Saturday, July 12, 2008

American Born Chinese

Earlier this week, I walked home from work, stopped in a Barnes & Noble, and perused the graphic novel section. I happened upon the 2006 Gene Yang graphic novel American Born Chinese. The title caught my attention and the subject matter hit close to home. Many of us Chinese (ethnically speaking) Americans, especially those of us who grow up outside of Chinese communities, struggle with identity.

I'll add to this post later.

Update: I may add, contemplate, and return to this post over time. As yet, I don't feel up to writing a finished post. Some subjects don't carry deeper emotional resonance and it's easier to write what I think about them in one sitting. Other subjects are more personal and for them, a quick post would be glib; they need time and care to sort through. For now, I'll just jot down some thoughts.

Development. A child undergoes sensitive formative stages as he grows up. The vulnerabilities at different ages are different. Especially when a child is in the process of defining self in terms of social identity, interpersonal interactions and community surroundings become main ingredients. Question: is it better for an Asian American child to grow up different in a non-Asian American environment, even if it is a liberalized diverse environment? Or, is it healthier for the child's psycho-emotional development to grow up in an ethnically and culturally like community? If I become a father, would it be healthier for my child if I moved my family to somewhere like Hawaii to be immersed within an Asian-American community? All else being equal, I suspect it's better for a child's identity to form in an ethnically and culturally like community. Once his sense of identity is securely encoded, then he'll be secure in himself and better equipped to navigate the sundry world. Of course, I grew up mostly in a non-Taiwanese American setting.

HAPA. HAPAs are ethnically part-Asian Americans. I'm attracted to HAPAs because they physically embody how I perceive myself: part Asian, part American.

Loaded question . . . what would Gene Yang's graphic novel look like from a Chinese-American woman's perspective?

The older I get, there is more yearning to connect to my Chinese-Taiwanese roots, at least to acquire fluency in the language. I've been too lazy to do anything about it, though.

Chinese-ethnic Americans in non-Asian settings do seem to be more stand-offish with each other and don't seem to bond as naturally as people from other ethnic groups seem to. Do we feel guilty about our assimilation? Is it lack of confidence? Are we made uncomfortable by the mirror image of someone similar? Do we fear that being perceived in tandem with another Chinese-ethnic American would mark and diminish us as outsiders? Gene Yang addresses this subject in his graphic novel.

Army experience. Some may view joining the U.S. Army as an extreme act of assimilation. In terms of civic identity, it is, insofar that being a soldier is a substantive statement of loyalty to the country and pays a personal price for a citizenship that many consider cheap. In terms of culture and community, though, becoming a soldier is not a perfect act of assimilation because the military culture and community are unique unto themselves and not the American mainstream. Entering the Army, I was already conflicted about identity and sensitive to racial prejudice, but at home, I could escape to where I didn't have to think about it. My military experience pulled me out of my comfort zone. I was one of very few ethnically Chinese soldiers in a stressful, constantly intimate social environment that was alien to me in many respects. I was exposed to human interactions, both ugly and impressive. I experienced racism in some instances, but also had experiences that confounded expectations of racism. My most effective experience centered on my name: I was called by my Chinese family name rather than "Eric", which clearly identified me by my ethnicity every time I was addressed or referred to. Just reconciling my name in that environment forced me to confront what it means to be ethnically Chinese and American. I was proud to be a citizen-soldier of the United States Army. I came to view the act as essential patriotism that defined me as an American, yet my soldier name was my Chinese family name, not my Western first name. The takeaway influence of my Army service is my belief that the better way for Asian Americans is to take ownership of multiple identities, as opposed to a conflict between identities. I am American and accept the Anglo, Afro, Latino, and other non-Asian influences that dominate my American identity. I am Taiwanese and accept my ethnic and family heritage. I am a member of more than one tribe. Still, I wonder how long it will be, if ever, before I can belong to a proud extroverted tribe of Taiwanese Americans. Interestingly, despite my early expectations to the contrary, serving in Korea didn't make much difference in my deliberation of Asian American identity. There isn't a global pan-Asian identity.




Anonymous Truett Black said...


I am a white American living in Taiwan. My wife is native Taiwanese, has only visited the United States, never for more than three weeks at a time. We were both married once before, and we now have five children together: two boys who are ethnically white and have never the left the United States; a son and a daughter who are ethnically Taiwanese and have only traveled in Asia; and a daughter who is both Taiwanese and American (Hapa, by some definitions).

Our American kids want to spend time in Taiwan and possibly study Mandarin here at some point. Our Taiwanese kids both plan to study at American graduate schools. Some day, my wife and I will buy a home in the United States and spend part of our time there.

The identity issues you are exploring in this blog are very interesting to me. My daily life and, to a certain extent, the daily lives of my wife and children are filled with cross-cultural experiences that bring up questions of identity and present social challenges (when we meet less enlightened people on both sides of the Pacific).

I will keep reading, and hope you keep writing about what it's like to be a Chinese Taiwanese American.


True Black

P.S. I speak and read fluent Mandarin, in case you were wondering. Majored in Chinese literature at university and have done business in China and Taiwan for years.

7/27/2008 5:25 AM  
Blogger yidishekope said...

I happened across your blog while "researching" a lesson for my class on how new members of society often integrate/assimilate through military service.
I found your take on it fascinating and was wondering if I could use your blog as a primary source for my class.

11/04/2009 7:19 PM  
Blogger Eric said...


Sure, it's just one veteran's observation, but be my guest.

12/11/2009 11:03 AM  

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