10 Reasons Why Identity Matters to Asian Americans

After years of sleep-deprivation, hobo chic and ramen dinners, you’ve arrived! You’re behind a walnut desk, backed up by a wall of framed sheepskins, hanging with colleagues in Armani and Prada, or at least Banana Republic fitted T’s and Von Dutch jeans. Beware! You are now a prime candidate for identity amnesia. You know, where you start forgetting the people and things that made you who you are and sustained you through your long climb.

You’re tempted to shuck off the messy hodgepodge of your past and remake yourself from whole cloth, preferably English lambs wool and Egyptian cotton, or maybe Irish linen and Italian leather.

Here are 10 great reasons to resist that temptation and get back in touch with who you are, a glorious by-product of the clash of two (or three, or four…) rich and dynamic cultures.

10. Asian food is hip.

Who dishes dirt over pasta or medium-rare T-bone steaks any more? Who cuts deals over paté-de-foie-gras or prosciutto and cheese any more? It’s dim sum, baby! It’s kalbi and sushi and pho! Do you want to be the Asian American known for sharing dusty little French or Italian places with colleagues who are dying to squeeze into that cool new sushi bar or that hot dim sum palace? Just how irrelevant do you want to become? Pick up power points by positioning yourself as the soju-sipping guru to colleagues eager to master chopsticks and the pronunciations of entrées in hole-in-the-wall Asian specialty restaurants.

9. Link your image to global business growth.

Chinese consumers, Japanese capital, Corean production technology, southeast Asian labor — that’s where the action is in the strategic plans of the people who hired you. They’re hoping you have solid ties to your ancestral culture and homeland and will be able to give them the inside track in seizing upcoming business opportunities. Don’t pop their balloon by coming across as a WASP wannabe.

8. Be the centerpiece of your own interior decor.

As you progress in your career and life, the decorative objects you accumulate will send a clear message to all. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring an occasional random conversation piece, but there’s something goofy about looking like an alien in one’s own crib. What kind of Asian American surrounds herself with English fox-hunting scenes on green felt or Louis XIV knockoffs? There’s a good reason why art and antique dealers sell their best pieces to successful members of the culture from which they originate. By taking an active interest in your identity, you will naturally come to inhabit an environment that reinforces — not undercuts — who you are.

7. Enjoy the protection of your natural constituency.

Yes, I know — you strive to be colorblind in all your dealings. Wonderful. So do most of us. That doesn’t change the fact that the world is full of opportunists who seek sneaky advantage by exploiting racial prejudice.

If you do become the target of racial opportunists, your best protection is the natural affinity of other Asian Americans. Remember how Asians of all nationalities rallied when Mike Woo’s L.A. City Council seat was threatened by a cynical redistricting scheme? Remember how Hubert Vo’s 33-vote victory survived a heated challenge thanks to vocal support from Texas’s Asian voters?

You don’t even have to be a politician to appreciate the power of your racial constituency. Remember how Asian Americans rallied to win freedom for Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American scientist unjustly accused of spying? Remember how the Asian community pushed for jail time for Vincent Chin’s killers? There are many more instances of grave injustices being prevented or remedied through Asian American solidarity. When the chips are down, other Asians may well be the only ones willing to come to your defense. The higher you climb, the more important is this protection.

6. Shared identity issues spark memorable conversations.

What Asian American hasn’t stayed up until the not-so-wee hours baring her soul because the conversation turned to the pitfalls of growing up Asian in America? Sharing identity struggles and epiphanies is the new elevator sex! To cultivate an artificially generic “American” identity is to lose forever those priceless heart-to-heart opportunities.

5. A sense of identity increases meaning and motivation in your life.

Losers discount the meaning and significance of every aspect of their lives. What difference does it make that my parents came from Asia and that I have an Asian face? What do I care whether my ancestral homeland is seen as a third-world backwater or a first-world powerhouse? What difference does it make if other Asian Americans do well? It’s as though they’re always trying to shake off anything that might motivate them to take an interest or make an effort.

Winners, on the other hand, are always trying to add meaning to every aspect of their lives, especially core areas like their origins and identity. They are inspired by the successes of those who share Asian ancestry and cultural heritage. Nothing moves them more than the unimaginably difficult or heroic struggles of the first waves of Asian Americans which laid the groundwork for our rise to the highest reaches of American society.

Anyone who has lived past their thirtieth birthday begins to understand that becoming infected by a sense of disconnection and meaninglessness is the deadliest of diseases. One great way to protect yourself against the dangers of stumbling into that spiritual wasteland is to take an early interest in your Asian American identity. The past century — and the next couple — look to be about the rise in influence and wealth of Asia, Asians and Asian Americans. How inspiring and motivating to see ourselves as part of that global trend! Remember — in the end all that separates the winners from the losers are meaning and motivation.

4. Pride inspires trust.

A professional’s most valuable commodity is the trust of colleagues and clients. Would you trust someone who has no pride in her roots? Consistently showing pride in your Asian heritage lets the world know that you aren’t a flake who sticks up a finger to see which way the wind is blowing. Embracing what you are shows that you are a true blue individual with backbone and character. To those looking to do business with someone they can trust, nothing rocks harder.

3. Authenticity inspires lasting respect.

What you do wins fans. What keeps people around for the long haul is what you are. Distancing yourself from your ethnic and cultural origins is like telling the world that instead of respect for yourself, you have a craving for superficial acceptance from others. That’s a good definition of a phony. What’s to respect?

2. Identity is key to romance and love.

“What’s in a name?” mopes Juliet. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” Tragic little twit! What happened to her and her boyfriend is just a melodramatization of the bad things that happen to all those who put the Love cart before the horse named Identity.

The real tragedy of Juliet and her Romeo is that they rushed into the love thing before they embraced their identities as daughter and son of the Houses of Capulet and Montague, and everything that signifies. There’s no future in a love between a pair of narcissists who see in each other’s eyes mere reflections of themselves. Romance happens when you look at someone and see all her cultural, as well as personal, hotness and richness, and want a piece of it all. So, yeah, start by asking what her Chinese zodiac sign is… and whether in her family even the grown-up kids have to kowtow to elders on Chinese New Years… and so much more!

1. Who wants confused, insecure kids?

When your kids ask what they are, you can tell them they’re just Americans like everyone else and pretend to believe it. Or you can share your experiences growing up Asian American. The first will teach your kids that the way to deal with life is to pretend there are no problems. The second will show that they can share their experiences with you. Which will produce strong secure kids? You decide!