The Banana Diaries

Immigrant Generations face a choice between cultural assimilation and preservation

When I was young I was a self-professed “banana”—that is, yellow on the outside and unrepentantly white on the inside. Growing up 1.5-generation Asian American (born abroad, raised domestically) is a strange splice of cultural bravado and insecurity. Perhaps it is this realization of guilt that is driving me to write and to think a little more about the identity conflicts that plague recent American arrivals.

It is a common phenomenon within the Asian community I know to be confused about the acceptable level of internal Asian to embrace. On one end of the spectrum lie self-isolated cliques of swaggering, slouchy-jeaned teenagers flashing AZN pride signals across high school cafeterias. On the other end are perfectly American girls sporting ponytails and Cokes who confess to never having found an Asian man attractive and admit, embarrassedly, that it is in fact social suicide to have too many Asian friends. The rest of us who remain uncaricatured—well, we get by.

Indeed, not only for Asians but for any immigrant community, it is difficult to tread the line between ethnic assimilation and self-preservation. Academics have attempted to describe and define this tension in many ways, most famously with the metaphor of the American “melting pot.” A crude assimilationist model of this ideal might have us believe that foreigners arrive in the United States via some sort of cultural liquidation sale, ready to absorb into a gloopy, grey and nondescript soup characterized primarily by football, Big Macs and turkey stuffing. A more preservationist version might resemble throwing a sack of stubborn potatoes into a (very) slowly simmering vegetable stew.

A look at American society lends support to both stories. It is true that Asians are often thought of as ready assimilationists—“honorary whites,” so to speak—who adapt easily to host cultures and values. Asians are an immigrant group that has historically succeeded in completing the steps toward full assimilation: first, acculturation to the majority’s traditions and way of life, followed by socioeconomic advancement and gaining of access to major institutions, and finalized when ethnicity is no longer a salient issue. This claim can be backed up by examining the incidence of intermarriage, which in racial theory is often viewed as the final stage of assimilation (interracial intimate relations are expected to increase with weakening ethnic attachments). True to form, Asians have the highest overall intermarriage rates in the nation.

Of course, on the other hand, many Asians also fail to fit a purely assimilationist model. The Chinatowns, Koreatowns and Japantowns that have sprung up in major cities nationwide attest to the spirit of ethnic cohesion and preservation, especially among the most recent arrivals who want to reside close to people of similar backgrounds. Asian soft culture is even infiltrating the American fabric in turn, one greasy Chinese take-out restaurant at a time. However, ethnic enclaves and organizations do not explain why white, American culture has quite so much influence in shaping the values and thoughts of subsequent Asian immigration generations.

The answer lies in the existence of a certain hegemonic model of what the American essence embodies. To a large extent, this is natural and expected—after all, Caucasian Americans have been in the country since its inception, and have had many multiple generations in which to define and redefine their version of American culture. It is logical for newcomers to respect and understand the historical precedents that contribute to present society; in fact, it is vital to their survival. But it is this very naturalness that makes the acceptance of cultural trends so dangerous. Assimilation risks becoming the psychological tyranny of a cultural majority.

Indeed, this danger makes the logic of hyper-assimilationist Asian Americans very fatally flawed. For them, and for me, mainstream American values become a baseline assumption, instituted and enforced by pressures of environment. An understanding of prior values and circumstances is rarely given extensive thought.

A nation must place proportionate weight on both the majority views that have comprised its historical past and the current changes that are catalyzing its future. The one thing that must not happen among immigrant generations is for pre-existing American values to assert superiority over foreign ones by sheer virtue of their predominance. Which values persist and which ones fade away should be recognized and questioned on their own grounds, not left to the realm of the inarticulate psychological subconscious.

N. Kathy Lin ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.