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All posts copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le.
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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 4, 2011

Written by C.N.

Top 10 Best Reasons to be an American

Today is Independence Day, the U.S.’s 235th birthday, and the day that we all celebrate what it means to be an American. In contrast to the usual posts that I have written on this subject, instead, I would like reprint David Letterman’s recent Top 10 list, “Top Ten Reasons I, Dave Letterman, Am Proud To Be An American“:

  1. The complimentary TSA groping
  2. Land of the free, home of the brave, and the fattest people on Earth
  3. Our wise and learned Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Gotti (joke provided by Michele O’Bachmann)
  4. All our presidents were born in America . . . or possibly Kenya
  5. The United States has the best damn extreme couponers in the world
  6. We live in a country where our politicians text photos of their junk
  7. Forget all this, have you seen the news story about Florence Henderson?
  8. Kim Kardashian X-rayed her ass
  9. What other country would let me get away with doing this crap?

January 12, 2009

Written by C.N.

Airport Security and the Complexities of an Asian American Identity

I mentioned in my last post that like many people, my family and I were traveling over the holidays to visit relatives out of state. In these travels, one relatively minor incident in the airport security lines illustrated for me just how complex — and in some ways even contradictory — an Asian American identity is for many of us.

Fortunately, this particular incident did not involve any type of racial profiling against us or somebody else in our presence that made national news, as at least one Muslim American family unfortunately had to endure over the holidays. Instead, this incident was rather ordinary, even mundane, and probably a common occurrence in the lives of many Asian Americans.

Here’s the scene: we were at the St. Louis airport going through the airport security x-ray machines on our way to catch our flight back home to Massachusetts. A few people ahead of us were a relatively young Chinese husband and wife. Perhaps it was their first time traveling through an American airport because they were clearly “unprepared” — their luggage was too big to go through the x-ray machines and should have been checked baggage and they had not separated out their liquids into the standard three ounce containers and baggie.

As a result of this, the airport security workers were trying to explain to them that they were out of compliance with the regulations and what they needed to do to correct the situation. The airport workers were actually polite and understanding but the Chinese couple, perhaps complicated by the fact that their English wasn’t perfect, were understandably a little flustered.

The result of this was that they were holding up the other travelers behind them in line, including my family and I. Initially, everyone was patient but after a few minutes, it was clear that some were getting a little frustrated. Nobody said anything the whole time we were all waiting but there were the inevitably sighs and rolling eyes as the Chinese couple and the airport workers tried to clear everything up.

Initially, that included me as well. My first reaction was also to get a little annoyed and soon thoughts such as “Come one, haven’t ever been through an airport security line before?” and “It would help if you knew English a little better” floated through my mind. I will presume that the other people in line probably had similar sentiments as well. In other words, this was a typical reaction from Americans towards foreigners in such a situation.

But after a while, I caught myself and consciously took a step back from my initial reactions and tried to apply a little sociological thinking to the situation. In doing so, I came to have a little more sympathy for the Chinese couple. First, I kept in mind that for all Americans, each of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time or another. And for me personally as a Vietnamese American, that included my own parents.

I remembered that my own parents went through similar incidents in the past, especially in the early part of our resettlement into the U.S. as they tried to assimilate into American society after leaving Viet Nam. Perhaps not in an airport security line, but my parents almost certainly encountered such cultural embarrassments checking out at a supermarket, talking with a teller at the bank, ordering at a restaurant, and probably many other situations in which they were just trying to become mainstream Americans.

Along with that, even today as an Asian American, I still encounter situations in which even though I am thoroughly Americanized and speak English perfectly, other Americans automatically assume that I’m a foreigner just by looking at me, based on the persistent stereotype that all Asians are foreigners. As Asian American scholars and any average Asian American would confirm, this lingering bias is still a big hurdle for many Asian Americans to overcome as we try to live our lives here in the U.S.

Secondly, I tried to personalize the Chinese couple’s situation by asking myself, How well would I do if I were trying to navigate through a foreign airport for the first time and had to understand its specific regulations and customs, formal and informal, whether it be in China, Brazil, Russia, or any other foreign country that did not speak my native language?

Based on these thoughts in which I indirectly sympathized with the Chinese couple’s situation, I contrasted them with my initial reaction of annoyance at them and came to realize that this was a perfect illustration of just how complicated and even contradictory an Asian American identity is for many of us.

In other words, as Asian Americans, were may feel implicitly obligated to sympathize and be in solidarity with our fellow Asians (foreign and American), either for political purposes or because of our direct ties to our family, relatives, and ancestors from afar. But on the other hand, as a “typical” American, it’s hard to escape sentiments that lead us to feel aggravated when others cause us inconvenience (however brief) or run afoul of our American customs and practices that we ourselves have already internalized into our lives in our own quest to be “mainstream” Americans.

There is no easy answer here. There is no “right” or “correct” way for Asian Americans to react to or handle incidents like this that involve other Asians who are simultaneously similar to and different from us.

Nonetheless, as I reflect on this incident and my initial and secondary thoughts about it, I also see that I’m really glad that I’m a sociologist who has learned the tools to make sense of the multiple levels of factors and the intersections of so many different issues that come into play in situations like this.

That is, as I tell the students in my classes, sociology teaches you to do two seemingly contradictory things — to personalize and depersonalize things at the same time. Being able to personalize and depersonalize an issue or idea then allows you to understand that there are multiple levels of analysis for that issue/idea — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. In a nutshell, this is the first lesson of Sociology 101.

To personalize something is look at a particular idea or situation and to say something like, “Yeah ok, I see how that theory or example can apply to my personal experiences. I can relate to that.” On the other hand, to depersonalize something would be to say something like, “Hmmm, that particular theory or example doesn’t really apply to my personal experiences, but I can see how other people might look at it in that way.”

I also tell my students that the basic foundation of virtually all instances of disagreement, conflict, and even hostility around a race/ethnicity-related issue such as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, etc., is when people can’t properly personalize or depersonalize the issue and unfortunately, end up talking at each other from different levels of analysis (i.e., one person is expressing their opinion from an individual level while the other is coming at it from an institutional level).

In this instance, I personalized the Chinese couple’s situation by relating it to how I would fare in a foreign airport for the first time and by remembering my own parents’ struggles to fit into American society. I also depersonalized the situation by recalling that all of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time and that Americans from all backgrounds share a common set of behaviors and that it upsets our sense of a collective identity when a “foreigner” violates such customs.

In the end, I think the lessons here are (1) for anybody in general but Asian Americans in particular, it’s natural and inevitable to have complicated or even contradictory feelings about one’s identity as an “Asian” and how to relate to other Asians and (2) when such contradictions and confusion arise, there are ways to make sense of them — by knowing when to personalize and when to depersonalize and understanding that there are multiple levels of analysis to any issue.

In other words, there are many ways to “do sociology” in our everyday lives.


June 26, 2008

Written by C.N.

Disneyland: A Metaphor for Fitting In

Regular readers to this blog may have noticed that I have not posted often as of late. As you might have guessed, it’s because I’m on vacation — visiting my parents and friends in southern California. As part of my trip, we also did the Disneyland thing the other day by going there with some friends and their families.

Overall, it was a fun experience, especially for my daughter, who never objects to a trip to the Tragic, err Magic Kingdom. However, there were a couple of “incidents” that — unexpectedly — stood out as interesting metaphors for the sociology of being “American,” a theme about which I’ve often blogged on this site.

Specifically, my wife, daughter, and I were part of a large group that included two of my best friends (Jim and Tony) from high school and their families, Jim’s ex-girlfriend from high school (Kim), and Jim’s sister (Michelle) and her family. For the record, they are all White while of course, my wife, daughter, and I are Asian American.

The “incidents” in question were when we were about to board a particular ride or attraction and the Disneyland attendant would determine who was in which party and therefore, how many people to let into each car for the ride in question.

A couple of times my family and I were at the tail end of the group and as such, when we reached the ride attendant, s/he would close the gate before we could enter, thinking that were were not part of the group that s/he just let in, when in fact, we were. We would immediately let him/her know that we were part of the group s/he just let in and the attendant would say, “Oh ok, sorry about that” and let us in.

For us, we did not think that much about it because quite frankly, we’re used to being thought of as “outsiders” or not part of the “normal” or “mainstream.” But each time these incidents happened, my friend Tony noticed and by the second time, he remarked that he found those incidents to be a little jarring for him to see how we were automatically thought of as “outsiders” in everyday situations like being at Disneyland.

One of the reasons why Tony and I have been friends for so long is because long ago, he understood my identity as an Asian American, a person of color, and some of the challenges that I face on the individual and institutional levels of American society as a result of these identities. So it’s not as though he is completely clueless about such issues.

But when he admitted that he found those incidents to be rather disconcerting, I realized that for many White Americans, they may have an intellectual understanding of racism, or at the least, implicit racial assumptions that function to exclude people of color, but until they actually see it happen right in front of them, they really cannot appreciate just how such incidents can accumulate in the psyche of people of color and for the perpetrators of such racial exclusion.

Ultimately, these incidents — the actual “closing of the gates” as we were about to enter and my friend Tony’s reaction to them — serve as an interesting and useful metaphor for the status of people of color, particularly Asian Americans, in American society in the eyes of many Whites.

That is, we are frequently and automatically seen as outsiders and not “real” or “authentic” members of the mainstream and second, that our White allies sometimes don’t fully understand or appreciate our position in American society until they see it happen right in front of their eyes.

As you can see, sociology can happen in many places — even Disneyland.