|On Being Asian American
Phil is of Japanese Irish English descent. He is in his mid-thirties and was raised in the United States. He is a lawyer and a teacher.
"If you really look at it, there is no such thing as Asian American. This whole notion of an Asian is a European derived concept. And Asian American subsumes sixty different subgroups, different languages, cultures. People eat rice; They eat pilaf. It's really this grab bag of people who are really about sixty percent of the world's populations. But because of a census anomaly, we are drawn into a category called Asian/Pacific American. I think it is a big farce. I think if you talk to any community of people, they feel differently. For instance, the Korean community will read Korean language newspapers and consider itself Korean. But the younger kids growing up here will consider themselves Asian Americans. To be honest with ourselves, our identities are as Asian-derived people, with sensitivities to where we are living – in this case, the United States.
"At different points of my life, I've defined myself as Japanese American, Amerasian, a number of different things. I realize what I call myself is important, but other people will call me something else anyway. I would oppose someone calling me Oriental. There is the notion of foreignness, that the Orient is where the sun rises, the Occident is where it sets. It creates this East versus West dichotomy.
"Asian studies is important. If you look at our skin tones, no one is really yellow. It is important that Asians in this country study their heritage. That's why I studied Shintoism and Buddhism and Japanese culture. I think it was a very important identity for me. Likewise, Asian American history is important, because no matter what your background, you're here. You could be Thai, you could be Japanese, or whatever. But whatever the national differences, when you're here, they say, you're a chink. They look at you, and you're something, and that's why I think a lot of immigrants particularly have to unlearn their national pride, their nationalism. The Koreans justifiably hated the Japanese because of thirty-five years of occupation, but over here, Korean Americans and Japanese Americans will be treated the same – they will be called a chink and they will have to deal with that type of racism. So that's why I think being comfortable with your roots, and also being in touch with the experience in this country are important."
Images of Asian Men and Women: "There are certain expectations about Asian men. At first they were likely to be seen as dull, liking such things as computer programming. But with the rise of AIDS and the yuppie phenomenon, people believe Asian men don't fool around and they bring home the pay check, so Asian men become more desirable. Often Asian women are the worst – they dump on Asian men, rather than help them to be more open. In retrospect, most of the women I dated were Jewish women. And I've noticed this is a real phenomenon. A lot of Jews, because of their marginal status, are attracted to Asians.
My wife is really the first Asian woman with whom I have had a serious emotional relationship. The availability issue is really a very big issue among Asians. For instance, many of my female Asian students grew up in places where there weren't any Asian males, then they went to a big university, saw Asian men and found them attractive. This is a real phenomenon among the Asian community. It used to be growing up in the back of the laundry phenomenon, and now it is growing up in the suburbs phenomenon.
"The image of Asian women has been either that of a super sexy Susie Wong type, or a real passive lotus flower. There is nothing in between. For Asian men, you're either a computer nerd, or Bruce Lee, all brawn, and no brain. A lot of Asian males like myself loved it when Bruce Lee came out, because we would walk through the school yard, and people would go wow, maybe they know kung fu. So you get a little respect. So that notion of Asian men and Asian women, having stereotyped notions of each other, makes it hard to have real relationships. I have never shunned Asians, but I grew up in Maywood, New Jersey, so I never had a chance to meet many. I remember when I was at New York University and was seeing Asian women and men for the first time. People had punk hair – and the things they were into took me aback. I really hadn't thought of Asians to be like anybody else. So I got involved mostly with Chinese Americans, because that was the most concentrated community there was. There was no Japanese American community. There had been after the war, but people disbursed.
"It's interesting, how people looking for a thrill are looking for something different. Black is a little too different, Latin is culturally different, and Asian is close enough, but it's different.
'The notion of Asian is something that I understand, but as a person I see it can also have a real tragic effect. For instance, you're not only Japanese, you're a sneaky Jap, because you bombed Pearl Harbor. It's that sort of thing that goes on. People want to be inclusive as an Asian group, but the residual scars are preventing us from coming together."
Vivian Hom Fentress
Vivian is in her mid-thirties. She is Chinese American born and was raised in the United States.
"Though my heritage is important to me, and we speak Chinese at home, for all intents and purposes, I guess I liked associating with the Caucasian kids. I don't know why. Maybe because I was different when I was with them and was able to feel that I was special. I never wanted to hang out in Chinatown. I don't know why. Maybe I felt that hanging out with Chinese kids in Chinatown would remind me too much of hanging out with nerdy kids and being Chinese.
"When I was young, say second or third grade, I felt really self-conscious because I was Chinese. Even in school when they talked about Marco Polo going to China, I used to flinch. I would think all eyes were on me, because they were talking about being Chinese. And that bothered me for many, many years, until I got older. I saw there were definite benefits in being different. It was special to be different. So then it was okay."
Asian Men: "Unfortunately, when it comes to the image of the Asian male, I think I am prejudiced, because sometimes I see an Asian guy who doesn't fit into the perceived American stereotype. You know, he would be well built, articulate, with a sense of humor, and fairly good looking. Then for a second, I find myself thinking, 'He's Chinese. How did he get to be that way?' This is a horrible, horrible thing to think, but these are truths, and I still think them from time to time.
"Maybe part of this is because I grew up in the suburbs. You know, all the people you see in school, the popular guys per se, none of them are Oriental. And I guess anytime you did see someone who was Asian, you'd see them in Chinatown, at weddings, where you're surrounded by family, probably acting a certain way, acting Chinese, just because you're all together. And so maybe that's how that stereotype just keeps going on, and on, and on."
Asian Women: 'There is the other side of the prejudice because I don't think an Asian woman is any different from a Caucasian woman. I don't see why an Asian woman can't be attractive, can't be articulate, can't be successful. I don't think twice about it. I think, sure, it can happen. But for the Asian male, given the same qualities and attributes, I question how they got to be that way – how they got to be so together. I just wonder how they broke from the old nerdy mold, and became just normal, average guys."
Cao is a Chinese from Vietnam who is in his mid-thirties, He immigrated to the United States in his teens.
"No matter how many years I am here, even till the time I die, I will always speak English with an accent. That is a fact that I cannot deny. That is a fact that I cannot escape. And people will never see me as an American because the conventional wisdom is that if you are American, you should speak with no accent.
"To this day, I still don't know who I am. I am Chinese, born in Vietnam. Now I am an American citizen. But what does that mean? There is no place that I feel is home. In Vietnam, it was my birth place, but I never felt comfortable there, because we were treated as foreigners, It is my place of origin but not a home I feel close to. When we were growing up, we were taught to believe that China was our home. That's where your ancestors are, so one day you will go back to China, We heard that kind of talk. Then I ask myself, 'Do I know enough about China?' I don't. I've never been to China. The only association I have with China is the fact that my grandmother is still there. Also we have a house there. So I can't see China as my home either, because I don't know the place. So now is America my home? It is in the sense that I live here, and am a citizen. But that doesn't mean much because people still see me as a foreigner. So in terms of identity, no place is home. I can't talk about a hometown when people ask where I am from. So psychologically, I am sort of nowhere. Culturally I am Chinese, so that is pretty much ingrained. But when you talk about Chinese, there are so many types of Chinese. There are cultural differences between Chinese from Hong Kong, Chinese from mainland China, Chinese from Taiwan, and Chinese who are from America. When I was a kid, I used to hear stories from my relatives that people from Hong Kong looked down at us because they thought we were not civilized, Sometimes, the Chinese from Vietnam would travel to Hong Kong to do business, and those in Hong Kong would say, Who are these people?' Hong Kong is a much more developed society compared to the Chinese society in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Chinese would say, 'Gee, the Hong Kong people — you can never trust them, they never tell you the truth. They're so arrogant.' Once in a while you even hear people say, 'Don't get married to a Hong Kong girl.' You hear things like that, But when I came to the U.S., I met some Hong Kong people. They are okay.
"Then you have the Asian Americans with their identity. That was quite new to me. I had trouble understanding that in the beginning. Just the way of seeing who you are – you are American, yet you have a partial Asian identity. Asians and Asian Americans don't always get along for cultural reasons, or for ideological reasons. Socially, it's hard to mix the groups together. The music they like is different. The things they like to do are different. Asians from Hong Kong and Vietnam are also different. I think Asians from America are more aggressive compared to Asians. I also think Asian Americans are less formal. So socially, it doesn't work out. It takes a lot of understanding from both sides.
"Asian Americans dress the American way. Whereas Asian, regardless of how long they've been here, are basically Asian in look and dress. I don't know how to describe it, but there is some subtle difference, and I can tell. There is a difference in the way they comb their hair, their gestures and the types of clothes they wear. When I was in college, I had trouble getting accepted by Asian Americans. I also had trouble getting accepted by Chinese from Hong Kong. At New York University, I knew a group of Chinese students from Hong Kong. It was not that they wouldn't accept me, but there was a barrier. Sometimes when I talked with them, they just weren't interested in what I was talking about. Since most of them came from Hong Kong, there was a common bond, and I became an outsider. So yes, we were all in one group as Chinese students. But there was a more inside group, and I was a bit more on the outside.
"But in another sense, being in this country makes those cultural differences less important. For instance, when two Chinese students see each other in a strange place, automatically you felt association – being closer than to someone from another ethnic background. I've seen that happen in many instances where I've been at a meeting or class, and you look around and see a Chinese. You sort of gravitate to him, or he would come to you.
"I can generally tell the difference between a Japanese and a Chinese. It's most intuitive rather than intellectual. It is just like the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese. Vietnamese have a slightly darker complexion. The younger ones tended to have longer hair. I think generally the Koreans have smaller eyes. They have high chins. There is something that I can't pinpoint."
Image in the U.S.: "I suppose if you compared the Asian to the average American male, Asians would not seem as aggressive. And it may be that we are seen as weak, But I don't necessarily see being less aggressive as something bad. I think it's a matter of confidence. I think if you have confidence then you don't want to subject yourself to stereotypes. So I don't think about comparing myself to the average American. I know I cannot be one because of my background, I think each person from overseas always brings along his own baggage. And although sometimes you wish you could be like the average American, it's not realistic. I don't pretend I will become one, because I know I would never be treated as one. Also, in terms of your appearance or behavior, it's nothing you can change drastically. I think the key thing is values. Believe in who you are instead of trying to become someone you can never become. After a while, I don't care much about image anymore. I just want to be comfortable with myself. Image is relative."
Carolyn Ayon Lee
Carolyn is in her mid-thirties, She is a third generation Korean American who was born and raised in Hawaii,
"Everybody likes Asian American women. They're cute and feminine. But there are also negative stereotypes of Asian women. The typical one is like, Madame Butterfly – about a military officer in Japan who picks up this woman and they have this kid and he abandons her, and she's so faithful, and waits for him to come back. That is traditional.
"American men fighting in the Vietnam War pick up bar girls, or American soldiers stationed in Korea pick up bar girls – I don't like that. The Asian women they meet are in that profession because they don't have other advantages like an education or a good family. So American men meeting Asian women overseas in this sort of environment are not meeting very well educated women. So they form an impression of Asian women as sexually available, which I don't like at all. But in general in the American culture, if you're a professional Asian woman, clearly you're not from that class, and you're extremely acceptable. In fact, I think it has become fashionable for white men to marry Asian women. Chinese American women married to white men are really pervasive. You don't really see the reverse as much - Chinese men married to white women.
"So basically it is fun to be an Asian American woman, while for Asian men, it is much more difficult. In general, Asian men are seen as the enemy. We have all these Vietnam movies, and they are called 'gooks,' or 'Japs,' and they are usually men – the enemy, There are some very harmful stereotypes of Asian men – like laundrymen or men with pigtails, so I think it is very hard to be an Asian male, I don't think you can be assertive. If you are, I think you won't get very far because you will be seen as a pugnacious person."
Lee, Joann Faung Jean. Asian American Experiences in the United States: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam and Cambodia. Jefferson: McFarland, 1991. 121-34.
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