How long does it take to “become” an American (or anything really)?

by doorhalfopen

I was casually walking with my friend one day in college. There was an Asian guy in front of us, dressed rather “ghetto”. He had a cap with the sticker still on. He had a big jacket. Not an unusual sight in California for any race. But my friend, who grew up in Hong Kong, had a different take on it.

“I can’t stand these people. Don’t they know they’re Chinese?”

I was caught off guard. As I mentioned, this was just a casual conversation. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, and just explained that fashion nowadays is molded more by background, location, (sub)culture–really anything besides race. It didn’t bother me that this guy dressed the way he did. My friend let it go and we continued walking.

On another night I was speaking with a different friend, also from Hong Kong. Somehow children came up as a topic, and he mentioned how he might move back to HK so his kids won’t be failed Chinese kids. I guess he’s seen a lot of Chinese immigrant children who don’t end up speaking Chinese, knowing the customs and manners, and don’t really “look” Chinese.

“Raising them back in HK or China is the only way I can think of for them to grow up as good Chinese kids”, he said. I could tell he’d been thinking about this for a while. I asked him why they couldn’t just be good American kids. “Because they’re Chinese”.

I was born in Hong Kong, but I grew up in California. Am I Chinese? “Of course. Your parents are from Hong Kong”.

This is when things got interesting. I asked him if he identified as someone from HK or China (I won’t go into the politics). He was “from” HK, according to him. His parents? HK. His grandparents? Mainland China. So why could he and his peers grow up as good HK kids, but his children would be Chinese no matter where they went?

He didn’t have an answer, and I don’t really have one either. It’s a good question. It’s the same question that applies to how a slice of the US population thinks ethnic Asians will never be true Americans. Or that white Americans are the only true Americans. In our melting pot of a country, when does our identity truly change? Surely citizenship doesn’t instantaneously change your peers’ perception of you.

How could it be that when I have a child, he/she will be born in the US, grow up in the US, identify as an American, yet still be perceived by the world as a Chinese person of varying degrees of success? At the same time, if you do have ties to Chinese culture, either due to close relatives, language skills, etc., it doesn’t make sense to just ditch all things Chinese in order to feel like a “pure” American.

I don’t have any answers (yet), just a lot of questions.

Be a man

by doorhalfopen

At a very young age, mother taught me that patience makes a man. As a kid I was always praised by family friends and strangers because I was mature beyond my age. I developed into a patient person. I waited patiently in lines. I didn’t honk when the driver in front of me was 2 seconds at a green light. I let people go first whenever I could. But eventually I learned that some people interpret it as weakness and tried to take advantage.

My father is a talented thinker and always taught me that brains were more important in life than muscles. Growing up, I believed that being a man meant outsmarting those around me. Sports like football, I would tell people, are barbaric. We’re an evolved species; we should focus on our intelligence. But eventually I found people who were smarter both smarter and more athletic than me.

Television in the early 2000s taught me that being a rebel made me a man. Bad is good, and following all the rules was for losers. I didn’t quite emulate what I saw on TV, but I learned a lot about rejecting norms. Was it popular? I hated it. But then I saw that this attitude pushed away my friends and family, and I didn’t like that.

As I graduated high school, we all had to start growing up. My family and relatives taught me that being a real man meant I should get married and become a good husband and father. I learned to be careful about who to date and pursue, and to make sure I could marry her before taking the relationships seriously. Of course, she must be someone my family liked if we were to all get along. But then I realized I lacked passion as a result, and it wasn’t fair for her or me to proceed.

In my last year of college I tried to fit into typical college life. I learned that women were what made a man. Those who were popular with girls were the ones seen as alpha males. I wanted to be an alpha male. I worked out more and learned to talk to girls at bars. But then I learned that I started drifting away from my parents’ vision.

Needless to say, it’s been a confusing journey.

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Sleeping Dogs is a dream come true

by doorhalfopen

I’ve read more than a few people recalling why they watched so many Hong Kong action movies in the 80s and 90s. As bad as Asian American representation in the media is today, it was many times worse a decade or two ago. The only way to see a protagonist that looked like us was to catch a foreign film on TV or rent it from an Asian video store.

Hong Kong was peaking as a second Hollywood in the 90s, so there was a steady stream of new movies to watch. Of course these movies were primarily in Cantonese. Come to think of it, by relating more to these films than Hollywood movies, I was probably subconsciously deciding that I was more Chinese than American (I went through a phase like that in middle school). That’s a topic for another day. What’s more important is that I, as many other Asian Americans, never had a true hero in movies. We either saw American protagonists (Tom Cruise) or Asian protagonists (Jackie Chan). Trini from Power Rangers (RIP) was probably one role model for girls, but as a boy I couldn’t relate at all. Then again, I also don’t think I knew I needed someone like that to idolize. Looking back, it’s clear that this would’ve helped me growing up.

I’m no longer the gamer I used to be, but I recently finished playing Sleeping Dogs from Square Enix. I bought it precisely because it seemed like a great way to live out the triad/undercover storylines that I’m now so familiar with (remember Infernal Affairs?). It had some good reviews and I made an impulse purchase, not knowing exactly what to expect. With the entire game set in Hong Kong, I figured it probably could at least avoid being racist. It ended up filling the gap from my childhood; it was kind of a dream come true.

Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs

Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs

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We need more balance in Asian American media

by doorhalfopen

John Cho is one of the most successful Asian American actors of the past decade and a half. He’s starred in a few high-grossing films, such as Star Trek and the Harold & Kumar series. and he’s one of the few AA actors who are known by general audiences. If not by name, people can see him and remember his face from other movies. As far as Asian American actors go, he’s done a great job proving that it’s not a bad idea to cast him regardless of the character’s race (or as little regard as currently possible, at least).

Recently he gave a talk at Yale about his career, and how he tied it to his heritage. He has been careful in choosing his roles, much like we learned about Harry Shum Jr., so that he doesn’t have any embarrassing, stereotypical roles under his name. His resume is very respectable compared to many of his peers. There’s not much of “selling out” to make a quick buck. While it’s not easy to be an actor looking for their big break, much less an AA actor, John Cho is one good example that you can succeed while remaining respectful and proud of your heritage.

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Jeremy Lin gets his first big game in the NBA

by doorhalfopen

Lin first win

In the Asian and Asian American communities, Jeremy Lin is a known name. Not quite household, but that’s what happens when you’re the only Asian player in the NBA after Yao Ming retired (Correction: forgot about Yi JianLian). The problem was that Lin wasn’t quite the star that Yao was. He barely got any playing time while on the Golden State Warriors, and has been sent to the D-league multiple times. It didn’t help that he was a star before he started playing, and crowds would chant his name every time he was near the ball, amounting to even more pressure than most rookies faced.

Jeremy Lin scores 25 points in a win over the Nets

In December 2011 he ended up with the New York Knicks. He got some garbage minutes and had moderate impact, but there’s only so much a player can do with that kind of playing time. He got sent to the D-league again, and made some small waves when he got a triple double. Great news, but it’s easy to point out that the talent level isn’t even close to that of the NBA. I’ve been waiting for the day where Jeremy Lin could make headlines somewhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Becoming Asian

by doorhalfopen

Not too long ago I caught up with my old friend at lunch. We attended Chinese class before, and I always remembered him as someone who was much more attuned to American culture than his Asian side. He could speak Chinese pretty well, but his interests and inclinations were pretty mainstream American.

A couple of years back he started a new job that involved a lot of traveling. He ended up having to go to Washington DC pretty often. I thought that was pretty neat and a great opportunity to gain experience for his career. Outside of the work, however, it turned out that he felt pretty isolated in DC. Not overtly racist; he didn’t suffer any hate crimes or anything like that. But wherever he went he got unwelcome looks, and it just happened that there were very few Asians in the area. He rarely felt like this in California. In a lot of ways, he got the feeling that he wasn’t American. And this was in our nation’s capital.

At lunch he started telling me that these experience have made him feel more Chinese. He started to listen to more Chinese music and paid more attention to Chinese media. It was almost as though the unwelcome feeling led him to be more conscious of his Asian side. Even though my friend likely fit into the DC environment in every way other than appearance and skin color, he gravitated toward being more “Asian” because of the expectations he felt from his surroundings. As a result, the people who originally gave my friend the looks might find him even more foreign, and discriminate a little more. It’s sort of a chicken-or-the-egg issue, but we end up with the same unwanted result no matter what.

I feel like there must be studies about how people who are discriminated against will isolate themselves further from the mainstream. Are there any that are specific to Asian Americans?

Harry Shum Jr. – The modern Asian American male role model

by doorhalfopen

Two things prompted me to write about Harry Shum Jr. and Glee again. First of all, if you haven’t heard, he had the first major Glee episode focusing on his character, Mike Chang, a couple of weeks ago titled Asian F. In the episode Mike Chang’s father wants him to quit glee club because he got an A- in one of his classes, also known as an Asian F. The episode was well-received, and both “Mike Chang’ and “Asian F” were actually trending on Twitter for the entire day that it aired. This was the first time I’ve seen a TV show confront a very real Asian American issue (and associated stereotypes) and give it more than one or two lines. Or a joke. I had to write about it.

The other reason I want to talk about Harry Shum Jr. is because I came across this article from AMWW, claiming that he may be the first Asian male role model in the United States since Bruce Lee. The article approached it from the perspective of the site’s theme, interracial relationships between Asian males and white women. While I disagree with the theme of the site (focusing so much on AMWF relationships), the article brings up a number of good points, and I would like to comment on some of the ideas presented.

Fact: images of Harry Shum Jr. get me page views

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ISA 2011 (SF Bay Area) – Movement in the making

by doorhalfopen

International Secret Agents, or ISA, was founded by Far East Movement (FM) and Wong Fu Productions (WFP to provide an opportunity for Asian American artists to showcase their talents in large venues where they might never have an opportunity play otherwise. In other words: no one wants to help them? They’ll do it themselves. Please keep in mind that this started back in 2008, before FM was signed to Cherrytree Records and when WFP had barely started their Youtube channel. It was a noble goal by two of the more recognized Asian American groups in media, and you can read more about the history here.



ISA started with one show, which was easily sold out. Fast forward to 2011, and ISA put on three shows in the span of two months. The first two sold out, and the third is happening in a week. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t sell out as well. They have found their audience and made it the place to play if you are in the Asian American community. The purpose of ISA is more of a continued effort than a single destination, but they have already made incredible progress in just three years. Read the rest of this entry »

Halfway, on the other side

by doorhalfopen

Recently I had the chance to go out with an old friend and some of his coworkers in San Francisco. I’m not from the city, so it was interesting meeting and going out with several people that grew up there. Being suburbs-raised, it’s always fun for me to learn about how others’ lives differed from mine. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the differences in our childhood went far beyond location.

I started this blog because I believe I grew up in a fairly unique environment. I was a 1.5 generation immigrant, but my town is primarily caucasian. I didn’t grow up thinking very much about what Asians should and shouldn’t do, and for the most part it was my decision or myparents’ decision to make the life choices I did. I paid attention to Asian music and cinema out of interest. I didn’t watch football out of my own choice. Very little was predetermined due to my background. In other words, my environment didn’t force me to be one way or another due to my race.

As a result, I ended up feeling a sense of belonging. I was both Chinese and American. I can fit in fairly well if I go back t o Hong Kong and I don’t have much of a problem in California either. To me, that’s the perfect in-between, and I always assumed anyone with enough respect and exposure to both sides would feel the same way.

These new friends from SF ranged from being American-born to having immigrated to the United States during high school. To some degree or another, they had Asian influences in their San Francisco city lives. They were familiar with Chinese culture and American culture, like me. However race played a very different role for them growing up.  Read the rest of this entry »

Value across generations

by doorhalfopen

I’ve noticed that generation gaps are particularly big for people with a background like mine. I see the world differently from my parents and they, in turn, are living a very different life from my grandparents. Compared to a family that may have stayed in the US for the past four or five generations, Asian American families like ours can feel particularly disjointed at times.

For example,while I am comfortable carrying casual conversations with my father, I find that we have a very narrow range of topics. It’s more about work, school, and economics than my personal life. Even within these topics, we tend to take a big picture approach. Rather than discuss what was happening at my school, we talked about the UC system. Instead of my day at work, we talked about career paths. This isn’t a bad thing; we were just speaking on mutual interests. When I see some of my friends talk to their parents, it’s a little different. There were more common interests. They can talk about sports or celebrity news. Maybe even recent films. In addition to conversation, similar differences seem to exist when it comes to other aspects of life: my goals, my stance in politics, and my attitude toward art to name a few.

With these ideas as a starting point, I wondered what might be the cause of these increased differences. Of course, growing up in a different country would be a major factor. But what is it about the different environments that lead these families to see such big generation gaps? After pondering this question for a while, I think the answer might be in the difference in values. What we feel is important in life also ends up being the greatest motivator. It dictates how we see the world and where to go in life. If the difference in values between generations is greater in Asian American families, then that can explain a lot about the attitudes in the second (or 1.5) generation immigrants. I thought it would be interesting to compare, based on my observations and family history, the way values changed through the last two generations in my own family and how these changes led to the generation gap I see today.

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