A professor of mine once told a story about when she went to the United States to study.A native Eritrean, she had received a scholarship to pursue a bachelor's degree at an American university.The university organized a trip to Disneyland for her and the other international students.Before thesgroupsof international students went to Los Angeles, the coordinators of the trip informed the students from Africa that they should wear their "traditional" costumes, not Western-style clothing.Why?The coordinators were afraid that the African students would be "mistaken" for African-Americans simply because their skin color was also dark.At that time, the 1960s, there was still much overt racial discrimination against African-Americans.Insgroupsto avoid trouble, the coordinators wanted to make sure that their African students did not look African-American.
She ended her story by asking us to think about what we thought she was before we had met her. Her last name is Italian; did we think she was Italian? When we first saw her, did we assume that she was a black American?How much can we really know about a person based upon hair color, skin color, facial structure or body shape?
Identity is a difficult subject to discuss because it is so personal, and it is even more difficult to describe someone's identity clearly in a country like the USswheresjust about everyone's family came from somewhere else. My professor, until she left Eritrea, always considered herself Eritrean.When she got to America, however, people looked at her and saw a black woman, not an Eritrean woman. Similarly, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese people come to the US and are often just called "Asians".Appearance is used as the main condition for identity, although appearances can be quite deceiving.
Is there a difference between a Chinese person born in China and a person born in the US to parents from China?Most people would agree that there is.There are certain phrases that people frequently use insgroupsto define the Chinese-American identity. The two most commonly heard terms are "ABC", meaning an American-born Chinese, and "banana".The former is often considered an acceptable label for people of Chinese descent born in the US; in Canada there is the corresponding term "CBC" for Canadian-born Chinese.The second term, banana, is usually regarded as derogatory or offensive, and it refers to someone who is "yellow" on the outside but "white" on the inside.
The phrase ABC is used so commonly that many people think it is an appropriate description of Chinese-Americans.However, the phrase hides what I think is a very dangerous belief about identity. Identity is developed and learned, not given at birth.To say that someone is an American-born Chinese is to suggest that if that person were born anywhere else in the world, he/she would still be fundamentally Chinese because Chineseness, the quality of being Chinese, is inherent in this person.It implies that an ABC is Chinese first and just happened to be born in the United States.Yet being Chinese is not an inherent quality that one person has simply because he or she looks Chinese.Just about every Chinese-American recognizes that there are huge differences in personality, behavior and physical appearance between themselves and their native Chinese counterparts.
These differences are what the term "banana" addresses.Bananas are yellow-skinned but with white insides - for people, this is meant to describe individuals who look Chinese but whose "insides", that is, their behavior and personality, are "white".But this also carries a demeaning and offensive undertone: that these people are only half-real, they are neither completely Chinese nor actually white. Even worse, the term is sometimes used to suggest that Chinese-Americans really wish that they were white.Being white, of course, is assumed to mean being American, which is a third misconception.Not all Americans are white, and in not too many years the majority of the population in America won't be white (i.e. of purely European descent) at all.
Identity for everyone is a matter of experience and circumstance, not skin color or general appearance.What terms like ABC and banana ignore is that being Chinese-American constitutes a very real identity in its own right.Chinese-Americans are not necessarily caught between the East and the West.The Chinese-American identity is one that has developed over many generations in the US (since the 1840s), but one that can also be shared by recent immigrants and their families.It is important because it is different, because it is the product of blending social and cultural influences, and these differences should be recognized and not brushed aside.