Exploring and celebrating East and Southeast Asian identities in the UK
An article for East and Southeast Asian Heritage Month 2022
By Daisy J. Hung
During a Race Equality Task Force working group meeting discussing language and terminology, I was asked how I identify. I recall saying ‘Asian American’ but caveating my response with a recognition that ‘Asian’ tends to have a different meaning in the UK – primarily associated with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. East and Southeast Asian groups tend to be less visible in this country, consigned into either ‘Chinese’ or ‘other Asian’ categories.
‘Asian American’ originated as a political identity, coined by University of California Berkeley graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka in 1968, inspired by the Black Power Movement and Vietnam War protests. Recognising the potential for greater solidarity and political influence, the term was used to galvanise different Asian ethnic groups to unite around common goals for racial and social justice. There are echoes of this collective identity formation with ‘ESEA’ or ‘East and Southeast Asian’ terminology in the UK, emerging and increasing in usage during the COVID-19 pandemic that saw a dramatic escalation of anti-Asian racism and violence on a global scale. Data suggests a 300 percent increase in hate crimes towards East and Southeast Asian people in the UK in the first quarter of 2020 compared to previous years.
Through these distressing times, there has been inspiring grassroots activism and collective organising. New organisations and advocacy groups have formed, such as End Violence and Racism Against East & Southeast Asian Communities (EVR), Campaign Against Racism Group (CARG), and Britain’s East and South East Asian Network (besea.n), among many others. In fact, in September 2021, the first ESEA Heritage Month was organised by besea.n to celebrate ‘the history, heritage and social contributions’ of ESEA communities in the UK. Those efforts resulted in over 70 events and nearly 10,000 attendees. This year, there is another wide ranging programme of activity across the country involving talks, social events, food, arts, history and more. There is a continued push for official recognition by the UK Government through an open petition. I attended an informative online talk about British Chinese and sport, and look forward to an author talk in Summertown with contributors to the recently released East Side Voices anthology.
This September marks ten years since I arrived in the UK from California. Over the years in this different context, I have increasingly identified as Chinese American and Canadian, reclaiming aspects of my identity previously omitted in favour of a simpler, unifying, pan-ethnic term. As I await the result of my citizenship application submitted last month, I wonder whether I will embrace a ‘British Chinese’ or ‘British East and Southeast Asian’ identity in the future. Regardless of these labels – all of which can obscure differences and homogenise disparate experiences – I am encouraged by the energy and enthusiasm within our communities and the potential for more collective action across the country, and within Oxford.
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