but how can there be no reference to Filipinos?

Filipinos are the third largest group among Asian Americans, but also the first colonized “Americans: who came to the U.S," no papers needed. One Vietnamese woman talks how refugees who fled war were different from those who came for opportunity, but what of the colonized Filipinos who sought democracy direct on the mainland? They weren’t fleeing war, but the Philippine-American War colonized them.

In the U.S., Filipinos went through all the pains other Asian immigrants did and more. Exclusions, lynchings, anti-miscegenation. Plus, colonization left deep psychological scars that have yet to heal.

A quibble? It just shows how complex we Asian Americans are.

So, I’m not keen on Pew’s documentary, but give me the quote sorter to provide a sense of what Asian Americans are feeling.

Then check back with the headlines to see how it matches or adds to your perceptions.

You may find how little we know about each other under our big umbrella.


NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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