Sunday, August 10, 2008

On Being Chinese-American in 2008

People always say - write what you know. And I do. This is inspired by an article I read in the New York Mag on racial politics and Obama and it illustrates much of what I see and hear everyday and what I've experienced.

Some years ago, researchers conducting a study for the Diversity Project, at UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Social Change, asked black and white college students about their perceptions of racism on a given campus. White students tended to say there was none, but blacks and Native Americans said it was everywhere. In fact, the study documented an interesting phenomenon: As Diversity Project sociologist Troy Duster put it, “White students see diversity as a potential source of ‘individual enhancement,’ ” while African-American students were more likely to see the goal as “institutional change.”

When the white students were asked to give illustrations that substantiated their positions, they spoke of their own experiences and of personal intentions. “Last night, I had dinner with a black friend,” they might offer. Or, “I have a black roommate, and we get along”; “I play basketball with a couple of black guys”; “I’ve never used a racist epithet”; “I treat everyone the same.”

The black students cited instances of relative privilege, things that were more structural, institutional, atmospheric. “The campus police are always stopping us”; “I get followed around in stores”; “Most of the white students don’t have to think twice about how much it costs to take prep classes for the LSAT or to spend spring break skiing in Aspen or partying in CancĂșn.”

It’s a familiar, even ubiquitous, miscommunication over the last ten years of the so-called culture wars: A black person speaks of racism or white privilege. The nearest halfway-privileged white person protests, “But I work for liberal causes. You’re lumping me with racists just because I’m white!”

The black person answers, “I’m not saying that you, personally, are a racist. I’m saying we live in a world where it’s easier to be white than it is to be black.”

“But I’m not part of that,” comes the reply.

“We’re all part of it,” insists the black person.

The tendency to turn the commitment to racial liberalism into sheer denial is strong. “I don’t see race” becomes “I don’t see racism.”

In no way have I experienced the severity of some of those quoted in this passage, but the overall message is there - that everyone is so afraid of being labeled racist that we fail to admit to seeing or acknowledging differences (positive or negative) in race and ethnicity. It is the white elephant in the room, society's racial equivalent to "don't ask, don't tell".

On the surface, I'm an open book. I'm an over-achieving Chinese-American who excelled in math and the sciences in high school in suburban California, got high scores on my SATs, passed all my Advanced Placement exams with maximum scores of 5s and International Baccalaureate exams with maximum scores of 7s (the first one in my school's district to achieve that distinction), went to Chinese school every Saturday for 10+ years, attended a prestigious university and have worked for several name-brand companies in the financial services sector. I am a minority, but I am for lack of a better term, a "model minority".

The 2008 Beijing Olympics has really gotten me thinking about being Chinese, or specifically, being Chinese-American in 2008. I am well aware of China's human rights violations in Tibet and elsewhere. I am astute to the gross suburbanization and advances in global and environmental pollution the modernization of China has brought. I am superficially educated in the role China plays in daily Taiwanese life, and I felt the pain and pride the country of China and ethnically Chinese around the world (hua2 qiao3) when Hong Kong was returned to China in the 1990s.

And despite never lived there, despite never having stepped foot on the mainland, I do feel a sense of pride. Their journey, for better or worse, is my journey. I've long since abandoned my "I wish I was white - I wish I was American" adolescent angst. But seeing Chinese athletes for the first time being able to perform on a global stage in their country's stadium, seeing a celebration of the ultra-modern with a flair for the ancient, I feel it not only enhances China's story, but my own.

My story is one of longing and belonging. Oftentimes, Chinese-Americans go through their own fork - should I be American, or should I be Chinese? I've long grappled with this personally and have decided that the fork I choose is the hard-fought but less-questioned third fork. I'm going to be both. I'm going to be as much one as I am the other. And this comes out superficially in the types of food I eat, in the way I communicate, in the type of life I want to lead. Because I feel, to choose my own path, to have an open honest dialogue with myself is in fact distinctly American. But to never deny my past, my black hair and round face and slanted eyes, my family upbringing, my culture - that is something that non-Chinese cannot understand and cannot feel. And unfortunately in America, to be Chinese-American is to be the bullied, the labeled, the "model minority".

I feel that openness with Western Civilization can lead to a more socially liberalized China. China's past is full of sadness and regret, but today, like it or not, is China's day to shine. And there will always be naysayers. But I hope the Olympics and a positive view of China can open the eyes of Americans to the plight of the Chinese in America, and can also open the eyes of Chinese-Americans to a better America as well.


dannyman said...

Damn, Ed, you were IB too? No wonder I feels a kinship. I didn't overachieve like you. I probably would have snapped.

FWIW I'm really proud of the Chinese too, and try to set he record straight when white folk start saying shit, then I gleefully point out that they took dog off the menus to not offend foreign sensibilities. I just kinda feel like the Americans had their chance to come from a backwater to shine on the world stage, and now perhaps the Chinese are picking up the torch, working out their kinks, and may have a beautiful run of it.

And to set the record straight on the Internet, I'm a white dude from the midwest.


David said...

I think it's about time to get off the model minority seat and get engaged in public work, develop ties to the community, run for office and show that Asians are not just good for science and making money. Otherwise we will remain a bunch of computer nerds, crafty merchants divorced from the community and even looked down as the enemy.