The Complexity of the Asian-American Identity

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SABRINA JEN
Layout Co-Editor

When I first saw the New York Times article titled, “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China” pop up on my Facebook newsfeed, I was delighted. I was so excited to finally read a well-written article backed-up with research and studies regarding the extremely minimal conversation present in modern media of Asian-American identity. While author Michael Luo, an editor of the New York Times, did address some issues regarding the racism which Asian-Americans face every day, I was disappointed by the way he casually glazed over the topic of the Asian-American experience as a whole.

Like Luo, I am a second-generation American whose parents came to the United States from Taiwan for graduate school. Born and raised in the Silicon Valley where many of my peers were also children of Asian immigrants working successfully in the high-tech industry, I was exposed to very little racism as an Asian-American since I was among the majority in that community. Even after coming to Fordham, where a majority of students are not Asian, I never felt uncomfortable with my racial or ethnic background as a person of color. The rare racial remarks made at me or about Asians in general did bother me, but they were not shocking. What I noticed instead, were the differences between the relationship I had with my parents and the relationships my peers had with their non-immigrant parents.

Seeing the interactions between my peers and their parents made me realize what it truly means to be Asian-American. Although I am extremely close with my parents, there has always been a sense of unarticulated distance between us. The East-Asian culture of keeping vulnerabilities and affection to a minimum was something that I had grown to respect, appreciate and understand. Contrasted with the casual and affectionate way in which some of my peers interacted with their non-Asian parents however, I was surprised to realize the influence which my parents’ culture had on my upbringing and life.

As Luo briefly pointed out in his article, “I still often feel like an outsider.” Though I am fluent in Mandarin and know how to use the Taipei metro system when I am on vacation, I am not Taiwanese. And while I was born and raised in the United States, my childhood was strongly influenced by my parents’ culture, and I am not American. The confusing nature of my Asian-American identity consists of something so difficult to be explained with words, yet is something I am sure every second-generation Asian-American struggles with to some degree.

The academic, social and emotional expectations placed upon me by my parents formed by their cultural background often conflict with my own opinions and expectations for myself formed by my unique cultural background in ways that sometimes make articulating my true feelings almost impossible. It is not surprising to me that studies have shown relatively high rates of emotional disorders among Asian-Americans who are children of immigrants. The great difficulty of raising a child in a culture and environment foreign from that which one was raised in is also a predicament that is constantly undermined in the American society by stereotypes and jokes such as “Asian tiger moms.”

The internal struggle of wanting to fit into the American community, yet simultaneously hoping to respect and maintain the legacy of my parents’ culture, has become an integral part my Asian-American experience and identity. While I am grateful that the New York Times has addressed racism in this context, I hope that one day, respected Asian-Americans like Luo will use their positions of influence to expand the important conversation of the prevalent psychological struggles surrounding Asian-American identity.