Ethnic Identity: Yours, Mine and Ours

Though it’s commonplace to see a caricature of your ethnic identity in the movies or on TV, it must be something else to experience it in real life — to confront your assimilated, ethnic self being openly embraced by others with a passion that you yourself never mustered. I have been wondering about this lately, imagining how it would feel to be surrounded by a group of energetic, well-educated parents adopting Irish children and thus eager to learn all there is to know about Yeats, Gaelic, leprechauns, the Easter Uprising, knitting wool sweaters, and the proper preparation of potatoes. My guess is that it might make me want to crawl under a shamrock.

Although a cultural identity seems like an easy thing to have around the house, in reality it;s wrapped up less in holidays and celebrations than in social values and family patterns that are acquired as a child, lodged firmly in the unconscious and only rarely see the light of day. That’s why efforts to convey the elements of an ethnicity in any formal way always have a kind of forced quality. When Miles Davis said of another musician that he had to be taught to play the blues, it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

As parents who have adopted from China we are in the unique position of encouraging a cultural identity that we have never possessed. Such a radical prospect not surprising provokes some extreme reactions. Some families have actually relocated to China. Others couldn’t care less and are scheduling the cultural identity discussion for after puberty. Most families probably are somewhere in the middle. The new book West Meets East* describes the different styles FCC families have typically embraced.

But how would you feel about all of this if you were Chinese or Chinese American. Vivia Chen has some thoughts on that question. While poking fun at the foibles of FCC parents trying to add a Chinese dimension to their cultural identity, she raises provocative questions that help clarify the goal of these efforts — and our evolving relationship with the Chinese-American community.

For example, it is undeniable that as adoptive families we take a sort of a la carte approach to Chinese identity — picking and choosing some aspects, but ignoring others. The subtle ways that a Chinese or Chinese-American family conveys common social values — modesty, thrift, respect for elders — won’t be easily duplicated in a household of Irish, Polish, or Greek descent. All the mooncakes and Mandarin classes in the world won’t change that.

It’s also likely that our exuberant embrace of things Chinese could prove grating. This might be a matter of style, but probably has deeper roots. Like every ethnic group, Chinese-Americans have undergone the painful process of assimilation — subtly and overtly encouraged to see being Chinese and being American as opposite to one another. Our goal is ostensibly to help our daughters to have it both ways — to embrace their Chinese heritage and feel secure in their status as “full-fledged Americans.” It’s not hard to imagine members of the Chinese-American community viewing this bicultural ambition with suspicion.

As a young child, the issue of skin color confused me. It’s a privilege of being white, and knowing too many people with freckles. Kerong has no such confusion and regularly notes how her skin, her eyes, her hair are different than ours. We look for safe environments in which these differences can be acknowledged and, when the spirit is willing, explored. Events and activities that bring us together with others going through the same experiences help create these safe places. As simplistic as they may seem, the mooncakes, the Mandarin classes, the Chinese Lantern-making have as much to do with the interior dynamics of our adoptive families as they do with generating a conscious Chinese-American identity. It’s like learning to float in the shallow end, before wadding into the deeper waters of race and ethnicity that are steadily rising all around us — and American history tells us are quite fluid in nature.

The old saw is that the identity of Irish-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American (any ethnic group) is in the hyphenation. It’s relative, and defined anew each generation. Ask who determines what is Irish or what is Chinese and the answer, in America, is always frighteningly the same: no one does — but everyone does.

We will be part of this process of redefinition and so, of course, will our daughters. Inevitably, as members of a nonwhite race in a white dominated society, they will experience the racism and cultural discrimination that is as American as Apple Pie. But my bet is that they will have plenty to say about it. And if they are even one tenth as organized and assertive as their parents, they will play an active role in doing something about it, adding a distinct and completely unpredictable dimension to their generation of Chinese-Americans.

Personally, I can hardly wait.

Joe Kelly is on the Board of Directors of the New York Chapter of Families with Children from China (FCC-NY). Reprinted with permission from the Fall 1999 issue of the FCC-NY Newsletter.

click to share to: