The Christmas season is upon us again. For many, the holidays are about getting together with family and reflecting upon the year.
As a naturalized American, I ponder the parents and relatives I left behind in Asia and my life since immigrating to the United States. To borrow Adm. James Stockdale’s immortal words at the 1992 vice presidential debate: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Although I celebrate being a Constitution-thumping, ruggedly individualistic American, this is one time of the year when I think wistfully about a land that is now foreign to me, people who are strangers, and a language I once spoke that no longer feels as natural as English does.
I am reminded that I was once an Asian.
Since coming to America, I have seen three kinds of Asians. In New York City, I grew up among Asian immigrants. Hair slightly crumpled, clad in ill-fitting clothes, they spoke English, if at all, with thick accents. They were “old school,” with the attendant mores, and theirs was a world-within-a-world ethnic ghettos, the only place they found comfortable in a strange, new land. They often barricaded themselves from the society at large, instead forming intense bonds of kinship and friendship within their own enclaves.
While attending a university in New England, I met another kind of Asian. They were usually the second generation, the children of immigrants who “made it.” They hailed from prestigious high schools, wore fashionable clothes and drove luxury cars (black Acura Legend, the official car of the Asian student association).
At times, they seemed to be trying too hard to outdo the native-born, as if to say: I am more successful than you; I am more American than you. Many became attorneys or investment bankers.
Out in the “real” world of jobs and mortgages, I encountered yet another type of Asian. Several generations removed from their immigrant ancestors, and often married to non-Asians, they spoke only English and worked “normal” jobs. I would even see some of them at gun shows, of all places, that quintessentially American phenomenon.
In other words, they were utterly ordinary, completely “acculturated” Americans, with nothing “Asian” about them but for their faces and surnames (or maiden names). A real-estate ad I saw in Seattle captured it best: a picture of an Asian man, with an Anglo wife and a cute mixed child, beaming in front of a white, picket-fenced house.
These archetypes of Asians in America the immigrant, the over-achiever/model minority, the assimilated Twinkie (yellow outside, white inside) obviously do not capture the entirety of reality, but I understand them because I traversed through them in 20 years.
When I reflect upon my own American journey, I realize that being Asian or, for that matter, having any kind of identity in America, is mostly self-constructed.
In other parts of the world, people battle along tribal, sectarian or class lines, all inherited identities.
Here we fight over ideas. Conservatives, liberals, pro-life, pro-choice, pro-growth, pro-environment our identities are derived not from birth, but from ideas we cherish.
Even race, seemingly inherited, is not. When some black “leaders” criticized Colin Powell and Condi Rice for being “not black enough,” they unwittingly captured a kernel of truth about race. If being “black” in America is not about African ancestry but rather about not conforming to some notion of a mainstream (“white”) way of life, then race here is not something inborn: It is a politico-cultural identity we formulate by action and thought.
So if I was an Asian once, who am I now? I am left with this: I am an American, because I choose to be one. I revel in its liberties, its excesses, its ideals, its flaws. That is the identity I constructed for myself.
And why am I here? The holidays are not just about reflecting upon the past. They are also about looking forward to the future. After all, we Americans are supposed to be future-oriented. I look forward to building my American family. There will be generations here because of me, because of how I chose 20 years ago. And those generations will weave into the fabric of America, becoming inseparable from the history and life of this great nation.
That happy, bright prospect of the future more than makes up for the melancholy I feel for a lost past in this season of reflection.