Growing up in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Ace Ramirez would often be questioned about his identity by other students at school.
“You look Chinese but you have a Spanish last name,” Ramirez recalled his friends’ inquiries.
Born in Manila, Philippines, Ramirez, 50, is Filipino American, immigrating with his mother when she obtained her work visa for nursing. Back in the 1970s, Filipino immigrants were few and far between in suburban New Jersey. When it came to identifying his race on forms in school, he had to check the Asian box.
“There was no Pacific Islander. It was Black, Hispanic, Asian,” Ramirez said.
As immigration of Pacific Islanders grew, Ramirez is now better able to connect with his roots in America. He passes on his Filipino heritage through his work as a Kali martial arts master, teaching centuries-old street fighting to a new generation of Filipino Americans. Now the Asian American umbrella has been extended beyond Pacific Islanders to include Native Hawaiians, with President Joe Biden and the White House proclaiming Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Month this May. President Biden called on all Americans to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders.
What does it mean to be Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander in the United States today? The answer is not easy. The large umbrella group is not a monolith, according to a new Pew Research Center study that asked what it’s like to be Asian in America. The experiences are as diverse as the melting pot that is the United States of America.
Not a monolith
In 2021, Pew conducted 66 focus groups with 264 participants to hear about Asian Pacific Islander Native Hawaiian experiences in America. The focus groups were organized into 18 origin groups in different languages and is the largest focus group study Pew has ever conducted.
No single experience identifies what it means to be Asian in the United States, the study found. Instead, the experiences of AANHPI are shaped by where they were born, how connected they are to their ethnic origins and how others relate and interact with them. There’s diversity within diversity as AANHPI represent some of the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the country.
“Our Nation celebrates the diversity of cultures, breadth of achievement, and remarkable contributions of these communities; of brave immigrants who, motivated by the promise of possibilities, picked up their lives and found new homes here; of native peoples who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial; and of community leaders shaping a brighter future for us all,” the White House said in a statement.
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The Asian label used in the U.S. represented only one part of how most Asian Americans think of themselves, the Pew study showed. New Asian immigrants are drawn more to their ethnic identity than to the general pan-ethnic Asian American identity. Meanwhile, U.S.-born Asian participants said they identify as Asians but also, at other times, by their specific ethnic origins and as Americans.
The Asian American identity is complicated, said Cecilia Chan of Tenafly, New Jersey. An American-born Chinese, or ABC, Chan, 46, is an Ivy League-educated lawyer having attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School.
Today, she is a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer in one of the most affluent suburbs in the United States. But she recalls when her family struggled as new immigrants, working at the family Chinese restaurant.
“The economic divide is one of the largest with Asians,” Chan said.
Yet Asian Americans are besieged by the same “model minority” label. There’s a real difference between the class of educated professionals versus working class immigrants, she said.
According to Pew, Asians in the U.S. have the largest wealth gap of any ethnic group. Asians in the top 10% earn almost 11 times as much as those at the bottom.
“When you come from 20 different countries, it’s hard to think we can be a monolith,” Chan said.
Remembering her family’s working-class roots, Chan volunteers with New York City youths and families who need help with everything from filling out forms to navigating life in the new country. It’s a path that her parents embarked on as immigrants from China and Hong Kong.
Chan recalls the first time she went to an American friend’s home for dinner and the father was home. She couldn’t understand why the dad was at dinner as her own father was never home having to work at the restaurant. That’s when it hit her that her immigrant life was very different.
The one value that resonated with her is that she should be of service to the community and the family — to be vested in the generational success of the family. When she expressed to her father how unhappy she was in the practice of law, her father retorted “do you think I’m happy at my job? I do it because I have to.”
As mom to a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, Chan and her husband Michael Lin, who works in finance, have raised them to believe they can pursue their passions as there is a safety net for them. The desire for economic success is an issue she doesn’t stress with her children.
“I’m privileged in that way,” she said.
Land of opportunities
Born to a middle-class family in India, you have two choices in life: be an engineer or a doctor, said Abhi Agarwal, 46, a medical doctor who is a pharmaceuticals executive in New Jersey.
He and his wife Sara emigrated from the Mumbai region to the U.S. in 2001 to pursue masters’ degrees. His father saved so he could study abroad.
“We came here for the opportunities in the United States.”
The opportunities include choice, Agarwal said. The freedom to pursue different paths, without pressure.
“Would I have the same opportunities in India? That’s something I think about. Being a doctor in India is different than that in the United States,” Agarwal said.
The concept of choice is something that he and his wife Sara instill in their children: Vihaan, 12, and Viyona, 4. Vihaan is into cars and the family would like to take a trip to Watkins Glen, New York, to show him racing. Viyona is an artist and likes to sing and dance. Education is very different in India and very competitive, Agarwal said, noting he sees the differences in how his nephews are being raised, with an emphasis on studying, while his children in Morris Plains, New Jersey, partake in baseball and other activities.
Two decades after immigrating to America with only two bags in tow from India, Agarwal is amazed at the life that he and Sara built.
It hasn’t been easy and took a lot of hard work as they both worked tirelessly in the pharmaceuticals industry to climb the ladder, but it has been rewarding.
“It’s been a great journey,” Agarwal said. “It’s been a good life. We’re fortunate to be where we are.”
Assimilation in America
To assimilate in America, Ace Ramirez’s parents were told to not teach their children the Filipino dialect of Tagalog.
That was in the 1970s, and Ramirez grew up without knowing his native language as he arrived as an infant. He was bullied and teased for being Asian Pacific Islander and for his small stature in school, taking up martial arts as a defense mechanism. At 10 years old, Ramirez went to a Korean master who taught tae kwon do and offered him a plate of his mother’s pancit noodles, not realizing lessons cost money. The Filipino immigrant family didn’t have disposable income, but Ramirez continued with his training doing odd jobs at the dojo like sweeping and cleaning.
Today, Ramirez and his wife Kris are the owners of Filipino Kali Martial Arts Academy with two studios in New Jersey and students who travel from around the country to learn this indigenous art. Filipino martial arts teaches the use of sticks and blades. It’s street fighting, how Filipinos fought off Spaniards, Ramirez explained.
The technique is not well-known, but is gaining in popularity with Hollywood actors such as Matt Damon adapting the style in "The Bourne Identity."
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At his two studios, Filipino families send their children to learn the art, as well as Tagalog terms, as people his age were also raised in the U.S. to not speak their native languages back in the 1970s and 1980s, Ramirez said.
With the surge in anti-Asian violence as Asian Americans are scapegoated for the pandemic that started in Wuhan, China, there’s an increase in adults taking self-defense classes, he added.
The Asian American Pacific Islander community has grown in recent years in New Jersey and has been a resource to help each other. Ramirez remains in Bergenfield, the working-class neighborhood where he grew up now known as Little Manila, with an influx of Filipino immigrants. Ramirez hopes that he is expanding the Pacific Islander identity in America through his work.
“I want to preserve this art so the next generation will be able to see what carried over from the Philippines,” Ramirez said.
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