The plight of the second-generation Asian-American
Out of all the crises one can go through in life, there is perhaps none more frustrating and agonizing than an identity crisis. But even more so, what ends up being worse than an identity crisis is one that splits the individual between two very different, very separate cultures.
This is the plight of the second-generation Asian-American.
These young adults, who were born in the United States to immigrant parents from Asia, grapple with their cultural identity of having roots from Asian descent yet growing up in the United States. Being raised by parents whose identities belong to their parent country on a continent thousands of miles away can serve as another split between Asia and America, as first-generation immigrant parents often raise their children based on their traditional cultural values.
“There are these two different dualities, these two different tensions that are always kind of warring in Asian Americans,” said Nadia Kim, a second-generation Asian-American who wrote a paper titled “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature,” in which she discussed the multiple hierarchies in which racial groups like Asian Americans are assessed.
This identity conflict is one that Mylynh Nguyen, a second-generation Asian-American and program director the nonprofit organization, Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development (AALEAD), has dealt with throughout her young life. Growing up in a small, racially homogenous town in Maryland, Nguyen felt the divide between her traditional Vietnamese family and her majority white classmates at school.
“It felt like living two lives — one at home and one at school,” Nguyen said. “And then I didn’t talk about my own tradition and culture very much with my friends, not that they wouldn’t understand or be open to that but because I wanted to fit in and not be different, and that was a struggle that I had.”
As a young Asian-American navigating between her two worlds, Nguyen said all she wanted to do was fit in at school. The absence of any mentors or role models, she said, also contributed to the difficulty in dealing with her confidence and identity in being both Vietnamese and American.
“I tried as much as I could unfortunately in my earlier years to assimilate with my community,” she said. “To really kind of fit in, I had to take on the characteristics of my environment the cultures of my environment.”
For many second generation Asian-Americans, having to sew together an identity that is representative of two entirely different places involves having to live up to two entirely different sets of expectations. Eastern values are not synonymous to Western values, and having both of these compete for a share in a person’s identity can be troublesome.
On the one hand, second-generation immigrants, having been born in the United States, are expected to readily assimilate into American culture and embrace the entirety of its traditions. In contrast, these Asian-Americans also must meet the expectations of their parents and family members to to continue to uphold their own ethnic customs.
It’s a type of internal culture war that almost always sees no end.
In looking at the perception of Asian-Americans, Kim said it is often the case that they are frequently foreignized and seen as “others.”
“I believe that Asian-Americans are often racialized as forever foreigners and lumped with Asian countries instead of being seen as quintessential Americans,” Kim said.
The causes of these identity crises faced by young, second-generation Asian-Americans is rooted in the impact of Orientalism on American society. Orientalism, which is best defined by Edward Said in his book “Orientalism” as “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”
In his book, Said went on to explain how this concept of Orientalism served as a justification for colonialism based on the idea created by the West that the East is inferior and “the other.”
The implications of Orientalism have continued to affect the ways in which Asians are perceived in the United States even today. Asian Immigrants, often referred to by the derogatory term “FOB” — fresh-off-the-boat — are teased and ridiculed for having an accent or for their weak English-speaking skills, a trait that is merely inevitable moving from one continent to another.
And for second-generation Asian-Americans, their identity crisis stems from not wanting to be othered by externally identifying with their Asian side and opting to be American for the sake of avoiding harassment or ridicule. Although these second-generation Asian Americans are mainstream American in terms of their identity, culture and patriotism, Kim said there’s also an acute awareness that a majority of the population would lump them in with enemies from Asia.
“I think that for second generation Asian-Americans, there’s never this sense of full inclusion, full membership in terms of the cultural social aspects of citizenship,” she said.
In a 2013 Pew Research study on second-generation immigrants, 39 percent of second generation Asian-American respondents say their group has achieved relatively more success in the United States than any other racial or ethnic group. And in a question of whether heritage impacts the chances of getting a job, 68 percent of second-generation Asian-Americans say it helps, and 56 percent say heritage helps when getting accepted into a college or university. Furthermore, 72 percent of second-generation Asian Americans agreed with the statement that people can succeed if they are willing to work hard.
But despite some of the cultural similarities between Asian and American values, such as the belief in working hard to achieve success, there is still a difficulty for second-generation Asian-Americans in reconciling their Asian and American identities. When the question pops of whether Asian-Americans would be seen as quintessentially American, Kim said most second-generations would say no.
“That’s what makes it so hard for second generation Asian-Americans to reconcile because I think in so many ways they see themselves as these living embodiments of the shared values between mainstream American culture and their ethnic culture,” Kim said. “And they feel like they should be fully accepted by both but a lot of times they’re not fully accepted by either.”
Kim said one difference between Asian and American values, one that further contributes to this internal conflict, is the emphasis in collectivism and doing for the family, a tenet of Asian culture that conflicts with the American value that emphasizes individuality. Kim said this tension of differences also puts Asian-Americans in a difficult position.
In addition, Nguyen said the perpetuating of the model minority myth, the idea that Asians excel academically and professionally and are generally law abiding and agreeable citizens, also contributes to the difficulty in reconciling the divide between being Asian and being American.
“Those types of stereotypes really detriment our identity or our population because it puts us in a box, and people feed into that it really encourages others to take that stereotype and run with it and not really allow for individual identity to emerge from that,” Nguyen said.
Kim said the existence of the model minority myth exemplifies both the shared American and ethnic values, as well as the stark contrasts between them. One shared value is the emphasis on success, while a difference is the idea that Asians are just gifted with Asian, Confucian values that makes them educationally successful.
With the complexities of the model minority myth and Asian-American identity, Kim said this leads most second-generation Asian-Americans to ask: “Why are you foreignizing us when we believe in very similar things — in working hard, studying hard in school and moving up.”
Nguyen went on to explain how, despite the perception that the stereotypes associated with the model minority are seen as positive, in reality it can result in challenges with mental health in Asian and Asian-American youth.
“When individuals aren’t able to live up to that expectation of society, of their families, of their teachers because of these stereotypes, then it really makes them feel … like they’ve done something wrong,” she said.
Yet another struggle emblematic of this internal culture war is the tradition of inheritance, and the passing down of cultural values and customs from generation to generation. One such example custom is the permanence of language, in which immigrant parents teach their children the language of their home country.
However, in the Pew Research Study, this value is not reflected, as only 40 percent of second generation Asian-Americans report they can speak the language of their familial country. Furthermore, only 37 percent of this group believes it is very important to maintain the ancestral language. In contrast, nearly half of first generation Asian-Americans agree with this statement.
In lieu of these statistics, Nguyen believes it is important for today’s second-generation Asian Americans to learn about their familial and cultural histories in order to maintain that part of their identity.
“Having that knowledge brings a sense of pride because you kind of have a history of where your family has been and what it has taken in order to be where they are today,” she said.
Working at AALEAD, Nguyen helps to offer support to low-income Asian-Pacific American youth through education, identity development, mentoring programs and leadership opportunities. In order to quell the all-too-common identity conflict, Nguyen said these second-generation Asian-American youth should embrace their cultural heritage and share it with others, both to uplift themselves and also destroy stereotypes like the model minority myth.
“I think that it’s the work of all Asian-Americans to be able to share their own personal identities and their own personal stories with others so that they can learn from them and also break down these stereotypes,” she said.
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major who doesn’t stress over existential identity crises cause “yolo”. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.