define /dəˈfīn/, v.

The Oakland Museum of California was showing an exhibition titled “Question Bridge: Black Males” this weekend. Although this piece was initially created in 2012, the content and themes resonate with even more strength today, given the current social and political atmosphere.

The exhibition consists of five screens, each of which plays video interviews of over 160 Black men across the country. The men ask and answer questions, and the videos play in a way that suggest these men are engaging in dialogue amongst themselves. Their questions largely revolve around the themes of “family, love, interracial relationships, community, education, and wisdom.”

In the approximately 20 minutes I watched, one question stood out to me the most: What does Blackness encompass, what does it mean to be Black? (Please note, this question and the following dialogue have all been paraphrased.) It’s a question that begs for nuanced answers, and each of the men responding did their best to present their own perspective of this issue.

The question of one’s culture is never simple. It’s never just one way or the other because of the differing ways and settings in which we’re raised. Though these discussions about culture might never arrive at one, concrete conclusion, hearing the dialogue these men have while dissecting their own culture is a conversation more people ought to hear. These conversations open up new avenues for us to better understand the lived experiences of other people and cultures.

Of the answers that the men in the videos offered to this question, one stuck with me: Just because you’re Black and don’t listen to hip hop music, doesn’t make you any less Black. Just because you don’t fit into others’ perception of “your culture,” doesn’t mean you can’t lay as large a claim to your own culture and identity as others who better fit the stereotypically assumed image.

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This dialogue prompted me (and my museum-hopping partner, Candle Boy) to consider: So then what does it mean to be Asian, and what is encompassed within a definition of Asian-ness?

There is a lot of danger inherent to posing this question. To lump all Asian people under the one, vast umbrella of “Asian” is to widely generalize many people’s experiences. The Japanese experience is far different from the Filipino experience, which are both also distinct from the Chinese and Korean experiences. And this doesn’t even address all of the Asian cultures and groups.

If we were to, however, approach this question from a similar direction as that of the Black men in the exhibit, then we arrive at these questions: What constitutes Asian-ness? How many elements of other cultures can we, Asian people, adopt, and continue to be considered Asian?

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

Everyone will likely have different thoughts about this issue, but here’s where I stand.

The perception of Asian-ness changes, depending on the viewer/question responder. However, one of the major lenses many people use to regard Asian-ness is how well (or how poorly) a person speaks, reads, and/or writes their family’s mother tongue.

This begins with first generation immigrant parents who don’t hesitate to point out and mourn over the loss of their children’s lack of cultural and family knowledge, and ends with non Asian people asking why we can’t read a menu at a Chinese restaurant.

The majority of American Born Asians have been taught to or simply learned to assimilate to the dominant culture around them. No matter what they did though, they still continued to be considered “Asian” by their non Asian peers. This trend has continued to the point that now, many of these American Born Asians are finding reason to reconnect to their roots.

For some, they’ve changed their mindsets and found reason to take personal pride in their culture. For others, this return might be prompted by the discomfort caused by others’ perpetual regard for them as being “Asian” or “not Asian enough.”

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

During my brief stint on dating apps, my interactions with men — both Asian and not Asian — also made me feel like I was either “too Asian” or “not Asian enough.” I left some conversations hanging, wondering if I should have tried to fit more into their stereotypical perception of an Asian, to reach the right Asian cultural benchmarks to earn that first date offering in our texts.

It’s disconcerting to be displaced from your own identity from others’ responses to you, and it’s a feeling that no one should have to experience. Asian-ness encompasses a myriad of experiences lived by many people. We, no matter our background, cannot deny an individual’s experience, be it Asian or Black.

It is just as crucial for us to not deny others an experience that is different from ours, as it is for us to reclaim our own experience. There is a difference between having pride in one’s culture and adhering to a definition of a word far too strictly.

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