How Do Online Communities Shape Asian American?

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Communities, which are defined here as social networks of individuals who feel strong affiliations with and identify with one another, play an enormous role in shaping how people feel and act because they often play such a central role in peoples’ identities and worldviews . Asian Americans are currently the fastest growing ethnic group across the United States. “Asian-American,” as a term, encompasses an incredibly diverse range of people living across the United States—a Pew Research Center study indicates that while the majority of Asian-Americans identified with one of 6 major subgroups, there are over 22 groups with which Asian-Americans may identify.

For this project I interviewed Dr. Emily Chan, a Hong Kong-American professor of psychology at Colorado College, about her experience with the Asian-American community. As an immigrant to the United States who has lived in the U.S. since college, Dr. Chan’s experiences shed light onto how members of the contemporary Asian-American community relate to it and to each other. It is also important to note that her experiences are limited, because an upper middle class, professional, first generation immigrant will never be able to represent the full diversity of the Asian American community geographically, ethnically, or generationally.

The rise of the online world has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other, making connections on both an individual and on a community level. This is particularly significant in areas without a historic Asian American presence where Asian American communities may either be not present or not well established, such as Colorado Springs, the midsize city where Dr. Chan lives. By closely examining Dr. Chan’s experiences in Colorado Springs and online, we see that the modern word, internet communities have created vital community connections that tie together otherwise very geographically disparate or isolated Asian American communities and individuals across the United States together.

Without online connections, geography can play a determining role in whether an individual is able to connect to the Asian American community. In many places in the United States, local Asian-American communities are small or practically nonexistent. In Colorado Springs, for example, Asian-Americans make up just 3% of the population (half the national average). When describing opportunities to connect with Asian-American culture in Colorado Springs, Dr. Chan lamented that the “food is absolutely terrible [in Colorado Springs] in terms of Asian food,” and that “we don’t have a lot of art, movies, plays and such, where it is not an exotic version of Asian experience presented.” This is typical of areas which do not have a long history of Asian American communities being present—areas where most Asian-Americans are fairly recent migrants. In many parts of the country, due to exclusion acts, Asian-Americans only made up extremely small fractions of the population until after the immigration act of 1965 . Where this is the case, new arrivals to the area do not have access to existing community support structures, and communities are harder to form and sustain.

In a broader historical context, it is also important to understand that the lack of significant Asian American presence in many parts of the United States is due to historical factors of racial discrimination and exclusion. In Colorado, for example, Colorado Springs’ neighboring city, Denver, once had a small Chinatown district in the downtown area during the 19th century. Anti-Chinese sentiment was high, and the district was a target of a number of racial-hatred motivated incidents. The most significant of these was the Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880, where a mob of several thousand Denver residents looted the houses and destroyed the businesses of Denver’s approximately 200 Chinese residents, beating them (and killing one person, Sing Lee).

The Asian-American community and the violence against it is not mentioned at all in popular “History of Denver” narratives. These same forces of racial discrimination, across the years, help us understand why the Asian American communities in places like Colorado are so small and fragmented. In some places with higher Asian American populations, long term ethnic enclaves may have been established, with good support systems and a strong sense of community, for example, Chinatowns from the mining era that have persisted for over a century in California. This disparity between geographical areas means that Asian Americans living in different parts of the United States can have very different experiences with their local Asian American communities.

Without a distinct community to anchor them, Asian-Americans living in areas can feel adrift and cut off from their cultures. White mainstream culture may often feel unwelcoming, especially because it tends to homogenize and foreignize Asian-Americans. Dr. Chan notes that in her experience, “white Americans don’t always really differentiate various Asian American groups,” whether this comes as acquaintances who casually assume she would make kimchi, or colleagues who can never tell her apart from her Asian American coworkers. It can also be very alienating to be constantly assumed to be foreign: Dr. Chan speaks about constantly being asked “where are you from?” by well-meaning strangers, who nevertheless convey that “they don’t think [she’s] from here,” and give her a sense that she stands out as a racial outgroup. Interactions like these mean that mainstream white society feels can feel relatively hostile for Asian Americans, which can be particularly uncomfortable when there is no community to provide adequate support.

This is where internet connections have been very powerful, because they provide a place where people can find communities that they would otherwise lack. The internet may not necessarily be as powerful of a tool for people who live in vibrant physical Asian American communities, but for people like Dr. Chan who would like to find a stronger cultural community than would exist in their geographical area, online communities can be extremely powerful. She claims that, in her experience, “there isn’t as big of, or as vibrant of an Asian American community that I connect with here in Colorado Springs,” but that she feels “more connected to the online Asian American Studies Community,” where she can “learn what people are doing.” Internet connections allow people who might not otherwise come into contact to build connections, and creating these internet spaces for support, resources, discussion, can create a multilayered community that stretches across vast areas of geographical space.

Online Asian American communities connect their members across huge geographical areas. One place where Dr. Chan finds a sense of community is in the online community of the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton, which has members throughout the entire United States, as well as internationally. She also connects to the Asian American community via social media, which allows her to stay in touch with other people in “various Asian American groups, in Colorado and outside of Colorado.” In Dr. Chan’s opinion, “[Asian Americans] are diverse bunch and I think that Facebook and other places reminds us of that.” This does appear to be a distinct strength of online Asian American communities, that they are able to draw very diverse memberships from all over the United States. Bringing people together on an online platform from across the globe connects members in different low density locations, which may be able to have a critical-mass like effect where community members can then find others whose identity and experiences they relate to.

The proliferation of online groups also reflects the diversity of the Asian American community in that there are many different sub-communities within the greater online community with strikingly different functions or opportunities for connection. This can take the form of groups like Subtle Asian Traits, where people can share jokes about their Asian cultures/heritage, with over 1 million members, or groups such as Community for Asian American Studies, a smaller group where members share information in a much more academic context. This allows community members to participate in many different aspects of community life. Places like Subtle Asian Traits give members a place to have pride in their communities, to share cultural references with others who will understand, to share stories of frustrations and solidarity. Online groups like Community for Asian American Studies can provide a space for members share news that is relevant to their community and to provide space for members to think seriously about issues that their community faces. In this sense, the broader online community provides many of the same services that a physical, geographical community would, but to members who may or may not fell they belong to physical, geographical communities of their own.

Online communities also present better opportunities for activism and education. Before the rise of the internet, Dr. Chan remembers feeling frustrated about how difficult it was to find information about opportunities to take part in community events and activism when she was in college. Before internet communities could easily spread announcements, finding these opportunities depended on whether you saw the flyers: “you see the flyer, you show up,” and if not, you missed it. With the rise of the internet, information has become much more accessible. Hence, even community members who do not feel extremely strongly connected to other Asian Americans in their geographical area, such as Dr. Chan, are able to casually “watch out for opportunities” to engage in activism, and know that they will be less likely to miss their chances to show up for their communities.

Additionally, online communities are able to share information that community members may not be able to find on their own. For example, one of Dr. Chan’s major complaints about the K-12 education system in Colorado Springs was that it mostly ignores Asian American and Chinese American history, during the interview she condemned the school curriculum, saying that on this topic, “You learned nothing. Did you know about the atrocities in, in Oregon and California, state of Washington, during the late 1800’s? You read exactly nothing about that. And that’s, ridiculous that we don’t know that, that we don’t teach that in high school.”

In contrast, Asian American online communities are much more eager to share this information, for example, the Community for Asian American Studies frequently posts articles on Asian American history. When members of these online Asian American communities are able to go online and escape the erasure that often occurs to their community and history in white mainstream society, it likely makes these communities even more meaningful, especially if they, like Dr. Chan, do not have a strong regional community and so the online communities are the only places where they can have these connections and experiences.

Understanding the role of online communities is very important in a society which is increasingly online, particularly since people interact and connect very differently online than they do in person. All communities can be affected by the rise of internet culture, but it may be especially vital to understand in an Asian American community that is already facing rapid growth and change. While Dr. Chan’s experience is limited, it is not very reflective of life within a tight-knit local Asian American community, her experiences shed light on the important role that online Asian American communities play for people who would otherwise feel isolated and disconnected from the wider Asian American community in the United States. In places where local Asian American communities are small or nonexistent (often newer communities where historical discrimination had previously prevented communities from forming), online communities can act as a bridge between Asian Americans who feel isolated in wildly different place, and bring them all into conversation together.

Cite this paper

How Do Online Communities Shape Asian American?. (2021, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-do-online-communities-shape-asian-american/

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