A personal reflection on Chinese ethnic identity in modern America

Although not all of us Americans may know it, today, Friday Jan. 31, more than one sixth of the world is reveling in the Chinese Lunar New Year. For me, this is a time to reflect on my multi-ethnic background. Being half-Chinese and having been born in Hong Kong, I like to think of how racial attitudes have changed and where ethnic plurality fits in our modern nation.

Clearly, attitudes towards Chinese people in America have changed over the past century and a half, when Chinese railroad laborers first migrated to the American West. Since then, we have moved from the racist policies of Asian immigration quotas, denial of citizenship and attacks on Chinese business owners to the present practice of labeling Chinese through the lens of the stereotypical “model minority” – a practice less insidious yet perhaps no more correct.

When I was younger, I rejected my background at times. Especially as a younger child, I worried about various stereotypes of the Chinese background, of being made fun of for supposedly “eating dogs and cats” or even just from being expected to excel in math – a subject that I have admittedly never succeeded in.

These aspects – perhaps along with my youthful immaturity – led me to sometimes “whitewash” descriptions of my own past and go without acknowledging my own identity as an immigrant. Today, I realize that this racial identity is something to be embraced. Stereotypes – while perhaps originated from generalized observations – certainly don’t hold true in 100 percent, or even in a majority, of cases.

Each person does not hold true to a single caricature of “Chinese,” “Anglo-American,” “African-American,” “Latino” or so on. Rather, each person in this country brings their own history, their own human capital and their own unique values that vary from upbringing to upbringing. These aspects of multiculturalism are more important than ever for

America’s survival in the globalized 21st century. Economically, the nation continues to thrive on the work of immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute reports that 16 percent of all civilians employed in American healthcare are foreign born, and a report by Inside Higher Education shows that more than 60 percent of America’s graduate students in electrical/industrial engineering and computer science in 2013 were foreign born.

“Politically too, a multiethnic society results in a more globally oriented mode of governance,” David Tsu, a former student of ethnic studies and political science at Purdue University, said. “As people with foreign ties become more and more prevalent as a voting demographic in America, politicians will encourage international cooperation in order to better represent their constituents’ desires.”

Perhaps even more importantly, immigration and ethnicity – of all minorities, not just Chinese – helps contribute to our fluid and ever-expanding American culture and identity.

“Obviously, great traditions of diversity lead to people being exposed to more cultural practices, to different modes of thought and life,” Tsu said. “Being exposed to these other ethnic identities makes people realize that the stereotypical Anglo-American way of life isn’t the be-all, end-all.”

Of course, we can also just take it easy with the social theories relating to ethnicity and enjoy America’s cultural diversity for its simple pleasure. This weekend, I will hopefully be enjoying the fruits of ethnic diversity at one of Chicago’s fine dim sum dining establishments, where waitresses serve cheap plates of dumplings and other morsels for sharing. Not all aspects relating to ethnicity have to be socio-political, after all.

“If anything, living in a nation of ethnic diversity at least makes life more fun and interesting,” Tsu said.