How long does it take to “become” an American (or anything really)?

by doorhalfopen

I was casually walking with my friend one day in college. There was an Asian guy in front of us, dressed rather “ghetto”. He had a cap with the sticker still on. He had a big jacket. Not an unusual sight in California for any race. But my friend, who grew up in Hong Kong, had a different take on it.

“I can’t stand these people. Don’t they know they’re Chinese?”

I was caught off guard. As I mentioned, this was just a casual conversation. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, and just explained that fashion nowadays is molded more by background, location, (sub)culture–really anything besides race. It didn’t bother me that this guy dressed the way he did. My friend let it go and we continued walking.

On another night I was speaking with a different friend, also from Hong Kong. Somehow children came up as a topic, and he mentioned how he might move back to HK so his kids won’t be failed Chinese kids. I guess he’s seen a lot of Chinese immigrant children who don’t end up speaking Chinese, knowing the customs and manners, and don’t really “look” Chinese.

“Raising them back in HK or China is the only way I can think of for them to grow up as good Chinese kids”, he said. I could tell he’d been thinking about this for a while. I asked him why they couldn’t just be good American kids. “Because they’re Chinese”.

I was born in Hong Kong, but I grew up in California. Am I Chinese? “Of course. Your parents are from Hong Kong”.

This is when things got interesting. I asked him if he identified as someone from HK or China (I won’t go into the politics). He was “from” HK, according to him. His parents? HK. His grandparents? Mainland China. So why could he and his peers grow up as good HK kids, but his children would be Chinese no matter where they went?

He didn’t have an answer, and I don’t really have one either. It’s a good question. It’s the same question that applies to how a slice of the US population thinks ethnic Asians will never be true Americans. Or that white Americans are the only true Americans. In our melting pot of a country, when does our identity truly change? Surely citizenship doesn’t instantaneously change your peers’ perception of you.

How could it be that when I have a child, he/she will be born in the US, grow up in the US, identify as an American, yet still be perceived by the world as a Chinese person of varying degrees of success? At the same time, if you do have ties to Chinese culture, either due to close relatives, language skills, etc., it doesn’t make sense to just ditch all things Chinese in order to feel like a “pure” American.

I don’t have any answers (yet), just a lot of questions.