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An old friend (in friendship, not in age) gently reminded me after reading the post on Michelle Kwan and Deadspin that the hyphen should be left out of Asian Americans. This was one lesson that had been hammered into his head during his Asian studies class in college. Admittedly, this was a mild surprise for me despite years of membership in the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

The group’s handbook and guide on media coverage of Asian America states it clearly: the hyphen is banished unless used as an adjective.

Some Asian Americans see pejorative connotation to “Asian-American” with a hyphen, in part because of Theodore Roosevelt’s denunciation early in the 20th century of “hyphenated Americans” who do not join the American mainstream.

The hyphen was never something I contemplated as a larger identity issue (others had, though). I just hyphenated because that’s what I always did, and no one ever called me out on it (and probably because I never wrote about Asian American issues, which is a shame in and of itself).

So I did some simple searching and tried to see who was or wasn’t hyphenating. The Washington Post, Seattle Times and the L.A. Times do not. The Associated Press, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do.

So are the AP, NYT and WSJ terribly insensitive journalists? Should Asian American journalists approach their respective copy chiefs and demand a change in the stylebook? Should my brothers and sisters and I be offended that we are considered “hyphenated American”? What does it all mean in the whole scheme of things? Not much. In my opinion, the hyphen is just a dash, not some symbol of oppression or discrimination. Honestly, I don’t see it as a big deal as long as organizations are consistent with their style.

The debate, however, touches on a larger issue in the Asian American (I’m ditching the hyphen for now, which you may find ironic after the previous paragraph) community. Many people would argue my stance about the hyphen. The hyphen, they say, represents a barrier to acceptance in American culture and society as a whole. They want to be accepted as Americans, as American as John Smith and Jane Baker.

This was a quote I ran into at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle last week:

One of the paradoxes I see in the Asian American community is their rejection of homogeneity — and a fervent desire to accept it. We speak Chinese at home! We go to dim sum every weekend! We shop at Chinatown! But if anybody wants to know: We eat at P.F. Changs! Our daughter loves emo! Our son dates a white girl! It’s as if the message is: We are unique and different, but not that unique and different. 

Numerous terms have been coined to identify the Asian American community, some acceptable, some not: American Born Chinese (ABC), Asian and Pacific Islanders, Pan Asian, HAPA and (a new one I heard just the other day) Amerasian. So just what do I call my nephew who is half-Chinese American (or American of Chinese descent) and half-Caucasian (or simply, the White Man)? It’s as if the community is having an identify crisis trying to find an appropriate label.

Personally I’m still trying to figure it out (just like everything else). I don’t want to call myself simply an “American.” I’m proud of my heritage and background. This blog’s name “Mei Guo Ren” means American in Chinese. I chose this because of the paradoxes I still feel as a first-generation Chinese American. Also, I chose it because of how I’ll be viewed during my trip in China: Chinese, but not really Chinese. American, but not really American.

Ultimately, I don’t think it would be wrong for someone to use the hyphen, as long as they thought it over and was conscious of the fact that some people object. Hyphen Magazine, which doesn’t use the hyphen, explains why they elected to call themselves Hyphen:

… we liked the idea of the hyphen as a connector. As a punctuation mark, the hyphen acts as a bridge between meanings. As a magazine, we aspire to build bridges within and beyond the Asian American community by provoking thought, upending assumptions, and inspiring action We’d like our magazine to serve as a bridge between the diverse populations included in the term “Asian American” and also Asian America and the rest of the world. We’d also like to be a link between people and organizations and ideas.

The hyphen as a bridge and a link, connecting different identities and backgrounds to become one. I like that concept. Perhaps I’ll keep the hyphen after all.