I wonder what Asian Asians think of Asian Americans. For almost all of my life, I have tried to persuade people of the proposition that it is possible to be Asian American: to have ancestors who came from Asia, as others have ancestors who came from Europe, and to be American through and through.
I have insisted that Asian Americans are the same as other Americans. I am not sure I have been all that successful in this endeavor with either Asian Asians or other Americans.
Nonetheless, for many people I know, traveling to Asia as an Asian American offers a disorienting confirmation that one is not the same as one's cousins who stayed behind in the "old country." That is a defining experience for Americans of all backgrounds. We realize who we are by seeing who we are not.
Lately, I have become curious about how Asian Asians perceive of Asian Americans. With the international sports superstardom of Jeremy Lin, everyone became aware -- and much more so than through academic advocacy -- that there were such people as Asian Americans. "Linsanity" was a global phenomenon, much like rapper Psy's "gangnam style."
Unlike his fellow basketball player Yao Ming, who was very much a product of the enormous Chinese gene pool and its national athletic training system, Lin was equally a California kid. The child of immigrants, yes; an expatriate from the Celestial Kingdom, no.
I asked a student from China to look into how Chinese viewed Chinese Americans. (I did not ask her what Asians think of Asian Americans, because there are no Asians in Asia -- they don't have a sense of pan-Asian identity.) After quite a bit of study, she concluded there was virtually no scholarship on the subject. I was not much surprised.
I asked what she herself thought. She mulled over the matter and gave me a reply that seems plausible. It actually had several components. I share her thinking aloud to solicit responses.
Initially, she said, almost all Chinese would have no conception of Chinese Americans. As she reminded me, the outside understanding of China is based on Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the surrounding areas of the mainland -- the most significant metropolitan areas.
That is misleading. The vast bulk of the Chinese population lives in places that non-Chinese would not have any sense of even though it includes cities of millions. In the provinces, peasants who have not journeyed to the leading urban centers of their own country would be unable to conceive of Chinese Americans. The idea would be literally foreign.
Then, she continued, the Chinese who were educated would be aware of Chinese Americans in a vague sense. She believed they would be admiring of Chinese Americans for having achieved success overseas.
However, she concluded, once they became aware that there were Chinese Americans who were not loyal to China and who could not even speak Chinese, they would be disgusted. They might even hate Chinese Americans.
It's impossible to generalize accurately about any society, especially China given its scale. But I wonder if the issue I have delineated will persist much longer. With continuing emigration from China to America, reverse migration of Chinese Americans, mobility of people at all socioeconomic levels, global cultural mash-ups, and an ascendant Asia, perhaps we will come to the end of people who insist on calling themselves "Asian American."
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