California Forum

Identity a complex issue for Asian Americans

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – For people who, like myself, have parents who came to the United States from China, Vietnam, the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia, I have a message: we are not Asian.

Take it from someone who has moved to Asia. If you want proof of how truly American you really are, then living outside the United States for a while should erase any doubt.

Many Asian Americans don’t realize this, because we spent our lives comparing ourselves to the white majority around us. We did a few quirky things, like taking our shoes off in the house and eating with chopsticks. So we thought we must be different, and if we weren’t white, we must be Asian.

I went to a high school in Antelope where whites were a plurality, but other students spoke Chamorro, Mien, Thai, Tongan, Vietnamese, etc. I joined the Asian club, which didn’t do much except print shirts so that members could declare our “Asian Pryde.” I wondered what we were proud of. The fried rice we made for potlucks? The drifting in Japanese cars? The card games, like Asian War, that we played at lunch?

The Asian identity we all desperately wanted felt so synthetic. It was based on cheap tokens, like red New Year’s firecrackers or whole roasted pigs, rather than on supposed Asian values, like family loyalty. But I sympathize – because this desire comes from a place that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever felt they didn’t fit in. For Asian Americans, this desire reflects a kind of cognitive dissonance: We crave a sense of belonging, while at the same time wanting to feel special. Living in the United States and thinking we’re part of a unique Asian community fulfills those longings.

It wasn’t until college that I started to see that we “Asians” didn’t know what we were talking about. I went to Vietnam for an internship. Nothing dramatic happened to me; there was no epiphany. But after working and living with locals in Ho Chi Minh City, I left with the knowledge that I was not one of them. That was fine for me, because I didn’t go to Vietnam to “discover my roots” – a phrase so trite I doubt many Asian Americans know what they mean when they set out on that kind of quest back in the “homeland.”

The problem is, we grew up in America thinking that all those noodles we slurped and all that incense we burned connected us with Asia. The truth is that our identity is shaped by things far less concrete. We derive meaning from the values and behavior of people around us, particularly as children and teenagers.

The values I absorbed in Sacramento – individuality, critical thinking in the classroom, skepticism of public officials, candor – I find less often in Asia. It may not be good or bad, but being American means we think we have a rugged-individual mentality. And that mentality creates a world in which we want quick fixes, accept inequality and a limited social safety net, and believe we have the answers and solutions, and should go forth to spread them. Right or wrong, we think that anyone who works hard can succeed and that our collective history marches inevitably in the direction of progress.

Asian Americans share some or all of these beliefs with other Americans. Our upbringing matters, too. I speak Vietnamese, I love Vietnamese food, I even live in Vietnam now; but I am not Vietnamese. I didn’t attend Vietnam’s schools, watch its TV shows, celebrate its weddings, read its books and newspapers, nor mourn the deaths of its leaders. No matter how close I get to my friends in Vietnam, there will always be a wall, a subconscious recognition that we lack a shared experience.

The Asian American shared experience may differ somewhat from that of white Americans. But we’re not so far apart. Some people don’t like when I put it this way, but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being mainstream American (seen as white) and 10 being Asian, we Asian Americans are probably under 5, not even a 4.

Is this just a question of semantics? Should we make sure to call ourselves “Asian Americans,” not daring to confuse ourselves with the real “Asians” across the Pacific? I think there’s a little more to it. The words we use are a symptom of our identity crisis. Our confusion pushed us to look for comfort in Asian culture, which we ourselves helped to ghettoize. Perhaps an alternative could be just as comforting: to hold onto Asian American culture, not because it’s different, but because it’s an essential variation that adds to the complexity of the American identity.