What does it mean to be Asian American today? Celebrities, designers, and entrepreneurs share what their identity means to them

  • There's been a renewed conversation around the term "Asian American" and the diverse populations it encompasses.

  • Despite cultural and ethnic differences, Asian Americans have also come together to celebrate their shared experiences.

  • 7 prominent Asian Americans, from Padma Lakshmi to Phillip Lim, share what their identity means to them.

There's been a renewed conversation around what it means to be "Asian American," and its significance to the more than 23 million people in the United States who fall under the term.

The term "Asian American" was coined in 1968 by activists Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee during the founding of the Asian American Political Alliance. Although it's a common identity that helped build political power and coalition throughout history, the label can also overlook the diverse ethnic and cultural subgroups it encompasses.

Just 16% of Asians living in the country use the label to describe their identity, while 52% use their ethnicity, alone or in combination with "American," according to new data from the Pew Research Center.

Despite the diverse cultures and origins, many Asian Americans have also come together to celebrate their shared experiences. Amid a surge in anti-Asian sentiment and hate incidents in recent years, they have found solace in the solidarity and mutual understanding found in the wider community.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Insider spoke with celebrities, entrepreneurs, chefs, fashion designers, and more about what the term "Asian American" means to them.

Padma Lakshmi, television host, author, and philanthropist

Padma Lakshmi in front of a purple background
Padma Lakshmi is the creator and host of "Taste the Nation," advocate for immigrant rights, and author of cookbooks, a memoir, and children's book.Padma Lakshmi/Anthony Jackson, Tyler Le/Insider

What does it mean to be Asian American to you?

I think being Asian American is multi-faceted: There are many cultures under that umbrella. It's at least 100 languages. It's also 40% of the world's population, and a big economic powerhouse.

And while the numbers are staggering, I do feel a kinship with other Asians. There's a shared value system — respect for elders, closeness to extended family, focus on education, work ethic and temperament. On the other hand, being from India is very different than being from Japan, for example. There are vast differences culturally, and also culinarily, just to name a couple.

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you?

I think the Muslim ban and the vilification of immigrants in general during the 2016 presidential election was a seminal moment. It galvanized not only my solidarity with other Asian Americans but also all immigrants.

I started working with the ACLU at this time on immigrant rights. After a few years of this, I decided to dedicate myself to doing something in my professional life that addressed the same issues on an artistic level. And that's how my Hulu show "Taste the Nation" was born.

My memoir, "Love, Loss and What We Ate," is also an Asian American story because it discusses themes that are relevant to our community.  It tells not only my story but this country's story in many ways.

I also wrote my children's book, "Tomatoes for Neela," so that Asian American kids as well as biracial kids could see themselves and learn about our foods. There's even a recipe for chutney in the back for families to try. My Asian American identity fuels everything I do.

What do you love about being Indian American? 

I love celebrating Diwali with all our friends and family here in New York. Over the years our get-togethers have bloomed into something everyone looks forward to. It's a chance to enjoy and share the music, food, and rituals of our culture with those we love — and also pass it down to my daughter and her cousins.

Phillip Lim, fashion designer

Phillip Lim in front of a purple background
Phillip Lim is a renowned designer whose parents immigrated to America from Cambodia during the Cambodian genocide.Phillip Lim/Hannah Turner-Harts, Tyler Le/Insider

When was the first time you felt "American"? What does that mean to you?

It's still a work in progress. As an immigrant, you're constantly trying to fit in and find a space where your true identity can co-exist in the environment you find yourself in.

I will say that there is no better place than New York City to try and find this balance in America, because my story, while very unique, is also very similar to so many other stories in the community around me.

What does it mean to be Asian American to you?

It means being my true authentic self and no longer having to live a double life, where I don't quite fit in with either identity.

The Asian American experience is very unique and the last few years have really shaped this experience for me. I'm only now finding my place and creating my own identity narrative.

Now I have the courage to speak up and use my platform to bridge communities and experiences. It also means to finally see more people like me, excelling in the "American dream," feeling more represented and seen than ever before.

What do you love about being an American of Chinese descent who was born in Thailand?

Cooking with my mum and connecting over a shared love of food with friends and family. I regularly host dinners at home where we all cook and create dishes that are a piece of home — a way to connect with each other and learn about the special nuances between Asian cuisines; it creates a chosen family dynamic all around us.

Melissa King, chef and winner of 'Top Chef: All-Stars'

Melissa King in front of a purple background
Melissa King is the winner of "Top Chef All-Stars: Los Angeles" Season 17 and the winner of "All Star's" Fan Favorite. She's now a judge on the Top Chef series and host of the docuseries "Tasting Wild."Melissa King/Ashley Batz, Tyler Le/Insider

What does it mean to be Asian American to you?

To me, being Asian American is being a proud child of immigrants. We all share the common thread of parents who came to this country with very little, unable to speak the language, but did it to provide us opportunity. This greater sacrifice goes beyond a single generation and is a defining experience that I feel most proud of carrying to the next generation.

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you?

The variety of my grade school lunchbox certainly crystallized what being Asian American meant to me. My mom packed me a container of leftovers, typically fried rice, jook [congee], or salted fish pork patties. My lunchbox would also have Pocky biscuit sticks and a Capri Sun juice pouch.

When do you remember feeling proud to be Asian American?

I felt most proud to be Asian American when I competed on "Top Chef: All-Stars" and won. It was a time of my career where I was intentional about being completely unapologetic about the food I presented to the judges.

I created dishes like truffle congee, scallops with X.O. sauce, Sichuan beef tartare, and a Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu to showcase the flavors that represent all parts of me — not just my American side, or my French and Italian training as a chef, but my Hong Kongese and Shanghainese roots, too.

Kim Pham, co-founder of Omsom

Kim Pham in front of a purple background
Kim Pham founded Omsom, an Asian sauce and noodles company, with her sister, Vanessa.Kim Pham/Deanie Chen, Tyler Le/Insider

When was the first time you felt "American"? What does that mean to you?

This is a deeply tricky question. On one side, I have always felt American culturally. I was raised just south of Boston in a town that was 95% white, and my family had fit pretty quickly into the community. When I returned to Vietnam to see family, it was very clear that we are Vietnamese Americans.

On the other side, my "Americanness" always felt conditional — that at any point, I could be quickly and immediately ostracized as "other" in a way that was beyond my control. So it's been a unique relationship with this idea of "Americanness."

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you?

Starting Omsom has honestly been a reminder of that everyday. We're doing things our way — not trying to "perform" stereotypes or tropes about Asian Americans, while also educating non-Asian folks that our experiences and identities contain multitudes. I'm deeply grateful to be doing this work, which, yes, is about Asian sauces and noodles, but also more importantly about celebrating our stories in a new way.

Omsom is actually born from the Vietnamese phrase "om sòm," which means rowdy or rambunctious. I'm so proud to be embodying that energy as an Asian American through this business.

When do you remember feeling proud to be Asian American?

It took many years! I honestly experienced a lot of shame and feelings of being "other" for a lot of my childhood. It wasn't until I went to university and joined the Vietnamese Students' Association that I started to find solidarity and community with other Vietnamese Americans that I never got during my high school years. I was probably 17 or 18 then!

What do you love about being Vietnamese American? 

I am obsessed with the poeticism in our language. Vietnamese is clumsy on my tongue — but I can read and sing Vietnamese still! I am constantly surprised and delighted with the many profound sayings and proverbs that my parents pass down onto me, and that bring me continued joy about the depth of the language. I hope to one day get one tattooed on me!

Yumi Nu, model, singer, and entrepreneur

Yumi Nu in front of a purple background
Yumi Nu is a model, singer-songwriter, and founder of Blueki, a size-inclusive fashion brand. Nu is represented by Society Management.Yumi Nu/James Bee, Tyler Le/Insider

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you? 

My modeling and music career have opened so many new doors for me to be the representation that I needed when I was younger myself. The ongoing opportunity to do so is what crystallizes my personal meaning of the Asian American identity.

When do you remember feeling proud to be Asian American? 

Being proud of being Asian American was a recent journey I've embarked on, since I admittedly didn't start leaning into my Asian heritage until I was around 18 or 19. I spent most of my life suppressing my Asian roots, and I definitely felt that isolation growing up.

A memorable moment of Asian pride I had is when I became the first Asian plus-size Sports Illustrated Rookie. To truly understand what that position meant gave me great honor.

What do you love specifically about being part-Japanese American?

I love that being Japanese means being gentle and strong at the same time. Our culture values hard work, strength and discipline while also in the same breath doing so with respect and kindness.

I think these values are huge takeaways that I try to bring into my daily life. I've really seen support in my community come together in the past few years, both behind me in my highest and lowest moments but also behind everyone else who wants to make a change.

Sandro Roco, founder of Sanzo

Sandro Roco in front of a purple background
Sandro Roco is the founder and CEO of Sanzo, a line of Asian-inspired sparkling water.Sandro Roco/Sanzo, Tyler Le/Insider

When was the first time you felt "American"? What does that mean to you?

The first time I felt American was during the 2008 presidential election. It was the first time I was able to vote (I was 17 in the 2004 election), and since my school was in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, there was such a palpable energy on campus. Sen. [John] McCain and Michelle Obama held events and it was so powerful to see our political process play out on the highest stage.

And having my first vote be cast for Barack Obama, the first Black president, among a multitude of important emotions, it planted the seed in me that representation — in high-ranking political office, on movie screens, in culture — matters.

What does it mean to be Asian American to you?

Being Asian American means being viewed as not a "silent minority" or "model minority" but as a non-monolithic collection of communities with various talents, aspirations, and values that should be afforded the same space and opportunities as all other Americans.

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you?

I vividly remember the bar where I watched Jeremy Lin score 38 points on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in Madison Square Garden. As a diehard Lakers fan, I didn't know a world in which I would ever root against Kobe, especially after the two more recent championships he won.

But seeing Jeremy play the game of basketball with such fearlessness and have such ownership of his game and his identity and being celebrated not just by Asians, but by the broader basketball and New York City community, was about as important of a cultural moment as I've ever seen in sports.

Waris Ahluwalia, actor and fashion designer

Waris Ahluwalia in front of a purple background
Waris Ahluwalia is an actor, fashion designer, and founder of House of Waris.Waris Ahluwalia/Franziska Krug/Getty Images, Tyler Le/Insider

What does it mean to be Asian American to you?

We all come somewhere. Some from here, some from there, and some from way over there. It could be said that the fundamentals of any one of us is identity. The search for identity is the search for truth. When you can see the truth in yourself, you can recognize it in the other. And this is where understanding and empathy begin. This is where we find a strength that comes with compassion.

When I look in the mirror I see someone that is deeply rooted in their past, someone that is 100% Indian. I also see someone that is flowing in an ever shifting world, someone that is 100% New Yorker. I'm not interested in choosing or reducing one for the other. I'm 200% in this game.

Is there a memory that comes to mind of a moment that crystallized what being "Asian American" meant to you?

I always say I was born twice. Once in the foothills of the Himalayas in a city called Amritsar. India has grounded me with faith and tradition.

My second birth, when I was 5, was in New York City. This land of constant change has introduced me to people and ideas that challenge me to think about the future and my place in the world. I belong to both nations but as energy that is constantly changing I mostly belong to the universe.

When do you remember feeling proud to be Asian American?

Being Asian American, or anything "-American" comes with a deep responsibility — not to any nation state but to the traditions of our  ancestors. It's almost a responsibility to not forget our past in search of some bright future existence.

Tradition is oftentimes looked down upon. Too past-looking. But inherent to tradition is the future — "the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation," is its official dictionary definition.

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