Who's Asian? And Why Should We Care?

The Complexity of Asian America Is Dizzying

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Bill Imada Bill Imada
I'm regularly asked by corporate marketers: Who is Asian American? There never seems to be agreement on this topic, which makes it even more daunting for prospective marketers who really want to understand the mindset of Asian-American consumers. And for community and civic leaders in the Asian-American community, the need to shatter all of the stereotypes connected to being Asian is viewed as an enduring struggle, as well as a quest for greater legitimacy as a consumer-market segment.

In New York, civic groups claim to represent Asians of every stripe and culture, and boast having members who describe themselves as "Asian American" or "Asian-American." The hyphenation is often omitted because a majority of Asian-American leaders believe that adding a hyphen marginalizes Asians by tying them into the more dominant white culture.

In Washington, DC, many civic groups add the term Pacific in their official names, including the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies and the Center for Asian Pacific Americans for Community Development. The term Pacific is used to demonstrate the organization's commitment to inclusion and recognizes that there are Pacific Islanders who are often counted as being a part of the greater Asian Diaspora. There are also Asians who claim to be Pacific Islanders because they hail from islands in the Pacific and South Pacific, including a number of Filipinos (Pilipino if you want to be perfectly PC). And, to complicate things even further, the U.S. Census used to tie the diverse Pacific Islander communities together with the even more diverse Asian-American communities.

In California, where PC behavior is expected of every corporate and community leader, marketers are confronted with a variety of self-described (and occasionally self-imposed) terms and labels. Most civic leaders continue to demonstrate their inclusive tendencies by referring to themselves as Asian Pacific American (no hyphens), although the more PC term is still Asian and Pacific Islander American or Asian American and Pacific Islander. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a movement afoot to be even more inclusive by adding Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives to the mix. So don't be surprised when someone self-describes as Native Hawaiian/Alaska Native/Pacific Islander Asian American or Pacific Islander/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian and Asian American.

Recent immigrants aren't always tuned in on the latest and most PC jargon. Latinos of Asian heritage often self-describe as Mexicano, Peruano, Cubano or even Chino (Chinese in Spanish). Unfortunately for the Asian-American community, many Latinos of Asian heritage self-describe on the U.S. Census form as Latino/Hispanic. This supports what many Hispanic advertising agencies have been saying for ages: Latinos may be of any race. A case in point is the former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, who is Latino of Asian descent but only claims to be Japanese when it is convenient for him.

Furthermore, Chinese from China and Taiwan often just say they are Chinese; Koreans and Korean-Americans usually say they are Korean; Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans refer to themselves commonly as Vietnamese, and so on and so forth.

Lastly, to confuse us marketers even more, we have to deal with globalization. Our friends in Canada place all Asians in the "visible minority" category. However, to make things even more complicated, Canadians include people from all parts of Asia as Asian. This includes "West Asians," such as people from the Middle East (i.e., Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Saudis, Syrians, et al.); "South Asians" (Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, et al.); and "East Asians" (including Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, et al.). This doesn't even take into account what our marketing brethren across the pond do to segment Asian consumers. In the U.K., "Asian" refers to Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and other South Asians, but not Chinese. Chinese are just that, Chinese.

So who really is Asian and what is Asian?

Ask. Observe. And, take some time to get to know the consumers you are striving to reach. Smart marketers know that they should allow consumers to self-describe and act accordingly. Simply assuming that someone is Asian may not be accurate or well-received. And if you really want to make community leaders upset, refer to them as Oriental. If you do use the term Oriental, use it to describe furniture, art work or an aspect of Asian cuisine -- not a person of Asian heritage.

It is also important to note that Asian Americans aren't all alike. Although all Asian cultures share some common values and traditions, we don't always share a common language, religious beliefs, customs, and viewpoints.

But even more important than asking consumers to self-identify is the fact that the Asian-American consumer market is by far the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. U.S. marketers aren't ignoring Western European markets such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Switzerland and other European states, so why would a smart marketer ignore Asian America? Aside from all of the confusion that the Asian-American community may create from self-describing as this or that, Asian America -- if viewed as a country -- is larger than all of the aforementioned European states. And, if Asian America was a sovereign state, it would be the 14th largest economic power in the world.

I think I'll invest in that island.
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