Jungle Asians, Fancy Asians, and the Space Betwix and Between

In a recent conversation with a friend, I told them that it feels like “I’m a Jungle Asian disguised as a Fancy Asian.” That is to say, I have a complicated relationship with class within my own ethnicity on top of an already complicated relationship with race, as I am neither black or brown, nor white. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Ali Wong recently brought to light the labels “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” in her Netflix comedy special, Baby Cobra. If you have no idea what these terms mean, please read at least the first couple of paragraphs of this post.

Or watch the first two minutes of this:

Who constitutes as Asian, especially in America, has been a messy subject for a long time because that’s what happens when you try to lump and label different groups of people together. So before we move forward, I want to remember and recognize who isn’t part of the conversation: South Asians. The way Desi Asians often aren’t included when we talk about “Asians” is a topic of discussion in and of itself, but for current purposes, it just means that this topic isn’t really reflective of their experiences (if it somehow does, please correct me).

Moving forward:

The first time I heard the terms “Fancy” and “Jungle” Asians, before I had ever watched Baby Cobra, I knew exactly what concept was being referred to, without any elaboration. That’s because I fall into the general category of Jungle Asian. And we’ve always been aware that we don’t live the fancy life.

Tangent: I don’t actually know if a Fancy Asian would immediately recognize what is meant by these two terms. Maybe they won’t due to the ignorant nature of privilege or maybe they will because they recognize that they’re not us. Asian Americans are so often viewed as a homogenous group that we’re made to be very aware of our differences in an effort to maintain our identities and existence. I’ll ask around.

Anyway, in addition to an immediate understanding of the terms, I had other reactions. One of them went like this:

Jungle? Who picked that word? I mean, I guess it’s not untrue. Just sounds abrasive. Yet, funny in its truth. Hmmm. When you think about it, what other descriptor would be that striking and easily understood? It’s kinda smart. Feels weird when I say it aloud, but I guess I’ll use it for now until someone comes up with a better word. 

Needless to say, I don’t love the name, but I won’t deny that it’s a very recognizable, accessible distinction. And that’s the point: the distinction. We’re starting to see the disaggregation of Asian America, which is something we’ve needed for so long. Sure, it’s a rudimentary way to talk about something so much more complex, but it’s a start, and I’m excited there’s more discourse around this. Asian Americans still need the language, tools, concepts, etc. to talk about so many things relevant to our communities.

So what do I mean when I said I feel like a Jungle Asian disguised as a Fancy Asian? Well, it’s because I think Vietnamese people can be either, or both. And that’s because of our unique history as well as the fact that whenever there are two sides of anything, there are always people that fall into the middle. Not that anyone’s ever said being Fancy and Jungle are mutually exclusive, or that there isn’t a spectrum or some other complex, layered way of conceptualizing it, but because these terms are relatively new and often brought up in an inherently dichotomous way, it’s important to recognize the gray areas when we talk about them. There’s danger in not doing so. We’ve seen it over and over with race, gender, ability, etc.

How, then, can one be “both” types of Asian? Man, I really didn’t anticipate delivering chunks of my life with every blog post for people to dissect, but I guess the personal is political and I can’t stop now. I’ll try to make it brief.

I’ve always lived in low SES areas, and I’m proud of it. My life is so much richer because of it. As an immigrant, I’m no stranger to the constant saving, deferring of wants and needs, and the perpetual hustle. In fact, I thought that was the norm, until I met otherwise. Otherwise happened when a relative of mine immigrated to the U.S. because of their job. They were able to bring their spouse and kids, my cousins. They moved to a wealthier part of Houston because it was closer to their workplace, and because they could afford it. We live 30-45 minutes away from each other depending on traffic and who’s driving, haha. This meant that our two families get to see each other almost every weekend. It’s also how I gained access to the Fancy Asian life.

I watched my cousins grow up with things I never had: dance/aerobics/swimming/music lessons, better school lunches, a neighborhood that wasn’t kinda sketchy, tutors. (Y’all, I had after school tutorials, friends, prayer, and the internet if I didn’t understand something.) Their house is nicer, and so are the things in it. They have exercise equipment. They host dinner parties. (I rarely invite anyone over.) They own stocks. But importantly, my cousins aren’t afraid to ask for things.

I remember staring, in shock, at my little cousin every time she asked for whatever toy/accessory/item was popular at the time, as well as whenever she or my other cousin asked for technology. As we speak, I am camera-less and printer-less. Not because I can’t afford them, but I think the years of doing with less really drilled it into my head not to buy things unless I really needed them. Ask me what I want for my birthday and I might give you a list of practical things I need. Ask me what I actually want and I’ll have no answer. Maybe it’s the apathy, but I have… no wants. I can’t remember the last time I wanted something and bought it just because. Every purchase I make is still very calculated. Money constantly looms over my head as a concern, regardless of how much I actually have. The logic goes: save up for school, save up for your ever-faltering health, save up for car emergencies, to buy your mother a nicer house, for your future children or cats, and so on. There is always something to financially prepare for.

Yet, living in such proximity to my cousins’ family also afforded me some Fancy Asian perks. Every time they went on vacation, we were invited. We’d pay for our own tickets and the like, but still relied a lot on my relatives’ resources, whether tangible or not. My family got to go to places and experience things we’d never be able to without their family. All of my computers and my current phone have been gifts from my cousins’ parents. I’ve met some of their family friends and co-workers: the “crazy rich asians.” I’ve visited their houses, been to a couple of the dinner parties I felt so out of place at, hear about the reputable schools their children attend. I know enough about the lifestyle without ever really partaking in it.

That’s why it’s difficult for me to identify one way or the other, as Fancy or Jungle. If you look at it one way, I’m pretty Fancy. I’m in college, my mother owns a home, I drive, I don’t stress out about rent every month, and I dress decently. If you look at it the other way, I’m kinda Jungle. I can afford college because of financial aid and scholarships; our little house constantly has problems, costly problems, because it’s an old-timer and it makes me anxious that my mother is always having something repaired; my car’s a hand-me-down and I have roll-up windows; I have one parent supporting my brother and I, and I’m working part-time as well; most things I wear are either thrifted or discounted, I just pull it off well; and I’m painstakingly trying to figure out how grad school works, I haven’t even thought about further education, and my mom can’t help me with either because she didn’t go; and lastly, I very much need to invest in therapy but all I can think about is how much it’s going to cost. I listed all those things, uncomfortably, but objectively. Please don’t read into it. It’s not a comparison or competition with anyone, not about oppression or privilege olympics. It’s just… my life, my positionality, my history, and my identity.

On a day-to-day basis, I feel pretty privileged for sure. I know where I fit into American society. I know that I have citizenship, I live a generally comfortable life, and I have a different racial history than other people of color, which means a whole bunch of different things. But I’m not going to deny the fact that I do also feel… not privileged. The point is that it’s not cut and dried. It never will be. And I’m hoping people realize that. We won’t be able to move forward and get any work done if we don’t.

Back to the big picture, these are new concepts. I’ve talked to maybe two people about Jungle and Fancy Asians. I don’t know other groups’ stories. I don’t even know other people’s stories within my own ethnic group. I just know that there are stories, and it’s important that we talk about them. Disaggregating AAPIs is great, because it sheds light on a lot of invisible and marginalized groups, which is the first step to making things better for us/them. My one fear, though, is that this can easily turn divisive instead of collaborative if not handled carefully.

My opinions are simple:

  • recognizing and discussing real differences, yay
  • acknowledging history, yay
  • resentment and ruminating over comparisons, nooo
  • identifying what can be changed and working together in frequent communication to make things better, yesss

To put things into a broader context, here are some neat graphs:

For me, they’re validating because the numbers tell me, “Yes, there is a reason why you feel so in between. It’s because you are. Look.”

“Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” may seem like funny terms to describe Asians, but they’re rooted in very real things. Art does that. Humor does that. I don’t know how or where conversations about this topic are gonna go, but I do know that having two ways to look at Asians now, is a lot better than one. It’s a start.

If you want to see even more ways to look at the extremely diverse, fastest-growing racial group in America, this is another cool, user-friendly link with lots of graphs: https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/aapi/data/critical-issues


Notes:

  1. I don’t know who coined the two terms; as of now, I only know Ali Wong popularized them. Also, it should go without saying that they reflect general trends; there’s variability in every group.
  2. I should probably mention that my cousins’ immigration story is based in moving to the U.S. thanks to a career in STEM (because of the brain drain), whereas my family’s immigration is much more rooted in the Vietnam War.
  3. Like with all the other posts, these are my experiences, thoughts, and opinions. I do not claim to speak for or represent others.
  4. It wasn’t mentioned, but colorism and anti-Blackness are other layers worth exploring, especially within a global historical context. It would also be really interesting to ask our own peers, parents, and grandparents about their attitudes toward different groups; start conversations.
  5. I haven’t done very extensive research on the topic, so if there’s a gap in knowledge or if something seems objectively false, constructive criticism is welcomed.
  6. Updated on March 5, 2017: With the recent change in administration, the White House link at the very end no longer exists, and neither does the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But not all hope is lost! Some awesome people have archived that section of the White House website and here is the new link: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop/aapi/data/critical-issues
  7. Lumping Asian Americans into a giant group erases important differences in immigration histories and socioeconomic status (SES). It also prevents working class Asian Americans from getting access to resources they need. As an illustration, this is a link to handy infographics on undocumented Asian Americans. You’d be surprised to learn things like: Asian undocumented immigrants account for about 14% of the total undocumented population in the United States, or that about 1 out of every 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented.
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