Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Call Me Ishmael

Listen to this: http://www.wnyc.org/news/articles/128940

He has a point. Why don't we call each other "people, people, and people" or address each other by our names?

The question above closes Beth Fertig's report featuring students attending the International High School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. She had asked the students to consider Amsterdam's classification of all non-European origin as black. She asks them how they refer to themselves as "Americans"?

The students answered the way I have answered in the past. Why can't I "be both"? Asian (more specifically Chinese) and American. I can call myself "Chinese American." But older now I wonder if the description holds any more meaning than just calling myself "American"? What about my children? Physically, they appear Chinese or East Asian but their native language is without question English.

How about the comment one of the students interviewed makes: "We have the right to be called Americans?" I have never thought of being called "American" as a right. Born in the US as the child of new immigrants, I inherited my citizenship and my American surname. Both my parents and my grandparents were naturalized. They had to work towards their citizenship. Perhaps this is an exercise of the cliche about the differences between earning something and just being given it. You are said to appreciate the former much more.

In middle school I clung desperately to the habits I thought made me "American." I preferred hamburgers over rice, Coca Cola over Chrysanthemum tea. In college being American was no longer a medal of pride to me but a badge of shame. I was defiantly Chinese and I wore it on my sleeve.

In addition to the friends I still keep in touch with today, college was a very important step in the development of my "Americanness" (for lack of a better word). Two incidents from that time remain with me:

  1. "You don't look American" - Crossing the American-Canadian border at the Rainbow Bridge, a border guard made this comment after asking me to get out of the car and hand him my driver's license. I was with friends. We wanted to go to the Canadian side of the falls to kill some time, take in the new spring air, and grab dinner. My friends were White. I was the only Asian.
  2. "You don't act Chinese" - At a party. Talking to a girl. She was cute and smart and I thought we were really starting to click. She made that comment and I just lost interest.

Reading Rice Daddies posts from Metrodad (especially the section, "Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is"), Soccer Dad on Texas Representative, Betty Brown's recommendation that Asians change their names to more familiar Anglo names for the convenience of non-Asians,  and bigWOWO on Disney's current desire to reassert itself as a "cultural force" among boys (the Newsweek article he posted about a Black family adopting a White girl also got me thinking), about the world my children will inherit.

In the news, we are told about the national debt our children will inherit and we are told about what will happen if we don't literally clean up our act in terms of environment. But what kind of society will our children inherit? I am not as naive as to believe that the issues of race and culture in America will ever go away. I can even convince myself that their presence is a catalyst for ongoing conversation and reflection on identity. However, it is no less worrisome.

It would be unfair to deny progress has been made. Surfing network TV there is a greater chance of catching a glimpse of an Asian face speaking English than there was let's say 30 years ago. There is also a greater chance that the Asian face you might glimpse does not know kung fu and is not plotting to take over the world. That Asian face you might glimpse on network TV might even be more than comic relief. This is all progress and I don't want to diminish it. But recent posts from fellow Rice Daddies remind me that as an ethnic community there is still progress to be made.

As we enter Asian American Heritage month, I can't help but wonder What is American? And how does it differ from Asian American? Why is it assumed my perceived Asian habits? mannerisms? beliefs? culture? fall outside of the bucket of characteristics that make something or someone simply American? America as melting pot and mosaic, doesn't my "Asianness" make me uniquely American? Why do I need the surname?

As a Second Generation dad, one that was born here but whose parents were newly immigrated, I have the same challenges my parents did - What to keep and what can be left out of an ethnic identity? Already, my wife and I struggle with language. We both want our children to speak Chinese. However, she wants them to learn Mandarin. I speak passable Cantonese and she speaks Vietnamese. At home, our native tongue is English.

We also suck at celebrating the holidays. Every year despite our best intentions we miss the Autumn Moon festival. We hang decorations for Chinese New Year but have not always followed its customs most of the time out of pure ignorance and forgetfulness.

There is also the reality that no matter what my wife and I do, our children will have their own ideas about their "Asianness." Regardless of what my wife and I try to impart or instill, they will going through their own "editing process" and prioritize the aspects of their ethnic identity. So I am back to wondering about the "right to be called American" and the significance of applying the label "Asian American."


Unknown said...

When I was little, I honestly answered the question by saying, "I'm human." I'm half Vietnamese and half the rest. I was in elementary school and, even then, couldn't figure out why labels mattered.

blackbelt said...

I don't cover all the issues you raise. I try to keep my posts short. But I thought you'd find my views on hypheNation interesting: