Asian-American identity crisis

Ah, the Asian-American identity crisis. It is a favorite topic of Asian-Americans at both the personal level and national level. Unfortunately, it seems the experience of being both Asian and American and the impact this has had upon our lives is discussed mostly within our own community. Most non-Asians do not know about the issues living as an ethnic Asian in America may entail. It is assumed we are “just like everyone else.” But this is not true.

For many of us, it is not only our physical characteristics that separate us from the majority of American society. Cultural differences influence us to be a sort of “other,” too. At certain points in time, Asians have been presented as being assimilated successfully and happily into American society, but this is incongruent with the perpetual theme of rootlessness and disorientation that emerges from the accounts of many Asian-Americans. There is a consistent sense of confusion and alienation; it is a sense of never fully belonging to our Asian heritage or our American society. Many of us can relate when a Hmong immigrant named Jonas Vagnay says in Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down “when I am with a Hmong or a French, or an American person, I am always the one who laughs last at a joke. I am the chameleon animal. You can place me anyplace, and I will survive, but I will not belong. I must tell you that I do not really belong anywhere.”

Often our cultural heritage is silenced or at least quieted for the sake of becoming more fully “American.” Maybe it’s not as conscious and deliberate as that; maybe the distinctive marks made upon our lives by an Asian background are worn down and slowly fade as we try to blend and settle into American society. But those marks never disappear, and they can become problematic when they are not recognized or discussed. Margalynne J. Armstrong, a professor of law, writes in Meditations on Being Good, “Many minorities must be bicultural and bilingual in order to succeed in our society. People of color often leave behind the language and culture of home when we go off to work or to the university. The separate world of home is unrecognized and irrelevant…” Thus, to live among Americans in America, there is a certain degree of self-negation required. A part of our identity – the “different” part, the Asian part – is left behind in the journey towards “successful assimilation.” But is this right? Because we live in America, should we just let our Asian identities fade into the background?

No. Being Asian in America results in an experience that differs from the majority and it is important to articulate the ways in which these differences translate and manifest themselves.

As Asian-Americans, we stand at a distance from both Asian and American culture and society. In this way, we potentially have a doubly enriched and doubly difficult experience. Living in America, but having an “other” experience than that of the majority culture connects us to two worlds, and thus allows us a unique perspective. In Law Professors of Color in the Academy, Cheryl Harris, a female African-American law professor, writes, “Blacks in the United States have a sense of double-consciousness, of ‘two-ness’ that both filters and permeates our existence. It is a dialectic of being both with and without, of being without a self-defined and safe-place.” This idea of “double-consciousness” may be applied to the Asian American community, too. Through this double-consciousness, this dual cultural lens, many important lessons, ideas, thoughts and visions appear, and these are all valuable and worthy of a place in society.

All in all, I advocate an acknowledgement of the Asian-American experience not to self-segregate or self-victimize or evoke hostility. I do it simply to create dialogue, to encourage and call attention to the undeniable presence of a rich and complex experience not widely understood: the experience of living as an ethnic Asian living in America.