Hawaiian? Filipino? Chinese? How Asians are Perceived in NYC

Anderson Hsu, 21, born in Taiwan, came to New York five years ago. "As long as they don’t call me Chinese, I am fine...We are just Taiwanese. I don’t consider myself Chinese. But for them, we are all the same. I'll get annoyed when they call me Chinese." (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Anderson Hsu, 21, born in Taiwan, came to New York five years ago. “As long as they don’t call me Chinese, I am fine…We are just Taiwanese. I don’t consider myself Chinese. But for them, we are all the same. I’ll get annoyed when they call me Chinese.” (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

[Editor’s note: Yehyun Kim is completing a one-year internship with Voices of NY and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media. She interviewed and photographed the individuals in this photo essay.]

 

I like Flushing. Everything in the bustling Queens neighborhood is cheaper, I can get authentic Korean and Chinese food and there are large Korean grocery stores. But there is one thing that troubles me when I go to Flushing. Whenever I take the No. 7 train and walk around the area, Chinese people keep speaking to me in Chinese without even asking me if I am Chinese. Sometimes, even non-Asians say “xie xie” (“thank you,” in Chinese, pronounced shyeh-shyeh) after I’ve made a purchase.

I’m Korean and have always believed that I have a typical Korean “look.” And I once believed that East Asians from different countries each had their own distinctive “look.” But I began to wonder. After a while, I decided to talk to individuals who appear to be East Asian – Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese – and ask them both how they self-identify, and how they are perceived, by other Asians and by non-Asians.

There are 1,135,000 Asians in New York City, according to the 2010 U.S. Census – the greatest number in any U.S. city. Of this number, about 57 percent, or nearly 650,000, identify as Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean or Japanese either alone or in combination with other racial and ethnic groups.

This is just a small sample of how these individual see themselves – and how others see them. Their comments are illuminating, and sometimes surprising. Asians and non-Asians alike should pay more attention to the differences between people, in order to overcome stereotypes that too often lump all East Asians together as a group.

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jessica (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jessica, 20, born in Taiwan, came to New York four years ago

Actually if I were told that I look like Korean, I would be a little happy. Because that means maybe I’m well dressed or I have a little bit of makeup on my face, like I’m dressed up. Or Japanese actually.

 

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Shogo Kubo, born in Japan, came to New York 10 years ago

Whatever people say doesn’t matter. But most of the time, people say that I am Japanese. Sometimes people say that I am Vietnamese. I like it.

 

 

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Ginn Doll (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Ginn Doll, 24, Korean American, musician, born in Seattle, came to New York seven years ago

I always get that, “You should go into K-pop.” I always hear that. Nothing against it. But here’s the problem: I don’t know any K-pop… I want to stay in American pop music because that’s who I am. I’m an American.

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Ernest Lam, 22, Chinese American, born in Pennsylvania, came to New York in June

Some people think I’m Filipino, some people think I’m Mexican sometimes cause I’m fairly dark… I mean, I don’t really care, like even if they think I’m Filipino, or Japanese or Chinese, I don’t get annoyed… It’s pretty cool…’cause then I have something to talk about. It’s like a point of conversation. If they misunderstand who I am, then first of all I can correct them. I can tell them who I really am. I can also play with people sometimes…

I don’t think they’re expected to know. It’s like, if I saw a white guy on the street, I’m not going to be like, “Oh, you’re Italian!” or “You’re French!” I wouldn’t know. I would have to ask them.

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Cindy Ham (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Cindy Ham, born in Korea, came to New York at age 6

People would automatically assume I am either Chinese or Japanese. I never really get “Are you Korean?” which is really bothersome. But I am used to it… But then first I would be upset, because what do I have to do in order to look like a South Korean?

 

 

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jason Hong (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jason Hong, 17, Korean American, born in New York

I think I’m more Korean American, but raising up, I define myself more as Korean than American.

Why is that? My parents are very traditional so [Korean] church, and grandparents, everything I learned was in a Korean perspective, not the American way. So Americans say learn respect in school, I learned respect in home…

More than half my life I’ve been mistaken as other than Korean.

Which ethnicity? Filipino… I don’t feel bad. I got dark naturally. I really don’t care what they call me ’cause I know I’m Korean. I just correct them.

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jessica Tong (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jessica Tong, 31, Chinese American, born in California, came to New York in 2002

People always think I’m Hawaiian or Filipino. People never think I’m Chinese because of, I guess, the way that I look…

It used to really offend me a long time ago because I identify with my Chinese culture very strongly. But now that I’ve lived in New York for such a long time, and I’ve had the opportunity to mix with so many different Asian people, I realize that most foreigners just don’t know the difference. On a real level, we all really do look the same to them.

 

Mathew Chen

Matthew Chen (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Matthew Chen, 24, Taiwanese American, born in Upstate New York, came to New York this year

New York City in itself is a very multicultural place, it’s not something that is so judgmental… that someone would make as much of a snap judgment based on your ethnicity or your background. It comes off a lot more how you present yourself as a person, again, going down to interacting with people, how you speak with them, how you carry yourself. I think that’s more important than the way you look when someone first approaches you.

 

(Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jennifer H. (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

Jennifer H., 21, Chinese American, born in Connecticut

I’m third generation, so when I was growing up, I always thought of myself as being white basically because my parents never did the Asian things. We never made Asian foods, I never used chopsticks, I don’t know how to speak Chinese, which really stinks… A random person on the street, they probably see me as probably an immigrant. We just talked about this in class. There’s something called a “forever foreigner” complex, basically. No matter how long you’re here, they will still see you as “forever foreigner”… I feel really annoyed.

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