Imagine 3rd-grade me, little quiet skinny Asian girl, sitting cross-legged in the Music Room, feeling snarky.
Now, listen to the chorus of this song:
Now, imagine little me singing (quietly and self-satisfied-ly):
“Me, and me, and me and me and me and me and
Me, and me, and me and me and me!
I am part-American, part-American, part-American, me and me!
Part-American, part-American, part-American! Me and me!”
The second great wave of immigration from Europe was largely comprised of Irish and German immigrants. The Irish tended to settle in large cities on the eastern seaboard, looking for low-paying menial jobs in factories and such since they were generally very poor. The Germans, on the other hand, tended to settle more inland, since they came with a good amount of money. Low-income Americans, black and white, hated the new Irish because they were making the job market much more competitive. They were generally more ok with Germans, according to APUSH.
Today, do you know the difference between the Irish-Americans and the German-Americans (or whatever-percent Irish/German someone is)? Do you care?
Maybe I’m late to this realization, but here’s my thought. The same is going to happen to Chinese people in America. If you think of all the stereotypes of Asian-Americans, among students, you get personality things like: hardworking, competitive, high-achieving, nerdy. You get activity things like: violin, piano, math competitions, computer science. These activities have high concentrations of Asians—just walk into a medium-sized high school’s orchestra, or to a Math Club meeting, and you’ll see what I mean. It might be because of culture values like repetitive learning (which suits math), an all-other-Asians-are-doing-orchestra-so-I-must-send-my-kid-to-violin-lessons mentality, competitive spirit, or genuinely Asian kids tending to have natural talent and/or love for these activities.
But already, you see Asians (esp. Asian students) intentionally breaking out of these molds in order to differentiate themselves. You’re seeing more and more Asians in band, in creative writing, in entrepreneurship, in part because this breaks them away from the pack.
A Boston Globe article my brother sent me is headlined:
As lawsuits allege racial quotas at elite colleges, high-achieving applicants call on consultants to help win admission — and receive guidance on minimizing their ethnicity
From the college admissions standpoint, everything is about ‘being unique’ and ‘standing out.’ Because so many Asians are in the race for college admissions, it’s automatically a good thing if you can stand out from other Asians by virtue of doing surprising activities and doing them well. It’s better to, say, win national ballet competitions as an Asian than to win national piano festivals, even if you love piano and hate the guts out of dance. Which I think is sad.
But I am guilty of this breaking-away in a lesser extreme—choosing between ballet, piano, and violin, all of which I relatively enjoyed, I retained ballet and piano. I had beef against violin at that point, since orchestra had broken friendships in my group and our new director was a teensy bit overbearing. But I also recognized the fact that choosing ballet would give me a tiny bit more of that surprise factor in a good way.
So among students, a self-started and natural spreading-out of activities has initiated. I’d argue that it’s then leading to a spreading-out of qualities. If Asian girls are stereotypically shy, then it does one well to make herself outgoing. If Asian boys are stereotypically nerdy, then it does one well to drink, party occasionally, be robustly social and confident.
People don’t always pursue these things with ulterior motives—in fact, oftentimes it’s with the very good intention of actually breaking down stereotypes. It’s always harder to break out than to fit in, and that’s what makes the former so admirable. Regardless, what it does is take Asians out of molds.
And then this attitude/trend follows into adulthood. To be great in life is to be different from the rest, and spreading out means differentiation means opportunity for recognition. It’s like osmosis, diffusion. Higher concentrations of things naturally gravitate to disperse.
Like this: when you drop a teensy drop of red food coloring into a tank of water, it spreads gradually. Unprompted, little tendrils sneak out and pull the packet of color apart until the tendrils are unrecognizable from the water. Soon, the drop is fully incorporated, and the water is barely different from its original color.
Asians are 5% of America’s population. Whites are 77%. If we are the red, white Americans are the water. As we spread out from our initial niches—chopsticks, computer engineers, etc. etc.—eventually it’s going to be the same number of Asians in guitar and football as there are in violin and math competitions. The same number of Asian movie directors are there are Asian software developers. And the truth is, just like the Irish and German today, they might not be visibly differentiable at all—one will say things like, “Oh, I’m like a quarter Irish, a quarter Spanish, a quarter Chinese, a little bit black, a little Dutch.” The only impact left from my generation of Asian-Americans will be eyes a little narrower, hair a little darker. The language will be long-gone, let alone the customs.
And so here’s a thought: when people make a big deal out of racist acts, and get justifiably angry, we’re actually just asking to be lost faster. Because let’s face it: to beg to be treated “the same” as everyone else, is to beg to be treated white. From statistics alone, it’s true.
And so this is assimilation. Is this a bad thing? It’s necessary for the functioning of a nation, some say. It’s much less work for the few to become like the many, than for the many to learn all about many fews. (Here’s a beautiful post by a pastor on why he changed his last name to make it easier for white people to pronounce: https://jonathankeng.com/2017/06/17/fathers-day/.) The negotiation between the two is going to have to keep going, but for now all I can do really is vow to send my kids to Chinese school and keep eating my yogurt with chopsticks.
I realize now that all I’ve done is write a long, unfocused, and winding thought piece on something as normal and well-known as assimilation. But maybe it’s just so surprising to me since (as I said it so well in my November draft of “Bra Fitting”) I have done some “transitioning from Asian to white.”
Maybe what I’m really trying to get at is this: everyone wants to feel accepted, hence my felt need for a bra, makeup, etc. At the same time, everyone wants to be different, hence my felt need to win 1st place at a UIL contest and be successful in general. These two forces are what cause something like assimilation—the former draws the red to the clear, while the latter drives the red away from itself, and the forces together make a powerful spread.
In my own life, I’ve gotten better at knowing I’m all-American with a Chinese background, and how to negotiate my history/heritage with my current shoes. I want to preserve the Chinese parts as carefully as possible, but how am I going to teach my kids Chinese and perseverance when I’m already struggling? I know it’s inevitable, that I’m already not fully Chinese, and that’s sad, but at the same time my relative adeptness with all things American makes me better equipped to succeed here. I’ve been given these shoes and now just need to figure out how to run—without forgetting the makers or the starting line.
And isn’t it well-known that America makes better shoes than China?
Isabella – 7/4/17,