Our Asian culture is a part of our identity that gives us a sense of pride and should be embraced. But when does it go too far? When does it restrict our desire for friendships outside our own race?
In L.A., I can remember instances when after meeting people at a social event and exchanging our names, they would ask, “Are you _________ (insert ethnicity here)? The question may be benign but some people use it as a divider and when they realize you are not of the same ethnic background, the conversation stops.
A couple of months ago, I was working out at the Renton Community Center wearing a basketball jersey with the name of a Korean American magazine on it. A Korean man approached me and enthusiastically asked if I was Korean and pointing to my shirt. I told him no but am a strong supporter of journalism and that particular Korean magazine. But to my dismay, he had heard enough and he stopped talking to me.
Why do we do this? Is it insecurity that we can not find any commonality with others outside our race? Are we so full of ethnic pride that we dare not risk “diluting” our sense of who we are by associating with others? It’s strange to outsiders, but Asians can be the most racist towards each other. While the average white person may clump us all together and think we form one happy Asian clan, I see division—as if we’re competing to be the most “successful” Asian American.
For myself, I’ve had to adjust to the influx of different Asians who now have immigrated to Seattle within the past 2 decades. While growing up, it was relatively simple: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and some Vietnamese and Korean. Now the landscape has changed significantly to the point where I can sometimes feel myself getting threatened by new groups—not physically but emotionally. Take Chinatown for instance, I once considered it my ‘hood where the Cantonese ruled the roost. I’ve now noticed Mandarin starting to take center stage in Chinatown due to the wave of immigrants from Taiwan and mainland China. My first thought is, “What happened to ‘our people’ and why do these guys have to be here?” It’s insensitive and I acknowledge my own cultural pride kicking in. I think the other part is territorial in the sense that I don’t ever want to lose my ethnic “voice”. Fortunately, I’ve been in situations where I was the minority among Asians and recognize how hurtful it felt to be excluded because of my background and how to be different. I’ve come to a place where I want to be as inclusive as possible so others are not left feeling unwanted or left out.
So how do we extend ourselves to those outside our race? It’s risky and vulnerable because it may mean leaving our cultural comfort zone to learn another. It also requires having the humility to recognize the value of another culture of having equal worth as ours. It means finding our shared humanity that transcends our ethnic and cultural barriers.
The easiest way I’ve learned to do this is by sharing my story with people. Not stories of success or accomplishments but one of struggles, fears, and inadequacies. I believe this is a point of true connection between two people, regardless of race. It’s extremely hard among Asians since most of us have never been encouraged to share our weaknesses with each other. It’s my hope we can change that.