I don’t want to come off sounding like just another arrogant American, but I’m astounded to admit that I’m actually experiencing some culture shock in Singapore. The culture shock has nothing to do with my inability to deal with the differences between an American and Asian worldview. In fact, the problem might be in my own little crisis of identity.
As an Asian American who was born and raised in Hawaii, I believed I’d find the adjustment to Asia a bit easier than the typical American from the continental U.S. I’ve lived my entire life in a place where Asians and Polynesians make up almost 50 percent of the population and where almost 23 percent of the population claims to be of more than two races. I, myself, fall into this category as I am Japanese American (my dad’s family emigrated to Hawaii many generations ago) and Vietnamese (my mom emigrated from Vietnam in her 20s).
In this multi-ethnic community, I’ve become very familiar with different Asian beliefs, traditions and cuisines. This life experience has influenced me to identify strongly with the Asian culture. I think other Asians in Hawaii may also feel this way as well. However, now I am beginning to see how vastly different the Asian and Asian American perspective and experience is and how significantly the American culture has affected me.
The culture shock stems from identifying myself as an Asian when I am not Asian but Asian American. Before arriving in Singapore I didn’t even think about the difference. I didn’t even realize that there was one. Of course, this is silly now that I say it out loud but it’s true.
By identifying myself as an Asian, I misled myself into thinking that I knew what to expect and how to act in Singapore and beyond. I figured that Hawaii was a microcosm of the rest of the world and being in southeast Asia would be similar to Hawaii. I thought that I’d feel at home here where there were a lot of Asians like me (in comparison to Australia and New Zealand where most people are Caucasian). But when I did not feel at home here I was caught completely off guard. This is the culture shock I experienced.
I realize now that despite its large Asian American population, Hawaii is completely and utterly American. Just because we may look Asian and take part in Asian culture, it doesn’t mean that our fundamental doctrines and pedagogies are Asian. Our ideals are very much American. Our worldview is definitely American. It’s as if we see the world through Asian-tinted glasses, but at the heart of it, we are American with an American understanding and an American interpretation and an American opinion. This doesn’t mean that we’re better or smarter or even right in the way we see the world, but it does mean that we’re different from those who are actually born and raised in Asia. No matter how close to our ethnic culture we think we are, our nationality has a stronger grasp and influence upon us. I am not Asian. I am Asian American.