Even we Asian Americans are confused by the subtleties and contradictions that seem to underlie the demographics of America's fastest-growing, best-educated and most affluent ethnic group. This insider's guide makes sense of it all.
by Maxie Gondo


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Parsing Asian America

o you perk up when an Asian face or name appears in an American movie, TV show, public performance, book, magazine, newspaper or web page? If you're like me and like most Asian Americans I know, the answer is yes!

Asians of diverse ancestries identify with one another as intensely as members of any American ethnic groups.
     White Americans are often puzzled by this phenomenon. They don't pay particular attention to a fellow WASP, German American, Irish American or Italian American, they argue in earnest, baffled tones. Or, if they pride themselves on being particularly knowledgeable about Asian culture, they may say something like, "But I thought Chinese, Japanese and Coreans hated each other." It's when we hear statements like that that we most feel the yawning chasm that separates us from non-Asian Americans -- and feel the deep bond with other Asian Americans, regardless or their family's particular national orgin.
     For the benefit of non-Asians reading this, let me offer a clue. Imagine that you're a white person living in Japan, China or Corea. Imagine too that you speak the language as fluently as anyone, that your family has laid down roots there, maybe having lived there for two, three, four or even five generations. Your face remains caucasian, of course, but you are a loyal, taxpaying citizen of that Asian nation. In the event of hostilities, you or your family members will be called on to fight in its armed forces.
     Take your imagination a big step farther and picture being surrounded by Asians on the streets, at work, in social situations. Every TV show, movie and magazine article shows Asian faces to depict the happy, healthy, sexy norm. Despite the general friendliness of those around you, you can't help being conscious of your physical difference. It may be triggered by an innocent remark about makeup or hair coloring. Or maybe by a fleeting look of surprise on the face of a colleague or client when they meet you in person and realize that they've been dealing with a caucasian. "But you sounded so Japanese on the phone," they might say in an expression of polite astonishment. It's more than physical. From time to time, you sense certain cultural differences in your responses to social situations. Maybe you laugh out loud, then notice that everyone else is keeping a straight face. Or you may innocently offer constructive criticism only to learn that the boss was deeply offended.
     Can you be blamed for thinking, "I'm the only White here!"
     Now make a final stretch of the imagination. You're watching your favorite TV sitcom and lo-and-behold! -- you see a white face! Or you're reading an article about eminent Japanese (or Chinese or Corean) scientists and see an obviously non-Japanese name. What would be your reaction? Would you distance yourself emotionally because the other white Japanese person you are watching or reading about is of German ancestry when yours is French and there is a history of hostilities between your respective ancestral homelands? Or would you feel a deep and instant bond toward that person for sharing with you the experience of being white in an Asian land?
     You now have some sense of the instant empathy we Asian Americans feel toward one another, regardless of our specific ancestry. On the emotional level, we are at least as strongly united as any group in America. Frankly, I think we're far more deeply bound than most, simply because we are a small (4% of the population), racially distinct group.
     Now that we're all on the same page, let's move the discussion from the emotional to the intellectual level.
     We feel all the many ways in which we're alike as Asians living in America, but who among us hasn't noted the many subtle and not-so-subtle differences among us and wondered if there's some logic behind those differences, some meaningful distinctions, not to pigeonhole, but to better understand one another.
     Let me start by describing my own background so I won't be accused of prejudices I don't have and to help you spot whatever prejudices I may unintentionally show.
     My father is a second-generation Japanese American. My mother is a first-generation Chinese American. They met while studying in Tokyo during the late 50s. I am married to a Corean American whose family immigrated to the U.S. in 1970 when he was seven.
     As you can imagine, for me parsing the peculiarities of Chinese, Japanese and Corean Americans has been more than an academic exercise -- it has been a strategy for retaining my sanity.

     Every classification scheme is founded on prejudices. What's more, it succeeds or fails depending on the vitality of those prejudices. Let me state mine.
     When I think of Asian Americans, I don't include America's sizeable South Asian populations, specifically Indians and Pakistanis. To my knowledge there has never been much identification between South Asians and East Asians -- namely Chinese, Coreans and Japanese. There are many reasons for this. South Asians are generally members of the Aryan race, albeit with darker coloring than most Europeans. Their cultures aren't built around values rooted in Chinese confucianism. Their languages derive from the Indo-European rather than the Sino or Altaic family. They are generally of the Hindu and Islam faiths. Most importantly, there is little shared historical experience between the two groups, either in Asia or in the western hemisphere. For the same reasons, I also don't include West Asians like Persians, Armenians, Afganistanis and Kazakhs.
     I do include Southeast Asians -- Vietnamese, Filipinos, Thais, Indonesians and Malaysians because immigrants from those nations are frequently members of the Chinese diaspora and often identify themselves as Chinese. They may speak fluent Vietnamese and Tagalog and go by non-Chinese surnames, but they often also speak Chinese and observe Chinese traditions and customs.

     A very efficient blade with which to cross-section the Asian American population is the "F.O.B." factor. "Fresh-Off-the-Boat" was coined in the 70s by native-born Asian Americans to tag Asians coming over in the third and largest wave of Asian immigration. In those days second-, third- and fourth-generation Asian Americans reflexively distanced themselves from the Asian culture. You couldn't blame them. They had grown up painfully aware of living in a society with a record of mistreating its Asian citizens.
     An important thread in the evolution of today's Asian American identity is the way native-born and immigrant Asian Americans came to understand, accept and even respect one another. But, sadly, during the 70s and much of the 80s, the sentiment that dominated interaction between the two groups was scorn. Native-born Asian Americans scorned the newcomers' broken English, odd clothing and alien practices. Recent immigrants fully returned the scorn, seeing native-born Asian Americans as descendants of low-class peasants who had originally come to America to slave as contract labor in cane and pineapple fields. What's more, in the eyes of newcomers, the native-born Asian Americans displayed the symptoms of having accepted their second-class status -- passivity, an apparent desire to minimize the importance of their ethnicities and ignorance of their heritages. Needless to say, relations between the two sides of the Asian population was based on an incomplete understanding of the achievements and tribulations of members of the other group.
     In 1967 the U.S. lifted the stringent restrictions imposed around the turn of the century to stop Asian immigration. The first to enter under the relaxed laws were several thousand Japanese and Corean war brides, adoptees and family members. They were quickly followed by far larger numbers of Chinese and Coreans who had won visas under newly expanded quotas for qualified professionals and students. Among them were families who had once been China's elite landowners, merchants and government officials before fleeing the communists in the years following their 1949 victory. Most had first settled in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some had settled in South America and took advantage of quotas assigned to nations like Brazil where they faced less intense competition for visas. PART 2

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 |

"For me parsing the peculiarities of Chinese, Japanese and Corean Americans has been more than an academic exercise -- it has been a strategy for retaining my sanity."