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  • Emily Pan

Little South East Asia: API Voices at a Hispanic Majority School

Gandhi Anastacio-Olivo from Paso Robles High School graciously drafted this article, highlighting Asian American voices at Paso Robles High School (PRHS).



Guava candy.

Seaweed snacks.

As small and young as the club is, PRHS AYA (API Youth Association) still offers this, and more, as a way of connecting with the Asian/Pacific Islander student community at Paso High.

However, it’s still not easy getting the word out about such a small club geared towards a relatively small portion of the student population — according to the most recent data, Asian and Pacific Islander students combined don’t even make up 1.5% of the student population, while Hispanic students alone make up over 55% percent of the student population. Furthermore, many people don’t even have a solid grasp on “Asian” or “API” as a term encompassing a vast array of peoples from different backgrounds.

As senior Mia Martin, who is of Filipino and African American descent, mentioned in an interview, the name AYA was specifically chosen as the name for the club rather than simply something like “Asian club” because “people who like anime [...] or K-pop [...] will just swarm the club,” remarking on how a lot of students view Asian/API culture as only being Japanese and South Korean pop culture.

Her and junior Matthew Thaisuriya, who is of Cambodian, Lao, and Thai descent, both noted how colorism likely impacts Asians around the community. Most of the conversations surrounding Asian American issues revolve around specifically East Asian experiences, usually ignoring issues faced by other Asian ethnic groups, like incarceration, classism, immigration, and more.

Nevertheless, many are proud of being Asian American. As senior Jonathan Tjong, who is of Chinese Indonesian descent, points out, “it’s a good [label], because there’s a lot of countries in Asia, [...] and if you want to go specific, you can say what specific ethnicity.”

Any perceived harms caused by the term “Asian American” aren’t really because of how broad the term itself is, but more because of what is seen as Asian, which typically ends up being East Asian culture, and even more specifically, Japanese and Korean cultures. Martin has observed that “the more brown you are as an Asian, people have less interest.” Thaisuriya notes that colorism especially impacts West, South, and South East Asian communities.

Martin recalls how, as a young child, she often wished she could be East Asian, which she says is an experience many other Filipino American youth have also gone through. In spite of that desire to have more typically East Asian features and participate in East Asian culture, however, a lot of Filipino American youth still feel alienated because “deep down, you feel like an imposter because you don’t look like them.”

That connection with one’s heritage generally seems to change with age. Both Martin and Tjong noted that, as they’ve grown as people, they’ve gotten more in touch with their respective cultures. However, being in a place where there are so few Filipinos and Indonesians, respectively, it can still be a struggle to fully connect with one’s heritage. “I still enjoy some parts of my culture, like the food,” Tjong says. “But I’ve never been [to Indonesia].”

In any case, Thaisuriya, Martin, and Tjong all say they feel quite comfortable on campus, especially in regards to connecting with Latino students. “There’s actually a lot of overlap [...] between specifically the Filipino community and Latino community,” Martin remarks. “We have sort of similar cultures.” Additionally, a lot of the resources which support low-income Latino communities also support low- income Asian communities, though Thaisuriya does wish there were more resources for speakers of South East Asian languages like Khmer, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. When it comes to space to grow, Thaisuriya and Martin both believe that there should be more information about Asian communities on campus, especially South East Asian culture, given how most Asians in the local community are of South East Asian descent.

On visibility, Martin says “I think that people should seek visibility, not because they want it, but because it’s a necessary part of being American. You’re supposed to be a bit educated on different cultures and different things because of how diverse the nation is.”

In the end, all three still feel quite comfortable in their identity. Though not making up a large portion of the student population, there is still definitely space for API students. AYA, led by Mrs. Mittman, who is of Lao descent, recently held a chalk art event for API Heritage Month, and had a big turnout in support of API students on campus.

With visibility and solidarity, progress can be made easily achievable for API students at Paso High.


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