Who Are You - Part 2: Identity

Not too long ago, on another blog, I commented on identity, bi-culturalness, and if there was such a thing as an Asian American community. I remarked that I didn’t think there really was a singular Asian American community and that I wasn’t even sure what being Asian American meant. At least, not for me. Our experiences are so varied and we come from many different places.

I’ve always been interested in the notion of how we fit into the American culture. There are those who have much closer roots to their immigrant past and there are those whose families have been in the US for several generations (this includes me). It seems as if assimilation into the predominant culture (ie, the white, mainstream culture) does lead to a watering down of the “old country” values and customs and a loss of something as everyone blends into this so-called great melting pot. I think this holds true even for the European immigrants. I’ve had a few white friends tell me they’re a little envious of the big Chinese banquets and family get-togethers that I endure. For them, they see this exotic bi-cultural pull, something kind of cool, since they themselves have no deep roots to connect them to their Irish past or their German past, etc. The biggest thing they do is backyard barbeques. That’s it. A lot of them don’t have the big, extended families like some Asian groups have.

Yet, for me, I don’t feel any different from my white friends. Nor should I. We pretty much share a lot of the same experiences. When you get down to it, I am culturally an American. Born and raised here. The only difference is that I still have present day confrontations with my ethnicity whereas my white friends don’t for theirs. I still encounter relatives who can speak Chinese, still practice some old customs and all, that reminds me that I am Asian. However, in some ignorant circles, I am viewed as being foreign. Since when did being American equate itself with being white? For the most part, I’m not overly conscious of being Asian---I simply am. Until there’s something to remind me that I’m not. White folks, for the most part, never feel self-conscious about who they are until they themselves are the lone white person at some social event, where they don’t know the sub-culture’s values and modes of expression and being (eg, think of a white person, who can't speak Spanish, at a Mexican quincinera party or something).

Another interesting illustration about how some Asians view themselves was noted in a Washington Post essay by Peter Carlson in the 7/4/2010 op-ed section:

“…The questionnaire lists 12 races, plus a box labeled "Some other race." Several choices seem more like nationalities than races -- Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean -- and this caused some confusion. Some people told me their race was Salvadoran or Iranian.

A Korean immigrant, who kept apologizing for her accent, identified herself and her husband as Korean. When I asked about the race of her children, she said, ‘Oh, they American.’

‘American isn't really a race,’ I said. ‘Americans come in many races. Should I put down Korean for them, too?’

‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘I Korean, they American.’

So I checked the box marked "Some other race" and filled in "American." Sounds like that old melting pot is still bubbling.”

When can Asian Americans just simply be, without having to be made to feel different? Hey, we’re Americans. Sure, we are a small minority group with the map of Asia plastered all over our face. We’re going to stand out in a pre-dominantly white majority society. But this lingering sense of “otherness”----what does that do for our collective psyche about who we are in America? Or in Canada? Or elsewhere around the globe?

Complicating matters are the big numbers of white families who’ve adopted Asian kids. I wonder if these kids (mostly female) grow up with a sense of alienation. Unless their parents do a great job of giving them a sense of pride in their ethnic heritage, I can see these kids grappling with a confused sense of identity their entire lives in that their last names don’t match with their faces. I met one of these adopted females several years back at a friend’s house warming party. She told me she did not identify herself as Asian whatsoever and furthermore, had no interest in it. I find that rather sad and it also bothers me. What the hell is so bad about being Asian? Why would someone deny that part of themselves?

Another example is with hapas or Eurasians. I once went out on a coffee date with a woman who was Korean-Irish. Her mom was a typical military bride. Anyway, this woman had the map of Korea all over her face yet she told me she identified herself as being Irish and spent a lot of time over there and in Europe. She, as with the other woman, had no interest at all in her Korean heritage. I thought, “Wow, that must make her mom feel really good.” So what’s going on here? Is it that the western culture, the influences of her father, over took her Asian-ness?

I’ll give you an example from my own personal family life. One of my older cousins is hapa. Her mom is Irish-German and she married my uncle in a time when inter-racial marriages were looked at with open contempt. Anyway, I asked her one day about her being bi-racial and how did she identify herself.

She thought for a second and told me, “If I had to choose, I’d choose to identify as Asian.”
“Really? Why Asian?”
“Because of the family influence on my Asian side was much greater. But when I’m with my mom’s side of the family, I identify myself with my white side. I’m both.”

And so I can’t blame the two other women for how they grew up and how they identified themselves with their European roots anymore than I can fault my cousin. It’s just how it is. I don’t think I like the answers or sentiments from those two other women, but I do think my cousin has it resolved just right: she’s both. And she gives equal respect and pride to her two sides.

ETA: I should really proof read better. The quote from the Washington Post was from an essay on the US Census. Sorry if the quotes confused anyone.

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