Balancing Two Identities: What it Means to be Chinese in the United States

Strategically located between Centre and Lafayette Street in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) faces both cultural Chinatown and Little Italy. While the museum is inside of an early 1900’s industrial building, the sustainable materials used to create the space and interior architecture reflect the fusion of history and modernity.

The focus of MOCA is to preserve and tell the journey of Chinese-Americans in the United States. Their exhibit Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving “…represent successive generations of immigrants unearthing the histories of those that came before them, and in the process of discovery, addressing pertinent issues of identity, memory and history” (Museum of Chinese in America). Upon entrance of MOCA, I was engulfed in Chinese-American history. Black and white pictures, videos, and maps adorned the wall. Interactive materials such as voiceovers of stories of individual hardships and physical objects that I could touch and hold enhanced the experience. The exhibit displayed historical advertisements, newspaper articles, diaries, and photos of Chinese-Americans in not only New York City, but also the entire United States. The emphasis on Chinese culture assimilating (to varying degrees) in American society was incredibly interesting as many of the topics and visuals are ones that I see regularly in the United States.

Chinese people have a rich, colorful history marked with incredible accomplishments, contributions, and pride in American history. However, the journey of Chinese inclusion in the United States has also been defined by devastation, racism, and prejudice. Chinese-Americans were faced with social exclusion in almost every facet of society, from show business to politics. Lawful exclusion created further social disparity between Americans and Chinese-Americans. The Exclusion Act of 1882, signed by President Chester A. Arthur, halted Chinese immigration and citizenship initially for ten years but was not repealed until 1943, and even then the presence and actions of Chinese in the United States were controlled through a national immigration quota and prohibitive marriage laws (i.e. ban on interracial marriage). Full cultural integration and acceptance is still considered a problem today. Despite the contributions made by the Chinese in academia, business, athletics, and science, to this day, the Chinese community is constantly exposed to racial stereotypes and name-calling.

While ethnically concentrated areas in metropolitan cities, such as Chinatown, provide a cultural comfort for first and second generation immigrants, the United States has become a racially and culturally heterogeneous country as many people are straying away from these communities in search for more opportunities, often through education. This leaves the younger generation in a new position, as members of the younger generation are often the first in their family to receive an American education. Families must then decide how to balance the infiltration of American modernity in their children’s lives and the ethnic cultural practices they hope to maintain. Synthesizing these two contrasting ideals can often cause strife and tension between the generations. Where does the Chinese youth belong? Far removed from their heritage in everyday life, some may choose that their only bond to their roots may be within the walls of
their home. Exposed to more English than the language of their relatives, the modern day Chinese-American youth have become lost between two cultures. The juxtaposition of these two identities is one that is often unexplored.

The shift in identity that many ethnic groups face is evident is most large cities where there is a significant presence of racially and nationally diverse people. With resistance from the younger generation to continue the culture through language and traditional practices, the culture often disappears as the older generation passes on.

How do racially diverse people identify themselves? In the United States, it is common for individuals, especially, the younger generation, to use the label “Chinese-American”. The addition of “American” adds a sense of commonality and assimilation among their non-Asian peers. The ultimate straddle between two identities can be seen in this label, yet one may feel more connected to one side or the other. Amy Chua, an American lawyer and best-selling author, demonstrates that there can be a clear divide between the two cultures. In her infamous and controversial Wall Street Journal essay, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, Chua implies a clear and distinct dichotomy between Chinese and American values, morals, and ideals. Despite her American husband, Chua steers clear of adding “American” to her and her children’s identity. Chua describes the differing parenting styles of Chinese parents and Western parents, praising the Chinese methods and heavily criticizing the American style, suggesting that as a result American (Western) children have become lazy and under-achieving with low self-esteem, while Chinese children are trained to be driven, mentally tough, and tenacious. Chua insinuates that one culture is always superior to the other, and in case her Chinese heritage is more valuable that her American culture. While Chua may hold this opinion, it is certainly not the belief of everyone. It is impossible to objectively state that one culture is superior, which also may be perceived as offensive; yet, despite this, it is clear that Chua has not problem asserting her opinion.

Not all share the same extreme ideas about Chinese and American culture and their identity. I was able to speak with Michael Robison, the operations coordinator at MOCA, to gain insight on his perspective and experience as a Chinese-American in New York. When asked about personal challenges he has experienced living among two cultures, Robison described, “There’s a constant usually dual calculation you have to do to tell how Chinese you can be, based on your language skills, your participation in holidays, adhering to various stereotypes, etc…”.

He has felt that people invariably notice his habits and associate them with his ethnic background, “A woman on a plane will compliment my English, long after I told her I was born here. Things I had found perfectly normal to my family, friends and life before are now viewed as different or even Chinese. This is something many Chinese-Americans experience on a daily basis”. Unlike Chua, Robison seems to be very proud of his dual heritage, incorporating both cultural traditions and values into his everyday life. He even hosts a mid-Autumn Moon Festival dinner party for his friends, even though most are not Chinese, every year to share a bit of his culture. The Robison family tries to balance both American and Chinese holidays and traditions as best as possible. Robison jokes, “My mom would joke that I should marry a nice Chinese girl, but hardly insist. She wasn’t in quite the position to make such insistence, based on her own husband [who is American]”.

Wanting to compare the experience of other immigrants with that of Chinese-Americans, I had a chance to speak with Karie Lasko, who is Japanese-American, and resides in Oceanside, California. Lasko, a part-time food caterer, is a second generation Japanese-American. Although she is Japanese and not Chinese, there were many comparisons in experienced to be found. The most prevalent challenge she has discerned is label of character. She continued by saying, “People at large have expectations that we are all diligent in our work ethics and that we are all a success in education. Don’t get me wrong, but we too have individual personalities of a free-spirit nature; we can think out of the box and be non-traditional, we have many multi-talented individuals in the artistic and creativity cultural arts”. Robison faces similar struggles of Asian racial stereotypes more than any American stereotypes because of his appearance.
Lasko believes ethnic differences as well as generational differences among evolving groups, arguing it “comes down to acceptance of change and respecting the reality…because at the end of the day, you can’t change what the reality of what truth is, you only come to an agreement of the change you’re willing to accept to move on and be at peace”. Without acceptance of change and modernity in respect to one’s heritage, Robison remarks, “There are many who do not think it’s important to be Chinese-American, or think about what is means…other families maintain a tight-knit community of other Chinese-American…eat only Chinese food…go to Chinese schools…do ribbon dancing…only be allowed to marry another Chinese person”. While it is important to maintain a sense of ethnic identity, it can become harmful when a family’s insistence on preserving their heritage blinds them from knowing or caring what outside that heritage.

Although similarities between Chinese-American challenges can be shared with other non-Asian ethnic groups in America, there are several aspects in which are unique to those of Asian descent. Racial slurs and prejudice is still relevant, yet often times those of Asian descent (but of course not limited only to Asians), encounter occurrences
where their perceived “model minority” status plays a key role in their representation and reputation in America. The term “model minority” refers to certain racial or ethnic groups who have immigrated (most commonly associated with those of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese heritage) and have achieved great success measured in education, income, low crime-rates, and familial stability. The presence of Chinese-American’s in the United States has challenged what is means to have an American identity in terms of acceptance diversity. While stereotypes and ideals are slowly evolving, there is disparity and separation even within the Asian community.

Eugene W. Moy, who is a current board member and past president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, expressed his insight on Chinese-American identity to me via email. Moy further mentions a divide between within the Asian community, “There is a strong movement to politically disaggregate demographic data on Asian Americans into more distinct categories, such as Chinese American, Korean American, Guamanian American, etc., in order to better allocate social services funding, but one can argue that the disaggregation could be extended even further, to where one lives, or by their economic means, for example”. The government and communities themselves encourage this attitude.

It appears that there is a blurred dividing line, which separates the attitudes people have towards their American and Chinese background. Moy suggests, “As we become more of a trans-national, global society, with considerable ethnic mixing, there might be a tendency to identify more with where one is domiciled than with ethnic or immigrant identity. The definition of Chinese American has perhaps become more unhyphenated, as perhaps people perceive of themselves not as between two cultures, as the hyphen implies, but rather as Americans of Chinese heritage”.

Scholars and citizens alike have debated whether Chinese-American should include the hyphen. Some believe that a hyphen has a negative connotation. The Oxford English Dictionary believes that the expression “hyphenated American” suggests “a person whose patriotic allegiance is assumed to be divided” (O’Connor). However, the omission or inclusion of the hyphen is ultimately a stylistic choice. Although some welcome the integration of multiple cultures and heritages, it does not represent the attitude of all Chinese-Americans; this is apparent in Chua’s representation and idea of her Chinese heritage (which she strongly prefers) and American culture.

Ultimately, the Chinese-American identity is one that is ever evolving, as communities are becoming more diverse culturally, educationally, and idealistically. Moy indicates, “As long as people, of all backgrounds, harbor false perceptions or remain insensitive or ignorant toward diversity, unfortunately influenced by physical and behavioral stereotypes being perpetuated by the mass media or by political hacks, there will continue to be challenges in having an “Asian” appearance”. Chinese-American organizations, societies, and museums all strive to preserve, educate, and foster greater understanding of their culture.

Sources:

  • Chua, Amy. “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 Oct. 2014.
  • “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).” Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US,. Harvard University Library, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
  • O’Connor, Patricia. “Hyphenated Americans.” Grammarphobia. N.p., 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

All personal photos.

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