May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which means that the internet has recently been pretty abuzz with people discussing the unique cultural and social dynamic that exists in our community. From retroactively responding to racist comments that they’ve heard in the past, to reposting glib commentaries on the state of Asians in the media, it’s fascinating to watch the ways that one can bring humor and anger and thoughtfulness to the question of one’s identity and place in his or her environment, as a person of Asian descent. It can be an ugly, awkward, or straight-up uncomfortable topic to approach.
But it doesn’t have to be.
For Asian-American kids, there is often a low-level, continuous reminder that you are somehow different from “normal” American kids.
I think many Asian American kids grow up feeling sandwiched between and isolated from two distinct “worlds,” so to speak. Through much of the 90’s in my formative childhood and adolescent years, American movies and media had a disturbingly common tendency to emasculate or caricaturize Asian men into weak, nerdy, undesirable nerds, while dismissing or fetishizing Asian women as meek, submissive objects to be saved or conquered. The only “tougher” alternative was to be a mystical ninja or kung fu master – not exactly realistic role models or people you can really identify with. There was a constant implied label as an outsider, which at worst would keep you feeling isolated and alone and at best wouldn’t affect most activities except for the low-level, continuous reminder that you are somehow different from “normal” American kids.
On the other side of the spectrum, back in the day there was still the unspoken but inexorable rule that to embrace American culture was to turn your back on your family’s historical one. In many Asian households, losing touch with one’s heritage implied a certain level of personal failing for not only you, but also your family; if you ceased to be truly “Asian” by whatever sliding-scale metric you happened to be measured against, then your parents must not have instilled within you the correct way to go about doing things, leaving you as … well, nothing, really. In Cantonese that kind of person is called a 竹升, or jook sing – a literal, hollow joint of bamboo through which fluid can’t flow. Jesus. Whoever said Cantonese people were best known for their cuisine clearly never looked into their ability to find biting-yet-succinct derogatory terms for subsets of people.
In many Asian households, losing touch with one’s heritage implied a certain level of personal failing for not only you, but also your entire family.
The threat of this potentially catastrophic loss of face from having culturally empty children would push some of the more old-school members of the generation above me take some more, let’s say, extreme measures. Consider, for example, Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang‘s family’s take on this, cast through the scope of the television sitcom Fresh off the Boat:
Sure, in hindsight we can joke about it, but the pressure was still a gut-wrenchingly real. I’ve seen later-generation Asian Americans contend with this pressure in different ways. Some disproportionately skew their decisions to respect whatever customs they believed their parents or grandparents prioritized, at the cost of their own happiness; others would be turned off by the sometimes-toxic nature of their family’s culture entirely and actively avoid their Asian traditions out of spite. Most, I suspect, fell somewhere in between, picking and choosing which aspects of their culture they felt was important, and let that be the extent of their heritage’s explicit impact on their character.
Thankfully, I’ve seen that the black-and-white mentality of having to “pick” a side is becoming less prevalent, as the Age of the Internet has forced everyone to live in closer proximity to one another and second- and third- generation kids become more and more numerous – though admittedly, for those that still feel that pressure to maintain cultural “purity,” that’s probably small comfort. Think of it as some sort of weird Harry Potter wizarding pureblood-vs.-mudblood-esque type of dialogue – Pretty much irrelevant if you’re not concerned about these kind of things, but a driving force of contention for the small but vocal minority whom are. It can get pretty real.
One’s heritage is part and parcel to the equation of identity but is by no means the dominating feature.
I guess when it comes down to it, though, there’s no right or wrong answer to striking that balance between one’s Asian and American sides when one grows up in an amalgam of the two cultures. The way I see it, everyone has their own sensibilities, ethics, and priorities, molded by both innate personality and external upbringing – one’s heritage might be part and parcel of that equation of identity, but it’s by no means its dominating feature.
Sure, if you’re growing up in an Asian household in America, you might catch some flack from your older family members for leaning more towards the shenanigans of American pop culture, and you might get some weird looks from your classmates at school for following some customs that are normal in a traditional Asian family but nowhere else. That kind of thing is going to be uncomfortable.
Whenever I think about my own internal cultural struggle, I often find myself looking to the example of this guy:
The smooth-as-silk badass you see above is my grandfather. Born in Boston some 89 years ago this month, he grew up in an era in America when Chinese people were either ignored or derided as railroad laborers or migrant workers. Asian-Americans barely even existed at that time, let alone had anything resembling the level of acceptance we have today. An he actually went back to China to live for a while – nobody did that in the 1930’s. If my difficulties learning Cantonese were as anxiety-inducing as they were, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to do that in Hong Kong, where the only people who spoke English were the British colonists who thrust themselves on the place nearly a hundred years earlier.
If my difficulties learning Cantonese were as anxiety-inducing as they were, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to do that in Hong Kong in the 1930’s.
Needless to say, he turned out to be a perfectly well-adjusted human being who respected both sides of his cultural background – and if my grandfather could survive going back and forth across the Pacific and fighting a world war with that balance in tow, then I owe it to him to not be a total wuss about my own heritage when someone looks at me funny for speaking crappy Chinese or perfect English.
So as this month comes to a close, I encourage fellow Asian Americans to take a moment to appreciate the wonderfully unique juxtapositions that take place between their own home cultures to make them the people that they are. We all have our own stories that speak to this balance, and are definitely worthy of sharing and reflection.
And as always, be well. 🙂