Asians and Asian Americans: A Glance

A compilation of our month long discussion on Asians and Asian Americans

First time I faced the “good Asian” tag, I wasn’t sure that it includes me. I was mistaken for an Indian more often than I could politely take. My understanding was “Asian” was used more for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other SouthEast Asian ethnicities. But no, I was mistaken. As an Indian looking Nepali, I too was part of the “good Asian” brand of expectations.

And there were many expectations. Asian are the so called model minorities in America. Smart, highly educated with solid family structure and stayed away from trouble.

I was floored. It is flattering to be called a “model” of good behavior and success; but take some time and think about it, you will see that it is not so flattering after all.

This tag lumps all Asians into one group as if we age one monolithic group driven by same ideas and dreams. Our diversity is discounted and we are bound by an invisible chain.

When an Asian boy wants to be an actor or when an Asian girl wants to be a jazz musician, it is this perception of “model” behavior that adds to the pressure they feel from home to find more traditional pursuits like Medicine or Law.

Although nowadays you can see the number of Asians in art, television, movies and sports rising;compare that to their presence in say technology, it is negligible. There are about 2 million Indians in America, and how many have successfully transitioned into national mainstream in movies, music, sports etc?

The Chinese are the largest Asian community in America, how many are nationally known actors or musicians?

Other minorities too have to deal with this chain of public expectations and perceptions. For instance ask an African American boy or girl what career path they want to pursue. You will see that their choice or that their understanding of what thy can accomplish is strangely limited in this land of unlimited opportunities.

Where is the root of this chain? Why can’t there be a true freedom, no expectations and no judgments for all ethnicities?

Assimilation

It is futile to expect foreign born/ raised kids to be culturally pure and observant. The degree of purity depends on the definitions set by the parents, how they themselves were raised and their values. But the whole idea of pushing the young generation to follow on the path of their ancestors and ignore their surrounding culture is troubling.

We are born into a culture, religion and values set. Parents, relatives and the community shape us, but ultimately it is us- an individual who decides what to pick and what to ignore. In certain societies parents and elders do push youngsters to confirm, even then the individual decision counts.

To push a young person to follow their parents’ culture, while living amongst an entirely different culture creates “cultural and ethnic ghettos”. They live in an almost parallel universe and the clash between civilizations and cultures makes it’s difficult for them to integrate into their new homeland.

It also confuses them because here they are living in a country where personal freedom and valued, but at home and within their community their voice is ignored. How are they supposed to reconcile the difference and work so that they grow up to be responsible citizen of their new homeland rather then just being a good (insert ethnicity or religion here)?

You see this rift widening in Europe and parts of America. Ethnicities banding together and living in insular communities fractures a nation and crates parallel societies. Integration is difficult and the clash creates a permanent class of “outsiders”- and feeds alienation.

Instead of accepting these parallel societies, effort has to be made to truly integrate new comers and their families. Culture is important part of identity and diversity is good for a country but at a certain point different cultures have to come together and be one nation.

Nepali, Chinese , Hindi schools and culture lessons are welcomed and encouraged, but similar efforts are needed to make sure that the children and the immigrants know that they don’t have to feel like an outsider. An effort to integrate.

Most of us are descendants of immigrants/migrants. My ancestors moved to Nepal 3 or 4 hundred years ago, most definitely from north India. Over time they embraced Nepal and it’s culture and became part of the society. They did retain part of their culture and heritage, but embraced the new too.

Integration and assimilation over time is only natural. Resistance gives rise to fractured societies and ghettoes.

Family

Early this year, the American media was flush with excitement. A new species had been discovered- the Tiger Mom.

Amy Chua, successful Yale University professor and uber “Asian mom” of two daughters created a firestorm after claiming Chinese mothers are better than the rest in her Wall Street Journal article on virtues of Asian style parenting. Her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chided American moms for their permissive parenting style and counted the benefits of being strict and stern with kids.

All this riding on popular understanding that Asian kids, compared to other ethnic minorities, do well in school and are more disciplined- applying the model minority myth.

What about the kids?

Missing in this debate, the kids and their perspective.

I was raised by wannabe Tiger parents. Yes, you can see they failed and I am glad they did.

Parenting focused on raising young achievers and ultra focused kids denies the children their childhood and robs them the freedom of making mistakes. My parents wanted me to be a Doctor or an Engineer. I hated math and had no interest in science. But the intense pressure and the environment where you feel lees worthy if you do not measure up to the “other” kids made me hate school altogether. I was almost held back for a year in 9th grade and failed every math test in junior high.

And there are hundreds like me scattered all over Asia and in Asian families in America. The push for success and achievement is actually hurting kids. They are forced to value success over honest hard work, achievement over learning and experience; and in many cases pushed to follow a career path chosen by the family instead of the freedom to dream and choose.

There is no denying that children need structure and discipline. They need guidance and encouragement too. Forcing them to abandon simple pleasures of childhood for the sake of future filled with grand achievements is wrong.

Complicit Media

The media circus following Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article and her book made me wonder why is the mainstream media in this country incapable of examining the other side when it comes to popular myths regarding the minorities.

The picture of smart Asians and model minority myth is so appealing that they went along with Tiger parenting and failed to show the damage it does to kids. Only after some outraged parents raised their voices, there was some attempt to examine.

Imagine a mother from any other ethnicity or religious group had tried to claim that their style of parenting is better than the rest, on national media! But the good Asian myth was allowed to perpetuate.

Strong discipline and moral foundation is necessary to set up kids for future success but Tiger style parenting focused on success and achievement is nothing but a patenting gulag and is nothing to be celebrated.

Hope the next time an Asian fad comes along, the media will respond differently.

Failed Integration

Sex selective abortion, female infanticide and discrimination against a girl child is pushing gender imbalance in many parts of Asia, specially India and China.

Reports from India’s latest census shows that millions of girls are “missing” because of selective abortion and infanticide. China’s one child policy is clashing with the country’s deep cultural preference for boys, forcing many families to go to the extreme.

It is easy to say that this troubling and inhumane development is confined to Asia and cannot happen in the western world.

Wrong. Immigration/migration has brought this problem into America and Europe. Selective abortion is practiced in number of Asian communities living in the US, as this Slate article shows. In the UK too selective abortion is taking place, according to this BBC report.

This problem has deep roots-boosted by specific religious and culture practices. The fact that families in US and UK are aborting baby girls shows that the education and exposure to different ideas and lifestyle are poor deterrents.

This also shows the failure to integrate in a meaningful way.

A family living in America or Europe, choosing to kill a baby girl shows that we are failing to integrate immigrants when it comes to accepting specific values, and are satisfied when we see outward signs of integration like clothing styles or food habits.

The values- respecting life, honoring women’s role in society and equality, they are in fact human values, not just Western values; but in countries like India and China they are being overshadowed and the West they are at least practiced with force in public sphere.

So why are certain communities holding out on these human values? Why are they reluctant to let go of old ideas concerning gender and equality?

Caste discrimination has also been imported into American from South Asia. Even with increased awareness in the community about the ills of discrimination and the need to promote fairness and democracy, the centuries old habits are still alive.If you compare gender bias with caste discrimination, in Nepali context, it is fair to say that the former is nowadays more acceptable than the latter. Thanks to tireless work of the equality advocates, caste is now a sufficiently taboo issue in major cities and even in rural areas, the people are getting the message. Gender bias however remains persistent.Among Nepali immigrants in the USA, these issues present a strange dilemma. Majority of them are aware that caste bias is demeaning and unacceptable, and yet far too many carry the relics of past and bring it to their new homeland. It may not be overt but behind the polite conversations, the issue stays alive especially when it comes to marriage and important social events like religious observations.

Couple of months back, I had moderated panel discussion on caste and the observations of one of speakers really startled me. Bias is present even among the educated and enlightened, and it is stronger against the so called “untouchables”. Other participant remembered a community picnic where the “lower caste” members felt left out and ate separately.

It is sad to see that educated, aware Nepalis choose to carry burden of caste. It is even worse when they claim “preserve” it as part of their Nepali identity.

As I have discussed earlier, identity crisis is very real for immigrants. In an effort to preserve their heritage and share it with their foreign born children, often they keep outdated practices-like caste and gender bias alive.

Observant Nepalis in America, know caste is wrong and yet they carry on with it in one way or the other. Objecting to an inter caste marriage, checking on guests’ caste credentials discreetly at events, in fact objecting to mixed marriages can also be seen as part of the caste problem. A problem that does not allow one human to see other human as equal.

While caste gets the discreet treatment, gender bias,is out in the open. Somehow it is perfectly ok to push women and girls to confirm to rigid standards, while proclaiming masculine superiority. And the bias gets dose of immigrant confusion.

Like caste, gender bias also often gets included in “our culture” stance. Families forget part of their heritage that promoted feminine equality and respect and choose to carry on the diluted message of bias and discrimination.

Honest integration into the American system could soften these biases. I am not saying that they will go away, but learning the principles of equality, fairness and democracy- not only on government but also in relationships, can provide a push, perhaps encouraging them to see the parts of their heritage that they have neglected. The part that is against caste and gender discrimination.

Asian Americans in Public

If you watch randomly selected major television network in America, you get a very twisted idea about the country and it’s culture- that the country is almost all white, white collar mega rich land where everyone is thin, and look better than most models.

Prime Time programming at NBC,CBS, ABC and FOX mostly have Caucasian characters as the leads. Some have tried to fill the gap by pushing in some black and Hispanic characters in between but they don’t get the meaty and leading roles.

I have been a devoted, almost fanatical fan of ABC’s Desperate Housewives. They did try to bring in an African American family as series regulars but after a season dropped them. Yes, they do have Eva Longoria’a family The Solis’ as the “Latino” representation, but is that enough? The show ignores two large sections of minorities in America- African Americans and the Asians. A youngster following the show, what is the picture of America in their imagination? All white with one Latino family!

News networks are no better. Crucial 8-10 PM hour are, with one exception- MSNBC has Rachel Maddow at 9; all white males. CNN has Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan, Fox has Bill O’Reilly and Hannity, and MSNBC has Ed Schultz and Maddow. Women, minorities cannot be trusted to shape and debate issues facing America and the world?

Exclusive club of American mainstream media, gives an impression of America that is so skewed and false, it begs a question, is entertainment/news only for the delusional? Or are the minorities too insignificant to be embraced as part of the country?

Politics and Policy Making

Asian Americans are about 5% of total US population. Although they are spread out across the country, California, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, Washington have number of large concentrated Asian American communities.

Previously we discussed how the community is portrayed in the mainstream media and, their disproportionate academic success and how it affects the way the community is viewed by the larger society.

The “model minority” myth means that issues like poverty, access to job opportunities, domestic violence, gender and religious issues facing the community do not get as much attention.

Political empowerment of Asians and Asian Americans is also of concern because compared to their success in medicine, technology or business, the community’s involvement in local and national level politics is minuscule, and erratic.

In states where there are large concentrations of Asian Americans like California and New Jersey they have found some success. San Francisco just elected it’s first Asian American mayor and in local level too Asian Americans are visible politically. In states like Texas (unlikely, I know) their participation is encouraging.

See this graph by University of Texas on race and Texas legislature. Asian participation is 1%, and they make about 3.8% of the state’s population.

The other side of this limited but encouraging success is the in states without concentrated Asian American population, their presence in state and local politics is dismal. Does this mean that their success still depends on large community backup and the country still does not see them as mainstream or is this different for Republicans?

What about Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley?

Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley’s success, that too in the South-often misunderstood and with long history of racial bias, is often used as an indicator of how Asian Americans are starting to make their presence in politics. In a way, that is true. They are of Indian heritage and have made their name in national level too.

The flip side of their success, they are hard Republicans, a party which in recent times is known more for it’s anti-immigrant stance and conservative religious values. Their appeal among Asian Americans, beyond the wow factor, is questionable. Even among Indian Americans, their policies could be a deterrent.

Their success is based heavily on their policies that court the Republican base. If they were Democrats pursuing liberal agenda, could they have produced similar success?

 

To conclude, it is clear that like any other ethnic group in America, Asians and Asian Americans have struggles and joys. It is unfair to look at them through the film of “exotic over achievers” and perpetuate the “model minority” myth.

Asians and Asian Americans are part of the American reality and they need to be accepted as such. Just like any other American.

 

(This concludes our series on Asians and Asian Americans.Thank you for stopping by)

3 thoughts on “Asians and Asian Americans: A Glance

  1. Pingback: Asians and Asian Americans: A Glance | Nepal Blogs | Today Headlines

  2. WOW! This was such a relieving post to read. I fell in love with one such Nepali that would pronounce the need to do away with caste and prejudice but when the time came, it was such a part of his “identity” that when his family wouldn’t accept me and needed him to not only marry only a Nepali, but a Newari member of the right caste and of some very small sect that I can’t pronounce. He promised to never enforce such rigid and unnecessary restrictions in his children. But that means nothing. To keep acting on a system that you yourself find to be outdated and wrong, is to embody the height of hypocrisy. Of course my words just damaged his view of me. I became a racist American with no understanding of his culture. Because I wanted to be judged as an individual and not as an “American”. Identity crises aren’t unique to asian-americans. We all go through them and we all struggle.
    Just as it is terrible to be thought of only to be worth becoming a doctor or engineer, its equally terrible to be judged as a person with no family values or cultural sensitivity.

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