Friday, July 29, 2016

To Be Asian-American: Speaking American

Is an immigrant who lives in a Chinatown community and rarely speaks English less American than my parents who chose to live in a predominately Caucasian suburb?

There’s this presumption that when immigrants come to America, they need to become “American.” They need to speak English, adapt American customs and embrace mainstream American culture as their own. This idea is similar to the cultural melting pot that people once used to reference in describing America.

If we are to be a country built on the idea of personal freedom and self-determination, to assert that there is a singular path and qualifications that immigrants must follow to be American runs counter to the core values of our country.

The idea of a melting pop illustrates a big pot that minorities join and assimilate into, perhaps having a microscopic effect on the contents of the pot, but more likely experiencing a loss of identity in the wash of an illusion of “Americanism.”

My parents chose to speak mostly English to my brother and I instead of Mandarin Chinese. We probably ate as much Chinese food as typical American food. Culturally we were almost 100% American, watching American television and listening to European classical music and American pop music.

I have cousins who had very different experiences as children of immigrants. Some of my uncles and aunts only speak Mandarin Chinese to their children and hardly ever eat anything but Chinese food. I remember going over to one of my uncle’s house as a kid and seeing rows of videotapes with Chinese characters imported from Taiwan.

When I was younger, I thought that my family was superior because we spoke more English in our house and consumed more mainstream American culture. This came from the immature logic that in order for my families’ choices to be correct, someone else’s choices had to be inferior. As a more mature American citizen, I respect and embrace my uncle’s choices.

As American’s we want to honor’s people’s individualities and celebrate other cultures, however it’s in our human nature to feel uncomfortable when we hear people speaking languages we do not understand or walk down streets where the signs are not in English. We can’t have one without the other. It’s okay to acknowledge that discomfort because it is in this feeling that we can find a point of empathy of people coming to America who experience this feeling of alienation on a daily basis.

Yes, it would be easier if everyone only spoke English in America, but easier isn't necessarily better.

To be American is not about the language that is spoken or about the food. It’s about embracing a shared set of values, and positively contributing as a responsible citizen to our communities.  Immigrants make very different choices about what it means to them to be American.  It's in these choices, that we find the freedom, and the diversity that enriches all of our lives.

So who's more American, the Chinatown resident or Asians like my parents living to predominately Caucasian communities?

Neither.  Being American isn't a competition and it is the fact this choice exists in our country which defines its greatness.


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