Photo illustration of an Asian man lecturing a white couple about Asian American celebrities

My white parents didn’t know I was AAPI

Studies say most Americans can't name a famous Asian American—writer Daniel Anderson just hoped his parents were different

Why do some people have such a hard time naming an AA+PI celebrity?

Photo illustration by Ryan Quan

What does AA+PI even mean?

Hearing my dad ask this question feels like a gut punch. I thought my parents knew better. I thought they knew me.

Me. I’m AA+PI.

For those unfamiliar, I am a transracial Chinese American adoptee. My white parents adopted me from a Beijing orphanage more than 20 years ago and later adopted my younger sister from China as well.

My dad's question emerged after he struggled to name an AA+PI celebrity. Given their efforts to stay informed about Asian American issues, particularly because of me, I believed my parents would excel at this challenge. However, they faltered. A recent study by the Asian American Foundation revealed that a majority of Americans can't name an AA+PI celebrity, with 52 percent of the more than 6,000 individuals surveyed unable to do so. It’s an annual study, one that somehow gets worse over time, despite the increased representation of AA+PIs in mainstream media. Last year, 44 percent of respondents were unable to do so. This year, 9 percent named Jackie Chan, who is from Hong Kong. My dad was part of that percentage. Only 2 percent named Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of South Asian descent. My mom didn’t name Harris because she didn’t "think of her as Asian."

With further prodding, my parents produced other answers: "Benjamin Wong," BLACKPINK, Jessica from Fresh Off the Boat, and Simu Liu. "Benjamin Wong" was actually Benedict Wong, an English actor. My dad had been watching Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. My mom mentioned BLACKPINK because, "Don't the members speak English?" They do, but Rosé was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Jennie was born in South Korea and studied in New Zealand, Jisoo was born and raised in South Korea, and Lisa was born and raised in Thailand.

My family and I watched Fresh Off the Boat together, but my parents knew the characters’ names, not the actors’. Jessica is portrayed by Constance Wu. My parents remember actors from other shows, like Anya-Taylor Joy from The Queen’s Gambit, Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad, and Hannah Waddingham from Ted Lasso. They even have an acute memory for Jeopardy champions. A bad memory isn’t the problem, but a selective one is. My mom got closest with Simu Liu, if Canadians are counted as Asian Americans. Eventually, she named Sam from The Brothers Sun, though she didn’t remember his last name. Finally, she correctly named Margaret Cho and Harry Shum Jr., the latter because we watched Glee as a family.

I challenged my parents with the AA+PI celebrity question because I believed they would succeed. For the past three years, my parents have been more attuned to Asian American media because of my job at NextShark, a leading AA+PI news outlet. Initially, my mom would say, "He is working at a publication called NextShark?" I urged her to change her language and say, "He is writing for a leading AA+PI news outlet.” They are supportive and occasionally read my articles. My dad even subscribed to the daily newsletters I wrote, which included an entertainment section. We watched films like Minari, Parasite, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. My mom watched Joy Ride with my younger sister. My parents understood the significance of me attending the 95th Academy Awards when Everything Everywhere All at Once dominated the awards circuit.

I use my parents as a litmus test for progress. I naively and optimistically believe if I can get them to watch a movie, a show, or listen to a song by AA+PI talent, it feels like a step towards greater acceptance of the AA+PI community. When my mom mentions she could watch more episodes of a K-drama like Extraordinary Attorney Woo, that she enjoys watching Physical 100, and that both she and my dad are disappointed The Brothers Sun didn’t get renewed for a second season, it feels like a win.

Their support in allowing me to pursue journalism, specifically Asian-centric stories, is a blessing. But I wish they understood that these stories aren’t just my passionthey are my community and reflections of my identity. When they can’t name a single AA+PI celebrity, it feels like they aren’t truly paying attention to my stories, and by extension, to who I am. When they don’t even know what AA+PI means, it tells me there is only a surface-level focus on my work, and they don’t grasp my identity.

Representation is essential and should be advocated for, but it isn’t enough. My parents can support their Chinese American adoptee son, who works in AA+PI media, watch many AA+PI-led titles, and still not remember much about who we are. That’s a lot more effort than most white Americans are making. Still, representation is just one part of a long journey towards acceptance. To be seen is one thing, but to be remembered and deeply understood is the ultimate goal.

Published on May 31, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.