This Asian American mini-series has been quite enlightening for me. It has shed light on several points of Asian American history and culture I would not have known if not for these stories and revelations. To begin, my research reveals that non-Asian Americans look at Asian Americans from a single lens. In order words, we only see an American who looks Asian without acknowledging the vase differences among Asian Americans. Leonard Tamura writes, “Even though as many physical differences exist among Asians as there are within other groups, the misconception persists that Asians are a homogeneous group with few contrasts among themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth (We Stand Together, Cooper, Moody, 1995, page 62).”
Therefore, I asked all interviewed guests the same question “When people say Asian American, What does that mean?” Webster’s dictionary defines Asian-American as “an American of Asian descent.” Geographically, this is a broad people group. “Many different groups make up the larger category of “Asian” in America: Vietnamese, Japanese, Hmong, Samoan, Chinese, Laotian, Korean, Filipino, to name just a few. Each group differs in its country of origin, language, culture customs, and sociopolitical history in Asia, as well as its unique history in the United States…Asian American[s]…[are] people who trace their heritage to both the continent of Asia as well as to the Islands of the Pacific (Cooper, 62).”
To answer this question, one of the interviewed guests was gracious to quote Jeff Yang’s WSJ article: Easy Tiger Nation
Not all Asians think alike. Not all Asians think they’re “Asian.” And not all Asians share the same values, the same opportunities and obstacles — or the same socioeconomic outcomes.
The communities that sit under the Asian umbrella comprise over two dozen ethnicities speaking over a hundred languages and dialects, with each population arriving in the U.S. at different times and under unique circumstances. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Asian Americans have the widest income spread of any demographic group.
Unlike our Hispanic Americans brothers and sisters, Asian Americans do not have a shared language. I was surprised to learn from Marlene’s interview that there are different dialects of Chinese.
As an Asian American male, Leonard Tamura understands the image of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” which “portrays Asians as hard-working, industrious, and perhaps most important, compliant (62).” This is a stereotype indeed, but I was sharing with one of our interviewed guests that at least from my perspective, the stereotypes associated with Asian Americans are often positive. I have come to understand that this positive stereotype and imaging does come at a price to Asian Americans. Generally, there is significant pressure within the Asian American families and communities to perform. “Two reasons Asians have worked long and hard to achieve success in American are the group orientation of most Asian cultures and the issue of shame…in most Asian culture, shame is a powerful force (64)….There is often an anxiety among Asians that inappropriate actions of any one member will cause the entire group to lose face (65).” As an African American woman, I completely understand the individual challenges of shame, pressure, and projecting the right image to the majority. This is difficult for anyone to understand if they have not been in the position of constantly being one minority in the midst of the majority culture. We should all be sensitive to this reality.
But there is also a negative stereotype associate with Asian Americans. This stereotype paints Americans of Asian descent as violent enemies. Historically, Marlene was gracious to share some of the atrocities against Chinese Americans when this people group was painted as a “they.” I was also shocked to read: On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war to designate “military areas” and exclude “any or all” persons from these areas as a “military necessity.” As a result, 110,000 persons of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps. More than 70,000 of them were American citizens (65). The enemy and violent image continues to prevail in the media market for martial art films. Aside from a few successes like Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy, it is rare to see an Asian actor who is not shooting or physically beating up somebody.
Concerning racial reconciliation, Tamura concludes his chapter with several recommendations:
What can Asian Americans do?
1. Develop a positive ethnic identity (74)
In conversation this week, my husband informed me that one of his female Asian American co-workers shared that she was considering reconstructive surgery. According to her, the latest beauty phenomena is for Asian American women to “fix” their eyes so they look less slanted and change their noses so they can look more white. Unfortunately, these drastic measures are only outward expressions of the inward turmoil that rages when the messages constantly elevate the white tribe. Asian Americans and other minorities get the message to “deny, deny, deny themselves.” Tamura writes, “In denying our Asianness, we are hiding not only from the wounds but from ourselves. But what do we do instead? I think there are three essential steps: (1) becoming aware, (2) accepting ourselves, and (3) integrating our ethnic identity into our overall identity (75).”
2. Take responsibility for your own environment (76)
3. Seek out Opportunities to Engage in Meaningful Dialogue (77)
What can non Asian Americans do?
1. Increase your self-awareness (77)
2. Take Responsibility for your own environment (78)
3. Seek Out Opportunities to Engage in Meaningful Dialogue (78)
Sometimes we are in error when communicating with those who are different than us simply because we do not know what to ask or say. When attempting to develop a relationship with an American of Asian descent, it is more appropriate to ask questions to reflect your desire for relationship and not simply to satisfy your curiosity For example, consider beginning the conversation with:
What country are you from? I would love to learn more about your heritage or family history.
I asked, they answered. From our interviewed guests, here are some Asian leaders to watch:
Soong-Chan Rah, North Park Theological Seminary professor and Senior Pastor of Cambridge Community Church: is passionate advocate of justice and racial reconciliation in the church and beyond. Natasha: I read Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity for this internship and it is one of the best books I have read all year.
Eugene Cho, Quest Church: through his blog, his church ministry, and his organization One Days’ Wages, an increasingly influential voice in the church.
Dave Gibbons, New Song Church: leader of a global multi-site church, author, amazing leader.
Jeanette Yep, Missions Pastor, Grace Chapel: longtime InterVarsity staff worker, now a church leader in the area of missions.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto, program director, Urbana: in charge of one of the most influential mission’s conferences in the world.
Ken Fong, Evergreen Baptist Church-LA: unbelievably gifted preacher, leader and pastor.
Peter Cha, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: deeply thoughtful, a key professor helping to shape the hearts, minds and souls of the next generation of pastoral staff.
Joanne Jung, author and Associate Professor, Biblical Studies and Theology at Biola
Francis Chan, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California and best-selling author of Crazy Love
Natasha: I have also been encouraged by the contributions of author and journalist of Half the Sky, Sheryl WuDunn’s work to turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide, Sharon Cohn Wu work at the International Justice Mission, and Michelle Rhee’s work in the field of education. Through her organization, StudentsFirst, she is on a movement to transform public education.
Has this mini-series changed your perception or understanding of Asian Americans? What was most beneficial for your learning and relationships?
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012