Asian Americans aren’t a mono-lid. In previous posts, I’ve commented on the difference between various Asian Americans, in country of origin, in socio-economic class, in generation, and particularly the distinction between what is considered ABC/CBC and fob. The difference between the assimilated and the newly immigrated, those born in the West and those born in Asia. This is even more pronounced when contrasted with Asians in Asia, those who haven’t stepped on the boat, so to speak.
That Asian Americans don’t see themselves strictly Asian and insist on the difference between Asian-Asian and Asian-American is not a cause for concern. Though they have common ancestors, their current culture and milieus are now completely different, notably for those who have grown up in the West. This difference is the launch point of the newly emerging Asian American culture. Other ethnicities have also slowly clued into this distinction, understanding that Asian Americans, like other immigrants in the West, often share more with other Americans than with the inhabitants of their home countries.
Although this separation may seem obvious when explained, there is a chain of consequence bearing nuances. The first is the tendency to conflate integration and assimilation — for lack of better terms — where integration is defined as a joining of two distinct parties, whereas assimilation involves the bigger party swallowing the smaller. Granted, this isn’t a case of either-or: there is much overlap between the two, and some degree of one is necessary for the others. A careless approach to Asian American identity or behaviour however, views everything Western as strictly good, and all else as bad. An inability to speak a native language versus bilingualism, or a refusal to eat ethnic foods for fear of mockery versus the diverse restaurant selection in Toronto. Through an effort to be accepted by the West and differentiating themselves from the East, many Asian Americans deliberately purge the traditions of their parents and attempt to become white.
That Asian Americans are liable fall into this trap only makes it easier for others to do the same. The more Asian Americans vocally disavow the traditions of their parents and grandparents, the more acceptable it is for white people to do the same. Not that they are to blame; they probably don’t even notice it, because they are the norm, and everything else is the Other.
When this trickles down, it furthers the schism between Asians-Asians and Asian-Americans, who will sometimes speak disparagingly of people living in Asia as uncultured and unrefined, whereas they just lacked the same opportunities to leave or were born to different parents. Ironically, they believe that they have the authority to do so, because they are Asian. This want for a rich culture of their own is understandable, and something that I profess to desire as well. But it’s important to remain cognisant of the potential impact of this separation, and where lines should be drawn. If the rhetoric contains xenophobic themes or even undertones, it is not only wrong, but can be dangerous and immediately turned against Asian Americans too. If assimilation is the norm, any difference might be ostracised, including skin tone.
Of course, not all Asian Americans have become indoctrinated by the social forces conspiring of assimilation. But without consideration, it’s easy to do so. It’s no secret that the culture factory that is the Los Angeles studios makes what people want to see, including Middle Eastern terrorists, Black criminals, and more recently, Chinese villains. The first instance of this that I remember was in the second of Nolan’s Batman movies, The Dark Knight. While the Joker wasn’t remade to be Asian, there was an ineffectual Chinese crime boss pulling the strings behind the scenes. A friend recently brought this to my attention again, the representation of Asian-Asians in Hollywood, especially in Asian-American works.
In Crazy Rich Asians, everyone spoke fluent English and seemed to be educated in the West. But underneath the veneer of upbeat song, sappy love, and luxurious spectacle was a story about an Asian-American triumphing over an ultra-rich Asian-Asian. It comes at a time when everyone in the West, particularly Asian Americans, are becoming aware of the tremendous purchasing power of Asian-Asians, be it students driving luxury cars, tourists buying Swiss watches, or businesspeople developing real estate. To be clear, I’m not accusing Crazy Rich Asians of deliberately fanning anti-Asian sentiment, or that the production team was even aware of this dichotomy. But this pitting of Asian-Americans against Asian-Asians undoubtedly contributed to its success among all audiences, particularly the Asian American one.
Another example is the upcoming Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As it hasn’t been released yet, I run the risk of having to eat my own words in a few months, but the trailer seems to set Asian-American Shang-Chi, against his father, the Asian-Asian Mandarin. I was initially relieved at the lack of a Fu Manchu mustache and long nails but see that my excitement was perhaps premature. The stereotype has simply been modernized, and we now have an Asian global crime syndicate run by a polished and cosmopolitan Tony Leung. It’s the Good Asians vs the Bad Asians. It’s Yellow Peril, but thank goodness, we have the good, assimilated Asians on our side.
Is this a stretch? Am I reading too deeply into it? Hopefully, yes and yes. But at the same time, I feel like these movies are ill-equipped to deal with the nuances of this strained relationship. In its black and white melodrama, only one side can ever be right, and I’m sure it’s not Tony Leung’s side. While it’s unlikely that individual media content will greatly shift public opinion, I’m terrified of the implications of it becoming a pop culture mainstay. History has borne witness to how stock characters alters perception of very real people, and impacts their very real lives.
It’s a tough time to be an Asian American, particularly a Chinese American, when a rising China is undoubtedly not an ally of the West. Are Western governments at fault for criticizing and posturing against Chinese influence? Is the Chinese government at fault for trying to increase their reach and power? No and no. But Chinese Americans are caught in the crossfire, even without careless mass-media trying to capitalize on the issue.
Second generation Asian Americans might still have a hard time empathizing. After all, they’ve integrated, yuppies speaking fluent English who can cook a few ethnic dishes and speak a few words of their parents’ language. This country has been good to them, and they are a lot more at home here than across the Pacific.
But if you don’t buy the narrative of anti-Asian sentiment turning against you, think about the new immigrants who still speak with an accent and are trying their best to adapt; they have visas, and soon might be citizens. If you don’t accept them as Asian American now, will anyone? Think about when your parents first came here. So pay attention to the language usage dividing Asians into Good Asians and Bad Asians. Especially since racists won’t be able to tell the difference.