I don't mean to say that I can't be called "Asian" without "American" at the end. It's not exactly the label that matters the most. What matters to me is that others can recognize the difference between me, someone you might call American-born Chinese (sometimes abbreviated as ABC), and Chinese people living in mainland China. There's a difference between me, someone who grew up in the United States, and my cousins, who grew up and live in Hong Kong.
Growing up in a mainly white community, I've always been aware of what I look like. I know my face is very blatantly Asian, and I know that in most cases, my face is the first impression that people get of me. I can act like everyone else, but my appearance is a constant reminder that, somehow, I'm not quite as American as everyone else. No one would look at my face and think "American." Yes, my Chinese heritage is a large part of my life, but why does that make me any less American? Who decided that "Asian-ness" and "American-ness" cancel each other out, and why does it seem so impossible for me to be both?
I, like many other Asian-Americans, have struggled with the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype. The name is pretty self-explanatory: Asian-Americans are treated as foreigners in their own country. That is, of course, the United States. I do feel an attachment to Hong Kong. It's still a part of my heritage (not to mention I have family there), but the bottom line is that I've always lived in the United States. I'm an American citizen. In fact, I don't even qualify for citizenship in Hong Kong, let alone mainland China.
What some people might not realize is that the term "perpetual foreigner" extends beyond my presence in the United States. Being the "perpetual foreigner" doesn't leave when I leave the United States. Going to Hong Kong, I fit in solely on the basis of my appearance, but I still didn't grow up in Hong Kong. There's comfort in not being judged as a sort of outsider with one look at my face, but once I notice my own cultural differences and realize my Cantonese isn't all that great, I still feel like the "perpetual foreigner."
If someone were to ask me the ever-present question of "where are you from?", my answer would be something along the lines of "I'm Chinese" or "my parents are from Hong Kong," whereas in Hong Kong, my answer would be "I'm American" or "I'm from the United States." To me, this is what being the "perpetual foreigner" really means.
So yes, the distinction between "Asian" and "Asian-American" is important. It's important because I want to feel American without having to justify it to myself and others. When people ask me where I'm from, I want to say that I'm American, that I'm from New Jersey, with confidence, and I want that to be the answer that's expected of me. I want to be able to embrace my background without feeling less American for doing so. I'm tired of being a "perpetual foreigner." When I say I'm Asian-American, I want people to remember that yes, the phrase still includes "American," and yes, I can be both.