What is an Asian American?

When I watched “Crazy Rich Asians,” I identified with the majority of the cultural elements portrayed. The movie not only raises awareness about Asian culture, but also about the ongoing enigma of the Asian American identity and experience. I’ll never forget a question that a professor posed in my Asian American Studies class at UC Davis, “What is an Asian American?” For that quarter we set out to answer that question. We read articles and textbooks like, Strangers from a Different Shore, and while we raised more and more questions and came to better appreciate the Asian American experience, we didn’t arrive at a definitive answer as to what is an Asian American.

I am Chinese American, the first in my family to be born in the United States. The story of my family’s migration began with my great-grandfather. He came to the US alone, worked in the States to send money home, and supported his family with the expectation that one day they would join him in the States. But he was separated from his family for decades because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924.  It wasn’t until after the changing of the laws in the 1940s was he able to be reunited.  My parents grew up in Hong Kong and eventually migrated to America, dreaming of a better life for themselves, but perhaps more importantly to them, a better life for their future children.

Cantonese was my first language. When I started school, it seemed English gradually became my first language. My parents sent me to Saturday Chinese school in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in order to preserve Chinese culture and identity in me by studying the language. I learned to speak, write, read, and use a brush pen. However, Chinese Americans, who grew up with a structure that nurtures a Chinese identity and an environment that nurtures an American identity, experience a tension. My parents encouraged the value of assimilation – learn English, speak it well without an accent, absorb the American ways, and function well within the American system in order to be academically and vocationally successful. But, I must retain my Chinese identity, values, heritage, and ways. Part of the reason for retaining my Chinese identity was Chinese people have strong ethnic pride and the other was fealty towards my family. If I lose my Chinese ways and become too American, I risked losing my connection to my family, including my ancestors. So functionally, I was to assimilate into the American ways, but ethnically and in identity, I was to vigilantly preserve being Chinese.

Traditions were a big part of forging my Chinese identity, which created a cultural distinction between me and my American friends. My Chinese traditions made me aware that I was different from them. I ate the customary foods, like leaf-wrapped sticky rice and dough balls. I knew the symbolic importance of a sack of oranges, the number 8, and never giving a clock to someone on his/her birthday. I practiced the custom of removing my shoes before entering someone’s home and I expected others to do the same. I celebrated two New Years – American and Chinese. I didn’t wash my hair on Chinese New Year’s Eve to avoid having bad luck that year. I made offerings to my ancestors twice per year at the cemetery. I celebrated the New Moon Festival with moon cakes. While I also observed American traditions, like 4th of July BBQs and fireworks to celebrate America’s independence and freedom, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day, I simultaneously observed Chinese traditions on an equally robust level. There’s nothing like traditions and customs to shape one’s ethnic identity. It’s how we connect with our heritage and nationality. But I was growing up with two streams of cultural traditions at the same time.

I assimilated the American form of individualism, personal rights, and freedom. I also was acculturated in the Chinese views of family honor, individual identity being grounded in family, and the importance of ancestry. I was brought up with the American values of creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, having a voice, and chasing my dreams. I was also brought up with the Chinese values of complying to a system, keeping quiet and working hard, restricting myself to considering certain types of occupations as worthwhile, and regarding the importance of my parents’ dreams for my life.

One could say this is “great,” because I get the richness of two worlds. Yes, that is true, but it also forged in me a duality. For me, it wasn’t like one set of traditions came before another or that one took precedence over the other. Both were imparted to me at the same time and held concurrent primacy in my life. Both formed who I was culturally. I was neither only Chinese nor only American. I was a hybrid – a Chinese American.

I was able to look at each of my cultural identities as one looking in from the outside. I could look at my Chinese culture and comment about it as an American and I could look at my American culture and comment about it as a Chinese. Jokes were a common practice. My friends and I poked fun at Chinese values and vice-versa. Humor was a way for us to deal with the confusing experiences. If I were solely one or the other, I don’t think I would’ve questioned my own culture as readily because it would be like a fish-in-water situation. But because both cultures were part of my identity, I held an outside perspective towards each one while also remaining inside both.

Growing up, I experienced racism from both ends. American people told me to go back to China. They did the typical things of pushing up the ends of their eyes to make them squint upwards and making mocking “Chinese” like sounds at me. Chinese people scolded me, saying, “What is wrong with you? Aren’t you Chinese?” and treated me as a traitor or a degenerate form of Chinese. In practicality, I couldn’t claim a side, except the side that I saw many of my friends and I were forming. It was a new “side,” called Chinese American, which still no one really knew exactly what that meant. Everyone just knew that we weren’t one or the other. We were something else.

Eventually, as I grew up, both cultures in me continued to mature because I embraced both. My Cantonese is fluent and without an accent. A Chinese person who met me through speaking Cantonese always assumed that I was from Hong Kong. An American person who met me through speaking English assumed I was born in the States. I cook mostly Chinese cuisines but I can also cook great American meals.

I’m not judging my experience or identity as being bad or negative. It’s a complex cultural dynamic that still has questions. But like the stories I read in my Asian American Studies class, a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” helps to us to explore who we are by telling a story that looks in depth at the cultural factors and complexities.

The next question is how Asian Americans will raise their children. This is an interesting question for me, especially since my beautiful son is half Mexican, quarter Puerto Rican, and quarter German! Our world is quickly moving to a place where using standard cultural categories to define people will not suffice. Beautiful mixes of people are emerging. As cultural groups spawn, develop, shift, or transform, we are required evermore to have a good, listening ear to understand who people are and where they come from. We need to exercise a higher level of respect for others in order to not superficially judge them and to appreciate their rich cultural complexity.

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