Notable Asians and
on Belonging in the USA
Mindy Kaling, Bowen Yang, Senators Mazie Hirono and Tammy Duckworth, Margaret Cho and more talked to TODAY about visibility in America.
By Robin Kawakami
Art direction by Tyler Essary
There are more than 24 million Asian Americans in the United States — the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. And while some can trace their American roots back to the 1800s (Filipino sailors were the first Asians to come to North America in the late 1500s, according to Erika Lee’s “The Making of Asian America”), the “perpetual foreigner” myth lives on.
Last week, a report by Asian American advocacy groups found that only 29% of Asian American respondents completely agreed that they felt like they belong or are accepted in the U.S. — the lowest of all racial groups. And when it comes to visibility in popular culture, 58% of Americans couldn’t name a single prominent Asian American (Jackie Chan, who was the top named response at 7%, isn’t American).
So, we wondered: How do notable Asian Americans and Asians living in the country feel about visibility and belonging in the USA? We heard from a number of celebrities: some who are emerging voices and others who have been in the spotlight for decades, like Margaret Cho, who starred in the 1994 groundbreaking prime-time sitcom “All-American Girl,” and Lou Diamond Phillips, who has represented different cultures in many roles, from Ritchie Valens to the King of Siam, but still faces the dreaded question: “Where are you from?” Others celebrated diversity within the Asian American experience, like Mindy Kaling's South Indian American family in "Never Have I Ever," while Sen. Tammy Duckworth talked about the “power of America” in her military service as an Asian American woman.
Here are their stories.
COMEDIAN, ACTOR AND MUSICIAN
It’s still difficult to feel like we belong, and there’s no moment I can point to that’s helped me realize that we do. It’s a moment that has yet to happen and I have hope for it. Still, the visibility of Asian American comedians like Ali Wong, Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang give me lots of excitement about the future.
I still feel invisible but I think it’s getting better! There’s no moment to talk about invisibility because there’s not a way to verbalize it which is what makes it so difficult. But I think just now we are coming into being.
“I still feel invisible but I think it’s getting better!”
Courtesy Tammy Duckworth
U.S. SENATOR FOR ILLINOIS
It wasn’t so much one moment but the pivotal realization that the strength of our nation lies in our diversity, especially when we interact internationally.
In the mid-90s, as a young platoon leader and First Lieutenant, I participated in Operation Brightstar, a NATO training exercise in Egypt. We were out in the desert with air crews from all different parts of NATO and somebody had gone up to one of the guys in my aircrew to ask to look at the aircraft — this often happened as a gesture of goodwill for the locals. And, at the time, I was the only commissioned officer in the unit that was a woman — and I was the only Asian American in a command position. And when one of the guys in our crew said they had to go talk to me to look at the aircraft, their reaction was “Who? The little Asian girl?” And the response was, “yep, she’s the boss.”
In that moment, it crystallized the power of America for me, in terms of the eyes of the rest of the world. Just the fact that our guys were taking orders from a woman — an Asian American woman — shows the power of America. All of us were Americans — we have respect for each other — and it’s important the rest of the world sees that.
“Just the fact that our guys were taking orders from a woman — an Asian American woman — shows the power of America.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth
WRITER, PRODUCER AND ACTOR
Maarten de Boer / Getty Images
I think when my show “Never Have I Ever” debuted on Netflix, I remember thinking, like, before it came out, “This is a really specific story.” It’s an Indian American family — and not only Indian but South Indian, which has its own specific cultural nuances. One of the members of the family is an immigrant, the mom, and then the cousin also is a more recent immigrant, and the girl is Indian American. So it felt so specific to my lived experience. And you have this feeling in TV where you're supposed to be doing things with broad appeal. And I was like, I wonder if this is going to be really niche?
And I have never been more happily surprised that that show, you know, 40 million people watched that show when it came out. And what's so exciting is that … here's something that should have been really niche, which is really about my experience growing up in this country as an Indian American girl in a certain time, and that that show had this appeal universally. And to me, it was such an amazing message … I was like 41 when that came out and still learning that yes, if something is truthful, and it's honest to your experience, it can have universal appeal. It doesn't have to be like you're trying to do one type of thing. It's like people are smart; people are sophisticated. They just want to be around real stories and authentic stories. And to me, I was so proud as an Asian American, that so many people who didn't look like that family felt the story was compelling.
“If something is truthful, and it's honest to your experience, it can have universal appeal.”
Lou Diamond Phillips
ACTOR AND DIRECTOR
Growing up with mixed heritage, it has never been easy for people to categorize me which, for some people, seems important. I was often met with obtuse but obvious questions like "Where are you from?" or, even more pointedly, “What’s your nationality?” When I consistently answered “American,” the rejoinder was often, “You know what I meant.”
I do know that representing many different cultures as an actor (an undertaking I’ve been privileged and honored to do) I’ve only muddied the waters for those trying to figure me out. Even in Hollywood, where many have a conscious desire to recognize diversity, it’s proven challenging to put me in a box, and so I often fall between the cracks. Since I do not automatically present as Asian, I get that I’m not emblematic to a broad-stroke Asian-ness, but again, there is a simplistic shorthand that attempts to empirically define someone that ignores nuance and complexity. Additionally, the Asian umbrella is inclusive of a lot of subsets, so much so that "Pacific Islander" had to be added for specificity, and only recently has there been recognition of the Filipino presence in the movement.
Suffice to say that, in a forty-year career, I’ve had very little opportunity to represent my own DNA.
I recall, with great pride and overwhelming emotion, one of the few times when I was able to embrace being Asian and being recognized and acknowledged for it: playing The King of Siam in the 1996/97 Tony-winning Broadway revival of "The King And I." I’m also proud to note that it was the first production of the show on Broadway in which all of the Asian roles were played by artists of Asian descent.
Ultimately, I think it’s important for all of us, individually, to know who we are; to know where we came from but also to know where we want to go; and to epitomize that representation is a matter of action, not explanation.
“In a forty-year career, I've had very little opportunity to represent my own DNA.”
Lou Diamond Phillips
ACTOR, COMEDIAN AND “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” STAR
Mary Ellen Matthews / NBCU
I moved here from Canada when I was 9 years old. And I had — even as a child — I had preconceived notions about what being an American meant as opposed to being in Canada. They’re neighboring countries, but it felt like there was still this cultural gap. And I remember moving to Colorado, where I grew up, and just thinking, wow, there is this really wonderful sense of welcoming that my family felt that I really didn’t expect — even as a child who was jaded by the world and by race. … I know that this is not applicable holistically across America, but I kind of think I lucked out in terms of the community I happened upon — middle-class, suburban Colorado — in terms of thinking that there was this real, in the ideal sense, melting pot concept. And that almost sounds hokey in 2022 … I feel like I got that sense of belonging early on that kind of gave me some footing going forward.
There was a study that NBC reported on, which was that more Americans now believe that Asians have more loyalty to their "home countries," whatever that means, as opposed to America. And that’s a little alarming. And I feel like that’s sort of where it gets dicey in terms of AAPI people not being perceived as American.
“I lucked out in terms of the community I happened upon — middle-class, suburban Colorado — in terms of thinking that there was this real, in the ideal sense, melting pot concept.”
U.S. SENATOR FOR HAWAII
Courtesy Mazie Hirono
I grew up in Hawaii, which is one of the most diverse states in the country. In fact, Hawaii does not have a majority racial group. Hawaii is a very special place where we celebrate, respect, and embrace other cultures. It makes a huge difference growing up in that kind of environment, where everyone feels they belong, no matter their race. I view myself as American — period.
But I know that the experience I had in Hawaii of celebrating and embracing diversity is not the experience of many AAPI people across the country. Examples of AAPI targeted for discriminatory treatment include the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act, decades of racist laws, Trump’s Muslim ban, through the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the pandemic, and more. There are reasons AAPI people feel they are not seen. During the rise in anti-Asian hate, members of the community came forward and talked about how they are seen as the perpetual “other.”
This discrimination and “othering” is deeply rooted in our country’s history. And it’s why it’s so important that we have diverse voices in positions of power. People with diverse backgrounds and experiences provide perspectives that make for more fuller understanding and better decision making.
“This discrimination and 'othering' is deeply rooted in our country’s history.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono
ACTOR, PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR
As a Japanese American actor on “Sesame Street” for the past 24 years, I feel so fortunate to be the face of Asian Americans to multiple generations of children and parents who watch our show. It is something that I try never to take for granted, and as one of the humans (that’s how we non-Muppet cast members refer to ourselves), we of course are recognized when we are out in public. I always try to stop and have a conversation with both parents and kids when I am stopped on the street. I believe it is part of my job to be an ambassador for the show, but I also believe that it is important to be a role model for diversity as well. It’s a small thing, but it makes me feel like I’m trying to do something positive.
With the rise in violence and racist driven attacks on Asians and Asian Americans, a small group of Asian American theatre artists decided that we needed to do something to speak out against this injustice. We asked 32 Broadway and off-Broadway actors to join us, and asked Asian American composer Adam Gwon to write an original song. The result was a music video called I Am Here, and I had the honor of directing the piece. The video begins with Star Trek actor George Takei reading a haiku, while a montage of the history of Asian Americans in this country is shown. The video ends with the voice of a child singing “And I won’t disappear,” which represents that we refuse to be silent any longer. Broadway was closed during this time, and so we all felt like we needed to do this as both Asian Americans and as theatre artists. It felt proactive and cathartic.
“I feel so fortunate to be the face of Asian Americans to multiple generations of children and parents who watch our show.”
NBC NEWS INVESTIGATIVE AND CONSUMER CORRESPONDENT
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
This reckoning came late for me. The idea that not only is it OK to talk about being Asian American and what that experience is like, but that it’s an immutable characteristic that affects every aspect of my life.
As a kid born in Vietnam who came here as a refugee and started kindergarten with no English language skills, I wanted to fit in. I changed my name to “Vicky” in second grade after Jack Tripper’s girlfriend in the TV show "Three’s Company."
As an adult, working in journalism, I wanted to be as neutral as possible. My racial identity was not something to be highlighted or even acknowledged in my reporting.
But during the pandemic, I started to see and feel the anti-Asian sentiment rising in different pockets of our community. Viral videos of horrific attacks on the elderly, and our own circle of friends now talking more about being blamed for COVID…it spurred me to recognize that being Asian American is as much a part of me as being a woman, a mother, a daughter, a human, and that it’s OK to not only say that out loud, but to share that perspective personally and professionally. I can interview and report on issues that affect the AAPI community, particularly the Vietnamese refugee community, more thoroughly and effectively if I bring my whole self and my experiences to the job. It’s not to say I don’t try to step back and look at my work or get outside opinions, but owning our Asian American identities doesn’t hinder our journalism. It enriches our work, and it enriches our lives when we can embrace all the facets of who we are. We don’t have to fit in to belong in America.
“We don’t have to fit in to belong in America.”
CO-FOUNDER OF GOLD HOUSE
Stefanie Keenan / Getty Images
On the founding of Gold House, an Asian and Pacific Islander community aiming for socioeconomic equity: “We all looked around, and we wondered why Asians just weren't thriving in society. Why on media, we felt like we were always portrayed as weak, or the villains, or just things we didn't like. We wondered why when we walked into our offices and our work, why we were employed, but weren't being promoted. And we looked around during elections, why a lot of people just thought our votes didn't matter. So sort of across the board wonder: Why does no one see us in the way that we think we deserve to be seen? And we decided it was time to do something about it.”
“Gold House should not exist if we succeed, because we shouldn't have to tell our community to support each other. We shouldn't have to tell Hollywood and media, 'Here's actually what an authentic and affirming portrayal looks like.' We shouldn't have to tell corporations that upward mobility matters, not just for our communities but for everyone. And that's the honest answer, we should become obsolete.”
“Why does no one see us in the way that we think we deserve to be seen?”
Courtesy Bee Vang
I have spent most of the 30 years of my life in this country, the country of my birth. But sadly it wasn’t until the #StopAsianHate movement of the COVID-19 era that I began to understand what it meant to “belong” in a country where we, Asian Americans, have been made to feel at best like outsiders.
This moment, to be sure, gave me a voice and the wherewithal to speak from a place where my Asian-American experience, pain, anger and the demand for our recognition could be articulated into a viable politics. I had known for far too long what it meant to inhabit a liminal space among America’s other racial collectivities. I had felt far too acutely the powerful forces that rendered Asian Americans invisible ... and made Asian America an unnuanced and problematic monolith.
That said, we Asian Americans will also have to reckon with what it means that our shared collectivity today is the outcome of trauma and unrelenting racial violence — a dominant motif in the stories of so many other communities here in this country. I think about this often as a child of Hmong refugees, as part of another collectivity living with and grieving the memory and devastation of warfare that destroyed my parents’ homeland and led to their diaspora across the Pacific Ocean.
For now, we still must snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. To speak out, to opt for the significant over the light fantastic, to remember the past, to imagine a better future, is to honor our beloved dead and those we have lost to senselessness. Perhaps this is what belonging and being part of the American story has meant all along.
“I had felt far too acutely the powerful forces that rendered Asian Americans invisible.”
PRODUCER, INSTRUMENTALIST AND MEMBER OF THE BAND N.E.R.D.
Jun Sato / WireImage
When I was younger, we had to recite in unison the Pledge of Allegiance in school, sharing the same words, in the same rhythm, sharing pride for our country, the USA. Looking back, those unison moments gave me a sense of connection and community with others, and I felt that I belonged. In life we can encounter people that don’t agree or accept us. I always strived to never let that get me down, because I am indeed part of the American story.
I think we’ve all felt invisible in some way or another throughout our lives. It can be an unfortunate part of our human experience. In fact, sometimes we can be the ones to bring ourselves down with negative thinking. What would I say to my younger self about all of that ... I would quote the great Tom Petty, “You don’t have to Live like a refugee." I believe it’s also important to learn as much as we can about the true origin and DNA of ourselves, which can encourage self-pride, and help us keep an open mind of others and their cultures. It’s a very sacred thing. Lastly, as we come to terms of labeling ourselves as Asian-American, it’s important to remember that what we are actually saying to ourselves is “I can,” which is very important. We can live the dream of prosperity and happiness. In God We Trust is on the dollar. If people believe in the dollar, then they can believe in themselves.
“I think we’ve all felt invisible in some way or another throughout our lives.”
Ella Jay Basco
ACTOR, SINGER AND SONGWRITER
Courtesy Ella Jay Basco
Growing up, I didn’t have many TV shows or movies where I felt represented as a member of the AAPI community and often felt invisible. I remember thinking a lot of the time that my stories weren’t as important because I never experienced watching them on screen. But when I did, the stories were often stereotyped with model minorities and jokes. It wasn’t until shows like "Andi Mack" came out where Asian kids were the focal point of conversation. I’m really grateful that things are changing and I can now say there are a bunch of projects where we are properly shown.
With this in mind, I would tell my younger self that there is hope and room for growth within the entertainment industry. We just have to keep pushing and become the representation that we would like to see reflected on screen.
“I remember thinking a lot of the time that my stories weren’t as important because I never experienced watching them on screen.”
Ella Jay Basco
Courtesy Usman Ally
As an Asian American, a need for visibility and acceptance into the fabric of American society is a common and repetitive theme for all of us. As a South Asian American, that (lack of) visibility and inclusion exists not only in the larger American landscape, but within the Asian community as well. Because of the way I look, the melanin of my skin, and the shape and color of my eyes, I am often not even considered “Asian looking” by other Asians! The struggle to find acceptance, to become visible and assert your unique background never gets easier, it remains a constant in your life, but the good news is that you find ways to continue persevering and celebrating your uniqueness in ways that are more self-preserving than when you were young, frustrated and raging against the machine!
In my early twenties, I often angrily lamented that no one could or would possibly understand that my Pakistani heritage made me Asian, that my birthplace of Eswatini, and my youth in Southern and Eastern Africa made me a bit African, and that my new home of America would eventually also make me a bit American. If I could talk to that young man now, I would tell him that things will get better, not because the world will suddenly make room for you, but because you “will figure it out because you have to and you must, for yourself, but also for those who struggle with you, and those who come after you."
The feeling of not being seen is not only tied to how we look on the outside. For me, and for many of us, we have other cultural markers that are often ignored, serving to otherize us even more. Throughout most of my career, people have struggled for some reason to pronounce the two syllables that make up my name, either through a lack of care, a lack of experience, genuine incapability, or quite simply, laziness. Every time I arrive on a set and the First Assistant Director calls out some version of my name in the walkie-talkie, I cringe, I feel anxiety and stress about the fact that my first moment on set will already be a contentious one, and I haven’t even spoken a word yet. Very soon after this moment I begin to dread that I’ll unfairly be cast aside as the difficult person of color from a faraway land who is making everyone uncomfortable by insisting his name is pronounced correctly.
Our names are important. They have meaning and they were chosen for us. As a new father, I know how much time and effort my wife and I took to choose a name for our son.
Very recently, I began work on a new job, and much to my shock, almost every person on set either said my name correctly or (and this is the key) took the time to ask me how to say my name. It was a deeply moving day for me, and unbeknownst to all my co-workers, it was the most seen I had ever felt working on a show. When people take the time to show a respect for the totality of you, it makes you feel ownership of the work you are about to do. You feel belonging, and mostly, you feel hope that slowly, and incrementally, the work you have been putting in to be seen is finally coming to fruition.
“I begin to dread that I’ll unfairly be cast aside as the difficult person of color from a faraway land who is making everyone uncomfortable by insisting his name is pronounced correctly.”
ACTOR AND COMEDIAN
There are so many caveats to the question of "belonging," the biggest one being that I think there is no point after which I felt like, "Okay, I'm done now, I belong." I think that it's sort of a daily struggle, you know? I've watched every member of my family go through the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen — as legal a definition of "belonging" as you can get — but that doesn't mean they're not encountering racism in their everyday lives. For myself, I can think of so many times where I felt like I found a community – finding punk rock as a kid, finding comedy as an adult – and sure, you could call that a form of "belonging." But at the same time, both of those communities are rife with racism, both overt and implicit, and there have been so many times where I felt ostracized from those communities. Finding a sense of belonging is a rollercoaster, an imprecise journey that waxes and wanes with the changing of the moon.
I remember just a few years ago, going to Chinatown to watch an outdoor movie with an Asian friend of mine, who introduced me to other Asian friends, and sitting down and drinking boba and watching an Asian film and feeling like I could exhale, like it was okay to exist inside my own skin. Two years later, six Asian women were gunned down in Atlanta — just one point in a terrible constellation of recent hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
I know that's a downer of an answer, but I think it's important to acknowledge that the work is never really done. We've come a long way, yes, but there's still a long way to go. Seeking inclusivity is an everyday act. You can't crash diet anti-racism.
“Seeking inclusivity is an everyday act. You can't crash diet anti-racism.”
Amy Sussman / Getty Images
Born and grew up in Japan as Zainichi Korean, I was (a) minority even in Japan. I always felt I was an alien or outsider when I was a kid.
I always longed for the idea of America and wanted to live in America … Now “AA" is not only Asian American but also Asians in America. Finally I can feel I am a part of AAPI. And when I attended the premiere event for “Pachinko,” I actually felt a huge and warm support from AAPI society for the first time in my life as a real, bold experience.
“I always felt I was an alien or outsider when I was a kid.”
Courtesy Minnie Mills
Growing up Asian in America led me to often struggle with feeling invisible in society and going unnoticed and unconsidered. When I was seen I was reduced to stereotypes or notions of the role Asians play in American society, scrubbing me of my individuality and personhood. Especially as an actor, there was so little Asian representation in the media growing up.
There are so many beautiful Asian cultures, each with their own magnificent traditions, food, fashions, and a breadth of stories and experiences within each of those cultures. However, Hollywood often portrays Asians as interchangeable, always there to service another character, never a fleshed out whole person. In fact in high school, someone told me I was a background character: You forget I’m there and I never really do anything crucial to the story. That is why I am so excited and proud to be entering the industry at a time like this, where we are beginning to see and hear so many stories with complicated, well-rounded, multidimensional, beautifully flawed Asian characters at the forefront.
That said, there is still so much work to be done in breaking out of Hollywood’s Asian stereotypes. That’s part of the reason I fell in love with my character Shayla in "The Summer I Turned Pretty" — she is the "it" girl, she turns heads, she is noticed and unapologetically confident in who she is, but she is also kind and vulnerable, and yes, she is Asian.
When I first landed the role, people in my life told me they couldn’t possibly imagine me in that position, and it was really empowering to step into her and be like, “ya, a girl like that can look like me." I have always been extremely proud to be Korean, and I am so excited by the growing popularity of Korean media in the past few years. Growing up in predominantly white communities, my response to being constantly “othered” and labeled was always to stand tall and proud in my identity.
We live in a world where we are constantly being labeled and perceived, and I have always believed in using that as an opportunity to share and educate people on the rich culture I was so fortunate to grow up with. I am so grateful for my mother, who raised me on Korean traditions, superstitions, folktales and lullabies, made Korean food at home, and taught me how to speak, read and write. She has always been truly ahead of her time and believed that Korea could be the next big thing on the global market, and her vision and determination have so much to do with who and where I am today.
If I could tell eighth grade Minnie anything, I would tell her that she can bloody well be the main character, she can be Dorothy, and to stand tall and proud in those ruby red slippers.
“In high school, someone told me I was a background character: You forget I'm there and I never really do anything crucial to the story.”
My father is a first-generation immigrant from China and my mother is English, and yet I didn’t feel I belonged to either heritage. Growing up, other than my siblings, I had no one around me who looked like me or that I could truly relate to.
At school, even though I didn’t necessarily look Chinese, my surname being called out every day gave the bullies a reason to pick on me. I felt less than the “proper English” kids, and although it’s very difficult to think that I felt that way, I did feel ashamed of who I was. I felt ashamed to be of Chinese descent.
At 14, I successfully auditioned for the Italia Conti Performing Arts School in London, and although the struggle was real to find funding for me to be able to attend, I made it by the skin of my teeth. I remember my first day so clearly because I was welcomed with open arms by children of all different colours and backgrounds. It didn’t matter anymore that I was Chinese, it didn’t matter that I was only part English, I was just embraced for being unique. Embraced for being me. We were united by our love for singing, dancing and acting, and from that day on, the arts helped me heal a wound, giving me the nudge I needed to love myself for who I am.
“Although it’s very difficult to think that I felt that way, I did feel ashamed of who I was. I felt ashamed to be of Chinese descent.”
Courtesy Román Zaragoza
In 2018, I had the privilege of working on Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's “Snow in Midsummer” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This amazing play told a contemporary ghost story with an all-Asian cast. From day one of rehearsal to closing night, this show and its team continued to fill me with so much pride.
I grew up feeling ashamed of being Asian because most of the bullying I endured had to do with my Asian side. Being a Mixed Race kid, I found myself trying to suppress parts of myself, and getting to work on this production with such an amazing AAPI team released so many of my insecurities. It allowed me to fully be myself for the first time and I truly felt I was not hiding who I really was.
I felt whole and I owe that to these amazing people: Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Christine Mok, Jessica Ko, Amy Kim Waschke, Daisuke Tsuji, Will Dao, Cristofer Jean, Moses Villarama, Monique Holt, Natsuko Ohama, Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong, Olivia Pham, James Ryen and many more!
“I grew up feeling ashamed of being Asian because most of the bullying I endured had to do with my Asian side.”
MUSICIAN, SINGER, SONGWRITER AND COMPOSER
I believe that feeling invisible, like many others, was my biggest fear growing up. Not being accepted made me feel scared. Now thinking back, I think it came from a place of not only being an Asian American but also just being a human. We all feel insecure at times and once we learn how to deal with it, that is when other people can truly see your beautiful personality. I would like to tell my younger self to just be who I am as long as it is sharing the love I can for people who I care about.
RAPPER AND SINGER
Courtesy Yoon Mirae
You can't wait for people to accept you — you've got to believe it for yourself. If that's how you feel and that's what you believe, then it is what it is. If you're waiting for somebody else to believe that about yourself, you'll be waiting for a very long time. Give yourself a chance and let your voice be heard.
RAPPER, PRODUCER AND ENTREPRENEUR
On advice he’d give to his younger self: “Train your body, mind, and soul - like your life is depending on it. Have discipline. Fall in love with yourself. Love others like you respect your mom. And do whatever it takes to protect your love.”