I Used to Be Pacific Islander, but Now I’m Asian

by Kimberly Nario

As a second-generation Filipino American, when I think of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I think: screw those annoying standardized testing scantrons. I’m not talking about standardized tests itself, although I do have some feelings about those. I’m talking about the little section on the scantron, after filling out my name, where I’m supposed to explain my background by taking a well-sharpened No. 2 pencil and filling in a bubble. Once, in middle school, I started filling in the bubble for Asian. The kid who sat in front of me (name redacted for privacy and because I can’t remember) whipped his head around and said, “You’re not allowed to do that. You’re not Asian.” 

“Yes, I am.” I said, even though I wasn’t totally sure.

“No, you’re not. I’m Korean. I’m Asian. You’re Filipino. You have to put Pacific Islander.”

So I did. He wasn’t nice or kind about it. I felt like he was upset that I dare try to lay claim to an Asian heritage. I remember telling my mom that she shouldn’t say we’re Asian, because we’re Pacific Islander. Fun fact, when she was growing up in the Philippines, they didn’t even call themselves Asian or Pacific Islander. They called themselves Malay. It’s so funny how inclusive terms can also be so limiting, erasing cultures for the sake of being politically correct. 

In college, a friend introduced me to someone at a party. “Where are you from?” they asked.

“Virginia Beach,” I said.

“No. My family’s from India. Where are you from-from?”

“Oh, my family’s from the Philippines.”

“So you’re like Asian, but not real Asian,” they said, sending me back to Salem Middle School, sitting in a math class behind another person who made sure I knew we were not the same.

But guess what, y’all? We are the same—or at least similar. Yes, Asian American encompases several ethnicities. But Pacific Islander encompasses completely different ethnicities, including many of whom are indigenous to the Pacific Islands. With that, Pacific Islanders face injustices that I, as an Asian American, will never fully understand. Confused? Watch this. And read this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.


Are you back? Great! Now here are some reasons why we should care about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but especially this year. 

  • About the pandemic—did you know that Filipino nurses make up 4% of all nurses in the United States, yet they make up 31% of the deaths of nurses from COVID? While trying to care for everyone else’s loved ones, Filipino nurses are losing their lives.
  • Asian Indians are one of the largest groups of Asians in Virginia. And right now, India is hurting because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even for those of us who were born in the United States, it can be difficult to see the people in the land our family came from go through such devastating loss. Remember, a lot of us have family and friends in these countries.
  • Asian Americans are the fastest growing major racial or ethnic group in the United States. Our successes, our problems, our votes, they all matter. In fact, between 2012 and 2018, eligible AAPI voters in Virginia grew 37%.
  • Historically, the United States treatment of Asians and Pacific Islanders hasn’t been the best. From going back on promises of citizenship and benefits for fighting in our wars to the lasting effects of centuries of colonization, these traumas are felt for generations.

I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life. But in my mid-twenties, while planning a trip to go to the Philippines for the first time, many of my friends asked if I was excited to “go back.” They meant well, but it felt bad. We should all celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month because it’s a good reminder that we belong here. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Call out racism against AAPI (and really, anyone else, duh) when you see it. There are even trainings available for this very thing! 
  • If you’re an Asian American or Pacific Islander, find ways to dismantle anti-Blackness in your community. It’s there. It shouldn’t be. Let’s figure it out. And yes, this might mean some uncomfortable conversations with our families.  
  • Lastly, stop asking people where they’re from, unless that’s what you actually want to know. And when someone is filling out their scantron, and you think they’re wrong, turn around and shut up, and keep your eyes on your own paper, Kevin.