In a revealing study conducted from July 2022 to January 2023, the Pew Research Center has found that one-in-five Asian American adults in the United States have concealed elements of their cultural heritage from non-Asians at some point in their lives.
Fear of ridicule and a desire to fit in emerged as the most common reasons cited. The Pew Research Center survey encompassed cultural customs, food, clothing, and religious practices, shedding light on the complex dynamics faced by Asian Americans in their interactions with the broader American society.
Birthplace and immigrant roots played a significant role in determining who was more likely to hide their heritage. Among the findings, 32% of U.S.-born Asian adults admitted to concealing aspects of their culture, compared to 15% of immigrants. Notably, second-generation Asian Americans, those with at least one immigrant parent, were even more likely to hide their heritage, with 38% acknowledging doing so, in contrast to 11% of third- or higher-generation Asian Americans.
Korean Americans stand out
Among various Asian origin groups, Korean Americans emerged as the most likely to admit concealing parts of their heritage, with 25% acknowledging this behavior. This was followed by Chinese (19%), Vietnamese (18%), Filipino (16%), and Japanese (14%) adults.
Asian Americans ages 18 to 29 were twice as likely as their older counterparts to have hidden their culture, food, religion, or clothing, with 39% admitting to doing so.
Among Asians ages 30 to 49, 21% had hidden their heritage, while the figure decreased to 12% for those aged 50 to 64 and 5% for those 65 and older.
Political affiliation and language
Political affiliation played a role in concealing cultural heritage, with Asian adults who identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic being much more likely (29%) to have hidden their culture compared to those who identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party (9%).
Language also played a role, with English-dominant Asian adults being more likely (29%) to hide their heritage compared to those who were bilingual (14%) or primarily spoke their Asian origin language (9%).
Survey respondents shared various reasons for concealing part of their heritage. Recent Asian immigrants often did so to fit into U.S. society and to avoid potential negative judgments.
Some multiracial Asian Americans and those with more distant immigrant roots said they hid their heritage to pass as white, on occasion.
Here are how some respondents answered questions about their experiences growing up.
“[It] was kind of that stigma when you were little, a teen, or you were younger that [you] don’t want to speak Chinese … because people would think that you’re a FOB [fresh off the boat] or an immigrant.” – Early 30s man with Chinese immigrant parents
“I remember in elementary school, I don’t even know what my mom brought me, [but] it was some Taiwanese dish. I guess it just had a more pungent smell to it. The kids would just be like, ‘Oh, what is that smell? You guys smell that?’ I would just cover my lid and be like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to eat my lunch.’” – Early 20s woman with Taiwanese immigrant parents
“[I] used to roll as Asian/Hispanic because I was too scared of my identity to say I was Pakistani. I remember 2011 or 2012, when [U.S. special operations forces] killed [al-Qaida leader Osama] bin Laden in Pakistan, after that happened, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely not saying I’m Pakistani,’ because people were coming up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, they killed your uncle. They found him in your homeland.’” – Early 20s man with Pakistani immigrant parents
Amid these challenges, many second-generation Asian Americans expressed pride in their cultural background and a desire to share it with non-Asians.