by sam lai
How younger generations see Asian American identity through older generations
While I have been fortunate to have visited Taiwan several times with my family, I took those vacations for granted as a child. My older sister, brother, and I lived comfortably with our Taiwanese parents in Los Angeles, but at times Ma and Ba needed a change of scenery. They wanted to go back to Taiwan not because they felt sick of Southern California suburban life in the same way their children did, but more that they have always felt at home in Taiwan. Once a year, during either summer or winter breaks, we would fly to Taipei to stay with wàipó and wàigōng, my maternal grandparents. My siblings and I welcomed these trips with a different kind of anticipation than my parents did.
Born and raised in America, we never thought of Taiwan as a place we belonged to, and perhaps we saw it more as tourists than as locals no matter how familiar we grew with the surroundings. Young and materialistic, I would buy as many trinkets as I could stuff into my suitcase. I came to see Taiwan as a shopping spree, having more skill in spending money than in speaking with my grandparents.
I have not been to Taiwan in over two years, and I say this not to complain but to highlight a moment in my life which I am still trying to understand. The last time I went to Taiwan was October 2009. My wàigōng had passed away. Since my sister and brother had to study for midterms at the time, only I could be there for the funeral, and for a day at most because I had school. Unable to join in the hymns because I could not read the Chinese lyrics, I sat feeling only numbness. I knew I should have felt loss, a grief I saw when my mother and grandma held each other as the funeral staff pushed the casket into the cremation chamber. Regret more than any kind of anguish haunts me when I think of my grandfather.
Not until I came to Berkeley did I start coming to terms with my grandfather’s death and what my family means to me. Away from home, I could step back and reflect on how my parents identify as Taiwanese compared to the way I see myself as Asian American. From my classes, I heard about the generation gap, a broad term that generally describes the conflict in ideologies between older generations and younger ones. The most common perception of the generation gap involves immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children, but taking into account the fluidity of Asian American identity, nationality alone does not influence interpersonal relationships within families. Rather, the beliefs and ideologies that individuals absorb from living in the United States and other countries gives a transnational perspective on the generation gap.
For 1.5 generations like freshman Bonita Choi, the emphasis on being educated came not just from parental pressure, but also an overarching pressure for recent immigrants to assimilate. Born in Korea and raised in Vancouver, Bonita remembers her mother talking to other Korean moms, overhearing how their children felt afraid to go to school because they did not understand English.
“My parents went to university in Korea, and when we first immigrated, we lived in a bad part of Vancouver,” Bonita commented.
Knowing the struggles of her parents and other Korean immigrants to adapt and integrate, Bonita said, “I agree with them about the value of education, [so] I always felt like I had to go to school.”
A major point of struggle between the older generations and their descendants sparks from the desire to conform to Anglo-American rules but also to preserve ethnic background. For younger API generations, knowing one’s history can be limited by a number of factors: geographic barriers, a lack of fluency in a particular language, and the very validity of memory. All of those aspects became clear to me when I took a beginning Mandarin class in community college a year after wàigōng’s funeral.
Speaking conversational Mandarin came to me gradually, but on paper, the traditional characters turned me into a bungling monolingual. For hours on end, I would practice by writing the characters over and over again until they covered an entire page. From this routine, I gained a literacy at the same level as my young cousins’ in Taipei, with whom I exchanged two letters before lapsing back into English-only once I started going to Berkeley. The brief correspondence between my cousins and I unlocked a door that had been closed for a long time, providing an emotional contact made possible only through a common language.
From my own experiences, the generation gap relates more to the absences and silences that result from a lack of communication and understanding. Younger generations may struggle to comprehend the demands of older generations, but each side should take the time to tell their stories because the further they move away from a specific point in time of their lives, the less accurate the account.
A few months ago over winter break, I dug out some old videotapes taken by my father, dating back to my parents’ early marriage in the 80s. I felt bored at home, and finding footage that preceded even my older sister’s existence piqued my curiosity: what kind of life did my parents have when they first came to the United States, as newlyweds and recent immigrants? A thrill of joy seized upon me when I caught a glimpse of wàigōng in one of the videos, and I called over my parents to watch with me. My father left the room not long after, but my mother stayed, transfixed by the moving image of her father on the TV. Simply from her eyes, I knew she missed him, and always will. That moment brought home the fragile opportunity that the generation gap presents: in the face of loss, older and younger generations can unite in finding the missing pieces.
The author at 3 months with her maternal grandfather (Photo courtesy of Sam Lai)
In Taiwan, fidgeting in front of the camera with waigong (Photo courtesy of Sam Lai)
by christine tran
Hazing Asian American men in the U.S. military
Looking back at last year’s events, it’s apparent that for Asian American soldiers, to “Be All You Can Be” is as hopeless an achievement as the “American Dream.” No matter how much blood, sweat and tears colored people may shed for the sake and pride of the red, white and blue, reality often undermines their so-called freedom to prosper and succeed.
Although Danny Chen died on October 3, 2011, I didn’t spot any news articles circulating his case on Facebook until December. It was one of those posts my friends shared with half-hearted remarks, such as “Poor guy,” “That’s horrible!” and “How could anyone do this?” It’s easy to distance ourselves from a person’s harsh situation and think, “I’m blessed to be living a life like mine and not his.” But this hate crime is based on something much larger than the individual. The military hazing of men like Chen is founded upon racial inequalities and prejudices that communities of color struggle against every day.
What’s frightening about this reality is that we American citizens put our faith in the hands of the men who “serve our nation,” the so-called “Army Strong.” Yet judging by how vague and unresponsive the U.S. military is in uprooting these blatant hate crimes, how can APA communities not wonder how many others are undergoing the exact same brutal practices?
These military hazings were first brought up in two high-profile 2011 cases: Harry Lew and Danny Chen. Although both were in different branches of the military, they faced similar circumstances of aggressive treatment by their peers.
New York Magazine revealed that “eight men charged in connection with [Chen’s] death are all white and range in age from 24 to 35,” and that these men were guilty of racial slurs, neglect of duty, and abuse of authority, even going so far as to put Chen in a hard hat and force him to give commands in Chinese.
It also mentioned that because Lew fell asleep on guard duty, “his fellow lance corporals ordered him to do push-ups, then stomped on his back and legs if he didn’t do them right; poured sand in his mouth; punched him in the back of his helmet; and forced him to dig a chest-deep foxhole.”
When questioned whether Lew faced any racial discrimination within the military, however, “several Marines said Lew was the target of some jokes and teasing, like many other Marines of all ethnic backgrounds, but they weren’t aware he was discriminated against because of his race,” according to Associated Press.
Whether or not Lew’s sufferings explicitly stemmed from racism as in Chen’s case, ignorance alone can’t propel “jokes and teasing” to the harsh aggression that led Lew to kill himself. To present Lew’s suffering as an accident is an insult to the glaring issue at hand—that those in the military subconsciously accept hazing and bullying without understanding that these are manifestations of social inequalities.
While these military reports suggest a strong correlation between the hazings and the suicides, the court rulings determining the perpetrators’ fates don’t reflect the gravity of these violent events. In fact, the Army recommended dropping the charges of involuntary manslaughter against Specialist Ryan Offutt, one of the suspects involved with Chen’s death.
An MSNBC update this February on the latest court-martial decision stated that “Orozco was acquitted of charges involving the assault, cruel treatment and humiliation of Lew.”
Defense attorney Captain Aaron Meyer maintains these actions as well-meant, justifying that “Orozco was authorized to have a Marine in the squad do physical training like push-ups if the purpose was to maintain good order and discipline, there was no malice involved, and the training didn’t physically exhaust the Marine.” Of course, every soldier needs to have a battered body and a mouth full of sand to know good discipline.
Although military superiors like Meyer acknowledge the presence of these actions, they make light of the situation when these victims’ families are in grief, their demands for compensation unheard. The fact that racism against ethnic minorities is never explicitly stated as the main cause of these hazings is but a testament to the lack of social justice within the military system. How ironic that our nation fights for freedom and justice when we can’t enforce that within our own ranks of power.
Since Sept. 11th, America’s race awareness has spiked with a hypersensitivity to the threat abroad in the Middle East. It’s unlikely, perhaps even unpatriotic, to address any threat within our own country in a time that calls for nationalistic pride and support for our armed forces. During a recession when everyone needs money to keep afloat, mainstream news stations can’t highlight any discriminatory issues within our military without fear of being labeled as traitors to the “greater good of society.”
What’s even more shocking is the lack of awareness and reception by the APA community, let alone by the general public. How much does the community reallycare about military hazings in the realm of public issues?
In the struggle to integrate themselves into American society, Asian Americans have grown up emphasizing certain social values over others. In fact, New York Magazine quotes that Chen’s mother was against him going to the military, “preferring him to be something else, something safer. Maybe a pharmacist.”
Perhaps that in itself is adopting a cultural hegemonic value that it’s uncommon and somewhat remarkable to see Asian Americans in the U.S. military. There’s also the fact that the U.S. military-industrial complex has influenced the countries from whence APAs came from. Considering what happened with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, it’s not surprising why Vietnamese American immigrant communities don’t exactly idolize the military.
When it comes to issues of racism and discrimination in the military, different Asian American communities can’t seem to relate on the same level due to their unique cultural and immigrant backgrounds. Considering how insulated Asian Americans are in their respective communities, different ethnic groups may be more focused on their own local issues and concerns. The overall apathy towards military hazings could additionally be attributed to a general lack of political awareness and participation.
Contrary to however the U.S. military and media may try to put it, the actions escalating to Chen’s and Lew’s suicides were not unforeseen and could have been addressed. APAs deserve every right and opportunity to do well in the military as much as they do in education, business and politics. Even though it’s important to retain individual ethnic backgrounds and histories, it’s about time that APAs gain a “panethnic” sense of unity and solidarity and overcome being pushed aside in America’s peripheral vision. In doing so, we can promote social and economic justices that benefit all groups of color. We can develop a strong political awareness that can see through the racial camouflage that the U.S. military has slipped into, and protect our soldiers from discriminations that go by unnoticed.
by stephanie wong
How Proposition 209 stifles diversity in education
Some students may attend a four-year university for the promise of a better career. Some may have parents or teachers remind them of college-bound futures before they can even understand basic algebra. Some may have never questioned why they want to attend a higher education institution, except for the notion that it is what everyone else does. But none of the students at any public education institution in California has been placed in that institution with consideration of their race, sex, or ethnicity, since the passage of Proposition 209 in late 1996. Therefore, only a few students who want to go to college in hopes of a better career or out of a passion to learn must combat multiple obstacles in making their pursuit of higher education a reality.
On Feb. 13th, a multicultural student coalition attended a hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rally for a repeal of Prop 209. The civil rights activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) challenged Prop 209 under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. When California voters approved Prop 209, also known and strategically pushed as the California Civil Rights Initiative, state government institutions, such as the UC system, could no longer consider “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in public education, public employment, or public contracting. Basically, it was an anti-affirmative action act that used the rhetoric of anti-discrimination to offset its discriminatory-by-colorblindness policies; yes, I just coined that term.
Colorblind policies essentially neglect any characteristics, histories, and experiences associated with certain racial and ethnic groups. I am not referring to stereotypical characteristics that are oftentimes used to undermine or poke fun at a certain group or groups of people. I am referring to social, economic, and political obstacles pertinent to certain minorities.
By ignoring a person’s history and experiences, we neglect any of the struggles that may have put a person on a different route and experience. We thereby discriminate their strengths or capabilities, especially with approaching challenges. Experiences and histories of struggle should not prove a point about a group’s weaknesses. Instead, they can shine light on a student’s power in strength, capabilities, and resilience. Although not all API students have gone through these moments or periods of struggle, family or community struggles from earlier generations can transcend throughout future ones. We need these sorts of perspectives in the classroom. Until there is greater diversity on my television shows and movies, in my classrooms, in my government that reflects the diversity of this state and country, I don’t believe that race and ethnicity are not factors that keep certain groups persistently at the bottom. Merit and performance are not biological.
Another way in which members of the API community are stripped of their histories and experiences within and out of America is through the umbrella-term: Asian. Beneath this umbrella, there are a variety of subgroups that have different histories and experiences within the United States. These differences in stories should be even more a testament of what we need to hear in order to diversify our conversations in the classroom, to challenge the ways we understand foreign or domestic policies, economics, theories, and solutions.
Most news coverage on the recent student rally focused on Prop 209’s effects on students from black, Latino, and Native American communities. However, according to the Fall 2010 University of California Statistical Summary of Students and Staff, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and “Other Asian” groups have all decreased in UC Berkeley’s undergraduate enrollment from 2009. Whereas, the UC Berkeley’s international student enrollment from 2009 to 2010 has increased 32 percent for total undergraduate enrollment.
According to CalServe senator Sydney Fang, there was not a very high turnout from the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community, but she also pointed out that one difficulty in organizing rallies is that some of the students most affected cannot make it out to the events due to other commitments or obligations.
Fang wishes to see greater solidarity within the API community. She said, “As students of color, we face a lot of the same struggles and have common histories, so being in solidarity means that when one community or [a member of the API community] excels or rises above, then we all do well.”
Furthermore, in response to the criticism that affirmative action steals the placement of well-qualified students like Abigail Fisher, whose case will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court and who believes that because of affirmative action she was not accepted into the University of Texas at Austin, CalServe senator Fang said, “It’s not about competing against each other, but it’s about how do we open the doors for more people.”
Whether or not the Court comes to its senses to repeal Prop 209, our commitment to our siblings’, cousins’, children’s, our nation’s future in holding their own dreams, should include affirmative action, diversity, and quality education in K-12 levels. Here at Cal, there are APA support groups for current youth in local areas, like Oakland Asian Students Educational Services (OASES) and Recruitment and Retention Centers (RRCs) under the bridges coalition. Perhaps these can be our next steps in supporting diversity in higher education.
Why not reconsider why you are attending a four-year university? Instead of considering your grade-point average, SAT score, or extracurriculars and rather than focusing on the high-paying career you might want after college, consider why you want to be here. Is it the prestige of attending the “No. 1 Public University?” Is it a place to connect with others who come from similar backgrounds and think like you?
What is the purpose of higher education?
No matter what our reasons are for attending higher education, higher education institutions, like Cal, should bring together a mixture of students from different backgrounds, with different interests and perspectives so that we can unite in becoming problem-solvers and innovators in whatever fields we choose, for the sake of our future—or at least that’s a big part of hope.