Halfway, on the other side
Recently I had the chance to go out with an old friend and some of his coworkers in San Francisco. I’m not from the city, so it was interesting meeting and going out with several people that grew up there. Being suburbs-raised, it’s always fun for me to learn about how others’ lives differed from mine. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the differences in our childhood went far beyond location.
I started this blog because I believe I grew up in a fairly unique environment. I was a 1.5 generation immigrant, but my town is primarily caucasian. I didn’t grow up thinking very much about what Asians should and shouldn’t do, and for the most part it was my decision or myparents’ decision to make the life choices I did. I paid attention to Asian music and cinema out of interest. I didn’t watch football out of my own choice. Very little was predetermined due to my background. In other words, my environment didn’t force me to be one way or another due to my race.
As a result, I ended up feeling a sense of belonging. I was both Chinese and American. I can fit in fairly well if I go back t o Hong Kong and I don’t have much of a problem in California either. To me, that’s the perfect in-between, and I always assumed anyone with enough respect and exposure to both sides would feel the same way.
These new friends from SF ranged from being American-born to having immigrated to the United States during high school. To some degree or another, they had Asian influences in their San Francisco city lives. They were familiar with Chinese culture and American culture, like me. However race played a very different role for them growing up.
We lined up to go to a bar/club and I noticed multiple police officers standing and watching the line. Then I heard from one of the coworkers that there were multiple shootings in this area not too long ago. Why were we here? Having grown up in the suburbs, I was not exactly comfortable but decided not to think too much about it. There weren’t very many Asians in line, but I was more concerned about the crime rate in the area than I did about the race distribution. Little did I know that inside I would be the least uncomfortable in the group.
There weren’t very many Asians in the club, and most of the group stayed scrunched up in a corner. I asked some of them why they seemed so shy. The following are what I heard in response, to the best of my memory.
“It’s all black people here.”
“It’s not Asian enough.”
“Next time we should go somewhere more Chinese. Though we’re not really ‘Chinese’ either.”
That’s when I realized something. I thought I was halfway between two cultures, and by definition these new friends should be at about the same position. Yet, I felt like we were from two different worlds. Standing in the middle, I belonged on both sides. Standing in the same position, they they were a part of neither. At least at some points in their lives, they were void of an identity. The term ‘Asian American’ doesn’t carry the same meaning for them as it does for me. In America they’re Asian, and in Asia they’re American. So what are they?
There are more dimensions to this part of our identities than I at first naively thought. Maybe living in a big city presents greater racial tension, which drives the different ethnic groups to isolate themselves from one another. Maybe their parents taught them differently about race. I’m not sure what the causes are, but I can observe the result. There are a lot of factors in play that I previously neglected to see.
Assuming that it’s better to feel a sense of belonging rather than abandonment, what can be done to make sure future generations of Asian Americans don’t feel the way they do? Maybe there needs to be a recognizable Asian American culture, perhaps driven by mainstream media, before something like this can happen. But where to start? Perhaps this very feeling of abandonment will be a future driving force to create the culture.
I don’t really have a concrete answer. This is just something I observed that I will keep in my mind in the future.