Culture Shock: Asian vs. Asian American Identity

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.

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7 Comments

Filed under Culture, Personal, Singapore, Travel

7 responses to “Culture Shock: Asian vs. Asian American Identity

  1. I tend to identify myself as Chinese-Canadian or Canadian-born Chinese or as a last resort, of Asian descent.

    I haven’t been to Asia yet but have relatives who immigrated within the past 30 yrs. directly from mainland China which provided me the direct personal differences/comparisons. I lived in Toronto for over 2 decades, Vancouver almost 9 years, where Asian population is now at least 30%. In a suburb of Vancouver it is 60%. When I vacationed in Hawai’i twice, it felt like to me, being in either or those 2 cities except..with palm trees, orchids and volcanoes.

  2. Interesting point Dorian. But isn’t that everywhere? Me, living in Europe (Amsterdam), I thought that European values are the same across Europe. Of course, there are simularities, but I got a culture shock just from working in Belgium and The Netherlands with Belgians. Althought both countries are very simular in some ways, I noticed I’m very Dutch. We tend to say what we think and not always in a political correct way (as you know ;-)), we hate hierarchy (like everything else in the Netherlands, we like our organisations to be ‘flat’), and why?? wouldn’t I discuss a decision made by a manager (certainly a foreign one…) if I ‘know’ he/she is wrong. Big wake up call when I worked across the border. It took a lot of restrain and made me realize that even in Europe, 200 km away from me, things are very, very different…:-) Not to say it’s worse (yes it is) or better (no it’s not)…just different 😉 Oh, I worked with Americains too…(no offense people, but Americain managers in the Netherlands, trying to RULE a Dutch team..very very funny hahahahahaha) Can tell you stories, that could be a book too 😉

  3. Kris

    We all perceive the world through lenses…race, creed, national identity, sex, community, etc… We choose that lense. Being of mixed race, I find myself more in common with one side, but there are values that carry over for the other side. However, it is shared beliefs that bind groups together, including nations – e pluribus unum.

  4. @Jean – Thanks for commenting. I spent about a week in Toronto (posts to come) but mainly stayed in the city. However, I did stroll through the Chinatown area and thought it was like Hawaii as well. I can only imagine that the balance between Asian and western ideals in Canada is similar to those in the U.S. as well. It’s almost as if we have a watered down version Asian culture.

    @Natascha – You could be right. I just didn’t have any firsthand experience with it. Asian immigrants are a big part of Hawaii’s past and we celebrate them in many ways – language, cultural festivals, religious ceremonies, food, etc. We grow up identifying with these ethnicities and our identities are as strongly linked to them. You automatically see yourself as Dutch and that is where your culture comes from. For us, it’s almost as if our culture comes from our Asian ties first and our American ties second.

    @Kris – I definitely agree with your statement about shared beliefs. My experience in Malaysia (posts to come) really drove home the point that I am American.

  5. Hello! I’ve been following your site for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Colorado. Just wanted to tell you keep up the great work!

  6. I agree with you. I myself was born in Asia but raised in America. Transition changes you. Our adaption to American society has changed many Asian youths. Some struggle with culture and language and some have the ability to keep their culture and language intact. It is a pity that many young asians loose ties with their culture due to the major influences. I myself am guilty of that.

  7. So true kudon. It’s something you must actively seek out. Otherwise, it will be lost by the second and definitely by the third generation.

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