Who are You? Or,Who are Americans? —Self Recognition or Outside Evaluation

November 29, 2011

Political action, Political Theory


This summer, I spent two week at my uncle’s home. My little cousin is a Chinese American who was born and raised in California. One day we had a discussion over China and America. Her preference is so strong that I could not help asking, “Lily, why do you like America so much more than China?”

“Why? Because I am American!” This 12 years old girl looked at me as if I am the stupidest person.

It may sound ridiculous, but I was indeed surprised at that moment. There is a great difference between her self-recognition and our belief. Both her parents and I thought Lily is undoubtedly a Chinese. We thought she is an ABC (America born Chinese), which take America only as the place she was born. However, never does she consider herself a Chinese. She believes she is an American, more precisely a Chinese American –for her Chinese is only a biological label.

The identity conflict is, in fact, far more complex. It seems that, Lily, as the second-generation immigrant, is not fully accepted by her white classmates.  She seldom plays with white kids and those Asian-American girls form their own little community in the school.Undoubtedly, my little cousin is now living in a gap. Neither those white Americans nor native Chinese will think her belong with them. Though she believes that she is an absolute American, who shares the same morals and values with her classmates, she is, still, an Asian American rather than an American.

Is she really different from those “real Americans” whose families have been there for 200 hundred years? It is actually hard for me to tell whether she is absolutely an American, though I did not find much cultural difference between her and those white people I know.  So why is she, along with other Asian Americans, stick together into a distinct immigrant group? Are they really culturally different? Or are they differently treated because the community believe they are different?

Moreover, I later found that it would be impossible for her to become Chinese even if she wants to. As a matter of fact, it happens in all immigration culture that those immigrants are denied by their origin culture. In my anthropology class, we discussed the Hmong immigrants who were placed in America after 1970s. In a video, one young Hmong male told the interviewer, “Though I eat hamburgers and bread, I am still a Hmong. I have a different life from my parents but I still think I am a Hmong.”  However, his parents held a distinct view. They almost cried in the video, “No, the Hmong culture is dying. Our children no longer do our ritual; they do not use our herbs; they no longer obey their parents. They are not Hmong people at all.”

Then, what do you think? Therefore, do you think they are real Americans? Where should immigrants belong? What is the true American culture you believe? It actually triggers another question: are those immigration cultures consequences of cultural differences, or do they result from the fact that they are treated differently because we think they are different?

One way to think about this issue might have to do with Appiah. Using his theory, your position and identity is not controlled by your self-recognition but built by the labels given to you. Therefore, it becomes meaningless who my cousin believes she is. She is a Chinese as her family believes so. However, it induces a controversy: it seems that immigrants like my cousin would be criticised as “betrayer” by one of their cultures when they take a side, while neither cultural group will absolutely admit them.

The idea of Malcolm can be another method to perceive this issue. Though he was born and raised up in America, he consisted in his speech that he is not an American, as he thought he was not treated like an American citizen. In this case, it is the self-recognition of one decides his/her position. With his idea, it can be argued that my cousin is indeed an American as she believes so. This is her world that built on her experiences and life. On the other hand, it can be also stated that she might not be a full American since she is differently treated.

However, it is noteworthy that neither theory mentioned above would totally fit our discussion. Immigrants today are faced with a much liberal situation. They will never be so harshly discriminated as Malcolm X. In fact, the history of America is the progress of immigration. What those immigrants experience today may be what those British colonizer met hundreds of years ago. Therefore, our discussion might be built on a idea that, rather than being assimilated, those immigrants might one day become the core of American culture.

At last, I wanna show a 40-second video. This guy, Peter Russell, has been making jokes about races for years. If his jokes are offensive to anyone of you, I am really sorry and that is not my intention. What I hope is that you guys could have some ideas of what I am talking about in a funny way. Enjoy~

The history of America is the process of immigration. What those immigrants face today

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