After growing up in Berkeley, California, I moved to the East coast for school and then work, as a Generation X Asian American community development professional. Now, every time I land on the West coast, I’m a bit disoriented. I look around and ask myself if there’s an Asian convention in town—there has to be an explanation for all the other Asians walking around the airport. In places like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, Asians represent a sizable minority of the population, and perhaps by virtue of our numbers, we are known, acknowledged, and respected. However, in Boston, Massachusetts, where I now live, the Asian American population is relatively small, and we struggle for Asian American equality, justice, and opportunity.

This summer I traveled for two weeks in Brazil with a group of fifteen nongovernmental organization executive directors from the Boston area as part of the Barr Fellowship. Our group included four African Americans, four Caucasians, three Latinos, three Asian Americans, and one Jewish American. Many of the NGO and community leaders whom we met on our journey commented that our group appeared “very Brazilian” because of our ethnic diversity. They told us that we were a fresh and welcome new face to the United States. Our trip underscored the responsibility of non-Caucasian Americans to represent the more pluralistic and progressive values of the United States, especially as ambassadors to the world abroad. And with the election of President Obama, I felt that if race in America has ever mattered to the rest of the world, it matters now.

On our second day in São Paulo, my other Asian American colleagues and I ate lunch at a small, yaki soba stand near our hotel. There, we met a middle-aged woman of Japanese descent. When we asked her what it was like to be “Japanese Brazilian,” she corrected us by referring to herself as “Brazilian Japanese.” Her careful insistence on this way of framing her identity struck me—I’ve always thought of myself as Chinese American, but perhaps I should reconsider. And perhaps the Asian American community should reconsider its understanding of Asian Americanness; perhaps we should define ourselves as American Asians.

All this may seem like an exercise in existential anxiety over words, but we should be careful not to underestimate how the semiotics of self-identification and imposed racial categories stoke conflicts happening right now all around the globe. The ongoing war in Iraq, the persistent intertribal violence in parts of Africa, and the ethnic clashes in Western China all stem, in part, from the right and rejection of identity.

A Chinatown’s Chance

The Japanese of São Paulo have a traditional enclave neighborhood known as Liberdade, a Portuguese word meaning “freedom.” While it is also known colloquially as São Paulo’s “Japantown,” this term is used informally and only as a descriptor rather than a proper noun. In São Paulo, the “Japantown” is an inextricable part of the city; it is uniquely of the city and of the Brazilian Japanese people.

The traditional Asian enclave neighborhoods in the United States have names such as “Chinatown,” “Little Tokyo,” and “Little Saigon.” Although these place names seem representative of diversity, they actually serve for outsiders as little more than place markers of generic exoticism as exemplified by the common refrain that a visit to Chinatown is the cheapest ticket to the Far East.

In my experience, outsiders rarely distinguish one Chinatown from another. There are at least seven official Chinatown neighborhoods around the United States, yet few Americans know that Chinatown New York is more like “Fujian Town” because most of the residents there are immigrants from the Fujian Province. My experiences in São Paulo have led me to wonder how the Asian American community in the United States can transcend the historical and ongoing marginalization represented by these ethnic enclaves. How can the labels be renewed and serve as beacons of ethnic pride and possibility when they originate out of a racist and discriminatory legacy?

This sort of branding of community has pitfalls. At some level, ethnically named neighborhoods provide an easy “out” for the public sectors. The singular name of the place obscures the complexity of the community—many Chinatowns have notable numbers of Vietnamese residents, for example—and allows leaders to sidestep true understanding and ongoing action on behalf of that community. The focus on an investment in place rather than in people also reinforces the more traditional and patrimonial tendencies in ethnic communities.

During the 1800s, the phrase “A Chinaman’s chance” was used to describe futile situations and desperate circumstances. Today, does “a Chinatown’s chance” represent the dead end of a marginalized population or the thriving hope of ethnic, place-based neighborhoods that nurture generations of community growth and opportunity?

Over the past ten years, I have operated under the assumption that officially designated, ethnic-named neighborhoods do indeed offer a nurturing effect on community growth and opportunity. I believe they play a symbolic and strategic role in the struggle for social justice and equality among communities of color.

The Thai community of Los Angeles worked for years to establish “Thai Town” in the Hollywood neighborhood. Historic Filipino Town in Los Angeles, the three remaining Japantowns in the United States, and many other communities are working to restore, enhance, or revive their “fill-in-the-blank-Asian-reference towns.” For a community to be officially recognized means that at some level, there is an acknowledgement of their existence and a practical justification for their needs. By merely requiring those in power to say names like Chinatown aloud, we make mainstream society acknowledge differences.

Names also have market value. The not-for-profit community development corporation that I work for entered into a joint venture with a for-profit real estate developer to build a major mixed-income apartment and condominium complex in Boston Chinatown. When it came time to do the marketing, our partner insisted that the “Metropolitan,” as it came to be known, was located in “Midtown Boston.” Their rationale was that market-rate buyers were not going to pay market-rate prices to live in Chinatown; the name of the building was compensation for the less-than-ideal location of the building. As it turns out, about half the market-rate buyers were Asian or Asian American.

And names have value for a community’s self-respect, identity, and self-determination. For our next mixed-income residential development, we plan to use a romanized Chinese name like Shuen Fung Gardens, which loosely translated means “good trade winds” gardens. Rather than deny the place and, by extension, the people of Chinatown, a name like Shuen Fung embraces the community, and yes, the commercial value of Chinatown. As the fastest growing minority population in the United States, Asian Americans are a growing market demographic. A Chinese name like Shuen Fung promotes the Asian American community as the very asset that will enable us to build community, sustain the next generation of immigrants and families, and ensure the health, vitality, and survival of what we call “Chinatown.”

But Chinese American or American Chinese? Like the very history and idea of “Chinatown,” these names define by exception, not by affirmation. I am American and I am Chinese, yet the term “Chinese American” implies that I am either something more or something less than American (or conversely, Chinese), especially to someone who has not had to straddle these two cultures.

The irony, I would suggest, is that the name Chinatown isn’t ethnic enough to give pause to those outside our community. Visitors won’t stumble over its pronunciation, and that missing pronunciation pause is transformative; it has the power to transport someone from comfort to confusion, from the United States to somewhere abroad, from complacency to complexity. It is this amplification of difference that can lead to respect for diversity, to acknowledgement of a community’s contributions to the greater good, and to recognition of community needs that the mainstream cannot otherwise imagine.

Post-enclave Asian America

Most traditional enclaves are characterized by a significant number of recent immigrants, a high poverty level, and a large concentration of culturally and linguistically appropriate services. And because of these attributes, traditional enclaves are burdened to serve even residents living outside their immediate enclave area. In contrast, many Asian Americans are now living in contemporary or “frontier” enclaves like Flushings, New York, or Duluth, Georgia, where the pathway to equality and opportunity is often economic and where “host” communities welcome their investments.

Indeed, the Asian American population of the United States is growing and becoming less and less restricted to enclave settlements that occur in the downtown areas of the largest metropolitan regions. The U.S. Census reports that from 1990 to 2000, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) were the fastest growing population in the United States by percentage. And I predict that the 2010 decennial census will show more Asian Americans living in the United States and that there will be more Asian Americans in more places than ever before.

Reports from the field suggest this to be true. In my conversation with the Legal Services Corporation of America, they report that the legal aid society in Burlington, Vermont, struggles to handle walk-in cases from people who only speak Chinese. And the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area is now home to the fastest growing Korean American population in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. The most important and fastest growth in the Asian American community is in these new frontier geographies.

The way the frontier AAPI enclaves are growing in places like Aurora, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; and Duluth, Georgia, they will benefit from the support and resources of groups like mine, the Asian Community Development Corporation (Asian CDC). In “second-tier” enclave cities, in terms of AAPI population, like Boston, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, community development groups like the Asian CDC have struggled in the same way frontier AAPI enclaves are feeling the challenge in their host communities. Thus, because organizations like ours have struggled and managed to thrive while coping with this adversity, we will have more strategies and programs to offer the post-enclave Asian America than organizations serving AAPI populations in first-tier enclave cities like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, which have grown-up with what is, comparatively, a comforting bounty of opportunity.

AAPI community development work in the long-established second-tier enclave cities is a constant struggle for rights and opportunities, a struggle that is confounded by a lack of recognition and representation, circumstances not unlike what the frontier AAPI enclaves face as emerging populations. Because of this similarity, AAPI community development strategies in second-tier AAPI cities have first-order importance for these frontier AAPI enclaves. The AAPI community development in second-tier AAPI cities and frontier AAPI enclaves require more resourcefulness, creativity and innovation, and collaboration to address even the most basic issues. As these frontier AAPI enclaves grow, they will not be able to rely upon long-established civic leadership or elected officials from the AAPI community for representation and advocacy; many second tier city AAPI community development organizations continue to integrate political leadership development into their programs to address and compensate for this same challenge.

Given the rapid population increase among Asian Americans, for those who seek to serve and work with Asian American populations, I believe our responsibility just got bigger and more complex. Asian America is on the verge of a revolution in self-identification and self-determination. Whether we embrace or reject the enclave label will define how our community grows and settles, not how we are allowed to occupy land in a foreign place. AAPI community organizations are going to be needed in more places in the United States to serve and empower emerging populations that are far out of reach of the existing AAPI community organizations and that are unreachable across linguistic and cultural differences by mainstream social service agencies. Social service organizations tend to emerge early in a particular population’s growth, but community development efforts must follow quickly to address political, advocacy, and leadership demands of people making a place for themselves in a new community.

A patchwork of enclave leadership once formed the “Asian American movement,” but the movement now has the prospect of being filled by community and grassroots voices from all over the United States, voice clamoring for representation and staking a claim to rights and opportunity. For example, there is a notable increase in elected officials who are of AAPI heritage in places outside of the traditional metropolitan areas that are home to AAPI enclaves; Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua from St. Paul and Texas State Representative Hubert Vo from Houston are both examples of the rise of AAPI voices “filling in the blanks” in the enclave era map of AAPI settlement in the United States.

A Sustainable Resource

Race, and its representation of ethnicity and culture, is one of the leading sustainable resources of the coming century. More particularly, culture is the collective good that the many races have contributed and should continue to contribute as substantial investments in the United States.

And as the United States deals with expanding urbanization, conflicts over scarce water supplies, the effects of globalization, and the complexity of increasing immigration and diversity, the different patterns and practices of settlement by racial and ethnic communities provide important lessons for how we manage these challenges. Smart Growth, a land use planning and development approach that gained popularity over the last decade, uses the concepts of increasing densification and mixing uses in areas close to public transportation; for generations Asian ethnic enclaves have embodied these very same concepts in the various Chinatowns around the country, and their experiences offer insight into how communities can cope with urbanization and diversity.

In fact, the effectiveness of social networks among immigrant Asians in the United States in transmitting information about the availability of public resources is, quite frankly, amazing. Last year, the Asian CDC distributed 10,000 compact florescent light bulbs as part of an energy conservation initiative; we did very little advertising yet still had to turn away hundreds of requests because we ran out of light bulbs.

Beyond the pragmatic, race in America plays a role in helping everyone understand and effectively deal with globalization. To this end, we must encourage cultural resonance, a term we coined to articulate culture’s capacity to build bridges and create community by locating opportunities for resonant relationships based on social practices and products. Indeed, culture is the very thing that, while expressing difference, will enable us to understand one another. And because of the resonance of culture, we should see race as a resource; we should work our way toward a renewed enclave identity, an identity that somehow expresses our Asian Americanness while simultaneously advancing equity and justice for all.