The Great Migration by Celtic

One of the problems that I believe may be hindering Asians in the West is that there aren’t enough established communities in every corner of each country. I recognize that migrating to areas where there is less Asian representation, at least for those on the front edge of any big movement, can be stressful and yes – even frightening. But I feel that one of the reasons that the media has so much power to influence stereotypical impressions of any group is rooted in the fact that communities without living, breathing people representing themselves have nothing else to go on.

Beyond the fact that Asians are a minority in North America is the reality that they tend to build large communities in only a few areas of the continent. Areas such as San Francisco, or Vancouver or Toronto. But the Southeast of the United States, for example, mostly only sees transient students who stay for a couple of years on university campuses and then move on. There are very small communities dotted here and there, but nothing on the scale of the Chinatowns, Coreatowns or Japantowns in other places.

Humans are hard wired from prehistory to experience an instinct I call ‘Us and They’. At one point in our evolution, it was an important survival tool. When resources were hard won and certainly never guaranteed – food, water, shelter, etc. – small bands had no room to be generous if they wanted to live. They had to quickly surmise who was ‘us’ – meaning their own group members – those with whom they could afford to share resources. All of those that were determined to be ‘they’ – meaning those outside the group – must be rejected. And in fact – with survival on the line – they might even need to be rejected with force.

I believe it is very easy for humans in modern societies to still twitch to this instinctive hard wiring, in big ways and small. And we seem to have various levels of ‘us’. There is the ‘us’ that consists of the family unit and much of the time these are the strongest bonds. Then there is the ‘us’ of friends. The ‘us’ of co-workers. The ‘us’ of neighbors. The ‘us’ of the greater community. We are so hard wired to build groups that we consider ‘us’ that we find all sorts of ways to do it. Sports teams and clubs and online websites…

Members of the Asian community that I have spoken with over the years often talk about their experiences of feeling as if they are always outsiders – the eternal foreigner – even if they were born and raised in North America. I can understand that this must create intense feelings of disconnect, something that runs counter to our nature as a species. We all prefer to belong somewhere.

So what are some of the answers to change this? In simplest terms – Asians have to become more ‘us’ and less ‘they’. As with most problems in the world, identifying the answer seems easy enough – but accomplishing the goal of making the answer a reality is potentially a long hard slog. I do believe that by expanding average Asian families into the greater American (or any other Western) communities, over time and with exposure, Asians become more familiar.

Asian based traditions and cultures become normalized. With every Dragon Boat Festival, Bon, Tet, Chuseok, Water Festival, Songkran Day and so on that is held in a local community that has never had them before – the less alien that community’s Asian neighbors seem. With every invitation to join in on these festivals, much as I have invited my Asian friends to attend a Highland Games Festival with me – is the possibility of opening a door to closer ties and greater understanding for non-Asians.

To elaborate a bit on my earlier post about names, when children bearing Asian names enter kindergarten with their age mates in the non-Asian community – those non-Asian children hear those sounds early on and it becomes a normal part of their perception of community. These children who grow up with Asian friends in the school system, and by this I don’t mean one or two per class, but a substantial number, stand a greater chance of viewing Asian traditions as normal. They begin seeing Asian faces as just other members of their neighborhood. An expected sight. Not strangers. Not alien. Not ‘they’. But ‘us’.

But further, once Asian families begin to move into areas of Western countries that have thus far not enjoyed as much Asian exposure in the past, they need to make every effort to place themselves in leadership and authority positions. On the smaller scale, that would include seeing local Asians become cops, firemen, paramedics, soldiers etc. Those members of the community that people seek out in a crisis, those that they come to depend on during their times of greatest need. And also teachers – who the children of a community grow up seeing as their earliest authority figures outside of their own families. This builds community trust for those with Asian features. Maybe not so easily from the older generations of non-Asians, but over time, from the children who grow up in these places.

On the grander scale, local communities need more Asian politicians, school board members, respected business leaders, college professors and deans, etc. And I say this, although there is often resistance to this concept, when it comes to politicians – I would want to see politicians that represent the full scale of political philosophy. Not just Democrats but Republicans and Libertarians as well. There’s no reason that every group of people shouldn’t have the chance to vote for an Asian that represents their beliefs as well (and I know that there are those in the Asian community who do).

So these are some of the inroads that will begin, I believe, much of the process of normalizing Asians in the wider society of Western cultures. Over time, over the generations, with concerted efforts in these areas, I think that new generations of Westerners will grow up thinking that hearing Asian words added to their everyday conversations or seeing Asian neighbors decorating their homes for some traditional festival or trusting an Asian firefighter to rescue them from their burning home is unremarkable.

In the case of Asian words, I’ve already experienced how adopting them into English can happen. I was telling a relative of mine over the holidays about an old Mifune movie I had seen called “Samurai” (I believe it also goes by the title “Samurai Assassin”). My relative asked, “What is the Japanese title?” I asked him what he meant. He asked again, “What is it called in Japanese?” I had to laugh a bit, because I realized then that the word ‘samurai’ has become so much a common word now in the English language that many English speakers no longer recognize it at first as being part of the Japanese language.

Having said all of this, one can only ask, how does it get started? I recognize that it is difficult for people to pull up roots in those big cities with established Asian communities and set out for the unknown to build the seeds of new communities. A young student from mainland China gave me her thoughts recently. She studies languages and in her opinion, one of the reasons that people cling to these large encampments that have long been established is because older people aren’t forced to learn English (or any other Western language) as long as they stay put. They can live out their entire lives speaking the language of their birth. And because the family structure is so important, the younger generations will tend to remain in place as well, until they are also no longer young and daring.

I don’t know what would start the outflow of Asian citizens from the old cities into new Western territory. I feel like it would help a great deal if the majority Western societies could interact regularly with Asian people in the flesh. Because if they don’t meet and grow to empathize with real people, they will fall back on all that they have left to understand ‘Asian’. They will return to the popular media. I don’t think that has been working out too well so far.

So…getting started. This is probably only a question that Asians can answer for themselves.

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