The Untold Sacrifice of Assimilation

I don’t know if my story is very unique. In fact, I know it’s not, but since I have yet to read about it from other sources (please refer them to me if you know of any), I’ve decided to put out the story that has been floating around in my heads for what feels like weeks.

I have never really been able to put it into words until recently. At first, I was not only mildly annoyed, but I was also irritated when the terms “misappropriation,” “micro-aggression,” and “white privilege” began floating around the written media. What is this nonsense? I thought. I felt that people were becoming too sensitive and inhibiting the process of assimilation. I wanted to say “stop making a big deal out of it — if people have stereotypes or racist prejudices, they’re probably not pulling it out of thin air…there’s a pattern that probably substantiates these stereotypes” I’m not arguing that racism is okay, but that racism is inherent in our species and it’s not going away no matter how you decide to paint the picture. The best option is to recognize racism when it happens, and to mold our actions to be as unoffensive as possible.

Back to the topic of micro-aggression and what seems like a never ending analysis of what it means to be a colored person, or a minority. To begin with, I have never really been aware of myself as a “true” minority. Yes, I was keenly aware that I had a different background than my classmates when I was growing up, but things like children chanting “Chinese, Japanese, Cantonese, cheese!” on the school bus while pulling their eyes up and down when I would get on the bus never really bothered me. Maybe it was the language barrier (Chinese was my first language and up until fourth grade, I always had and — sometimes still have- a bit of trouble connecting words with their meanings), and I felt that because they were smiling, they weren’t doing it to intend harm. Even now, as I reflect back on those times, I never felt threatened or hurt by their words. It seemed that being a “true” minority always meant that there was overt racism and oppression — much like what the media and classroom education tells us. For me, that never happened. If it ever did, I dismissed it almost as soon as it happened. There is a questionable idea of how words are connected to how we interpret the world, but I won’t go into that here; although, we don’t discuss the idea of discrimination very often in our household.

Then came my teenage years where I became simultaneously dismissive and fascinated by “fob” culture (fob being “fresh of the boat” or a pseudo-derogatory term to indicate a person of Asian descent who has immigrated recently or has a heavy accent and doesn’t act very American). This is when I started developing internalized racism — it wasn’t overt in any way, but in the sense that my brother and I would laugh at the way fobs spoke or dressed. To us, it was fine: we weren’t doing it out of malice — this is just the way people naturally perceived them, how we perceived them. It’s not okay for white people to make fun of us, but it’s okay for us to make fun of ourselves.

My first boyfriend was a Japanese fob, and I experienced (aside from my Jewish third grade teacher), my first exposure to real racism. “Chinks are so smelly,” he would say, “dirty Chinks.” After hanging out with him for so long, I developed a stronger sense of internalized racism. I secretly scorned other Chinese people, particularly those “fobs,” who would come to “our country” and “make a huge mess out of our American culture and our cities.” Particularly in the eastern part of Los Angeles, many Asian immigrants created their own insular communities in which they’d build and maintain businesses that catered specifically to the Asian communities. My Japanese ex would openly idolize white male models, and would often praise the beauty of Caucasian women as well. Somehow I felt that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good enough for him. Eventually, I came to realize that this was how I always felt about myself and now, perhaps it is how society innately perceives “other people” as well.

In the present, I recently reread Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in which the main character suffers from a whole community of African Americans who are afflicted by internalized racism t one extent to another. I had never realized before how much of the book was actually true for my own race as well. Subtle racism, whether it is the subtle flinch of a finger that accidentally touches yours during an exchange at a grocery store, or simply one’s tone of voice that changes from addressing a white person to addressing you. I realized that these subtle behavioral cues that had been surrounding me since I was young have also shaped me to be highly critical of my own kind. These cases were always along the impression of “we like you, you don’t do us any real harm like the other minorities, but you’re still not really one of us.”

Why do we (or some of us) become like this? First of all, many Chinese parents (or Taiwanese parents, as in my case) encourage their children to assimilate to the culture of the city in which they are living in. I didn’t grow up in a household where we were told that we must speak Chinese at home. Actually, we were encouraged to speak English and after 2nd grade, my brother and I barely made any effort at all to speak to our parents in Chinese. With the process of assimilation, we lost a lot more than knowing our language or our culture.

I first observed parental disdain at my cousins’ house, where they would always argue with their parents about misunderstandings or responsibilities. I use parental disdain as an overarching phrase that encompasses all the trivial fights that occur when their parents ask them to do certain things for them, like translate their mail, or interpret messages left on the phone. When you are a child, and you see that your parents are completely relying on you to do basic things, it gets frustrating. Fortunately, I didn’t have to translate anything for my parents, but I realized that I was also starting to feel frustrated with my parents for other reasons. If we went out and they said something that couldn’t be understood by an American (white, or of any other race), I felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment. Frustration would well up in my chest, and I would berate either of my parents by asking them why they couldn’t pronounce things correctly or speak English properly after so many years. I felt embarrassed by the way my family would be looked at, or hurt by the way people directed a multitude of indescribable microaggressions at us. They chipped away at my respect for my parents. In this way and others, my brother’s and my relationship with my parents deteriorated rapidly.

We lost a lot more than just our Taiwanese (Chinese, or Asian, etc) culture when my parents decided to live in the U.S. as young college students. What they probably didn’t realize was that not only would their children lose the ability to communicate and connect with our relatives who only spoke Chinese, but they would also lose the ability to relate to their very own parents. In one sense, it was language, in another, it was also the thinking process and how we saw the world. I won’t go into details about how our language and thinking processes differ because I feel that that topic has been exhausted throughout the years with books like China Boy or The Joy Luck Club. While many of these books discuss how characters are able to come to terms with their different cultural backgrounds, I feel that they fail to address how many Asian American families fail to build this bridge, and rather, that the parents who immigrate here as the first generation have to sacrifice their relationships with their children most of the time. Their children become a part of the disdaining masses, and they become the “other,” or the secondary citizens who deserve less respect than the average “real” American. One would never say that he or she is inherently racist against her own kind, but he or she would rather marry someone who is white for that person’s invisible privileges. We play into the common image of the subordinate and soft spoken Asian, complacent and agreeable. It’s okay that we’re not totally respected. Microaggressions don’t exist. We are fine! We don’t need to think about that. Keep our heads down and work hard. If they say we have to work harder to get into colleges, just work harder! This is not racism; this is the American way! This is the American man who is making his rules on his land, and we should do our best to assimilate. Don’t make a fuss! Don’t draw attention to ourselves. Find a stable career, and even if you don’t get equally compensated, don’t complain!

I know this doesn’t apply to all Asian American families and perhaps this experience does or doesn’t apply to many other immigrant families of different backgrounds. I am sure that there are a lot of well adjusted Asian American individuals who will find this article as baffling as I find their well adjusted lives. I am also not saying that I came from a broken home; rather, my family was just as loving and warm as any other average American family. I just feel that not a lot is addressed about the families who sacrifice self-respect and dignity for the sake of integration.