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Race in America Examined

Senior Annie D. is an Asian American whose family is Vietnamese. She has lived most her life in Saco, Maine, USA but has had a chance to travel to Vietnam 3 times. She was surprised by how hot it was and found it really different culturally. “Everything from the language, the food, how they interact with people, friends, parents, their interests, social media, everyone uses Facebook in Vietnam unlike here, we use Snapchat, Instagram. And parents in America are much more laid back.”

“I identify myself as an American and I grow up here. It’s my home, even though I’m Vietnamese, that’s just my skin color and I feel like I don’t share a lot of similar customs, traditions with Vietnamese people who actually come from Vietnam.”

“My mom and I perceive many things differently. I have more, like, American morals while she has more of Vietnamese morals. She wants to raise me like how she was raised, with similar cultures, beliefs you know. The biggest one is dating, my mom thinks teen is too young for dating.”

“I think because I’m Asian American, I was exposed to more cultures at a younger age than normal Americans who are only exposed to one culture. Living in Maine, since it’s very white, stereotypes can be very annoying, especially at a younger age like when people ask you ‘What are you?’, ‘Are you Chinese?'”

Annie and her friend Sits in indoor track

My cousin Darryl T. from Houston, Texas, whose family is also of Vietnamese background, spent most of his life in the USA and traveled to Vietnam once last summer. To him, the entire experience in Vietnam was eye opening as there’s so much difference between USA and Vietnam that it seems that the two countries are two different worlds.

“It’s very different from the US, from the customs, the way people talk, act and generally, it’s more on the traditional side.”

“I felt like I belonged mostly to the US as I share a lot more of American cultural values than of Vietnam. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life so I guess it’s my upbringing that shapes my identity.”

“The biggest difference between me and my parents is the view on how the world works and how to be successful and the role of tradition. Specifically, my parents always expect me to do well at school since they consider that as me being successful. Excelling in academics, mastering the guitar and competing in tennis are what I do to keep my parents satisfied and proud.”

“My stance on being Asian American is indifferent. I really don’t care about race except for humor. One should not gauge your abilities on your ‘race. We are all of the same species and therefore not different races but rather possessing different features which have come through adaptation to the geographical conditions that migratory humans have faced. Hence, I think race is a very irrelevant and stupid term that’s merely a social construct.”

Darryl poses with his friends at a special event

Ever since I had the chance to study abroad in America, I’ve longed to give a full answer to the question that I had years ago: “Are Asian Americans Asian or American?” That’s why I’ve decided to look for more than one answer from different individuals apart from me. However, now I’ve started to ask myself: Does race or ethnicity even matter in the first place?

The USA is, without a doubt, the melting pot of the world as it has never
stopped developing economically, technological and socially. The US has a great amount of diversity that intrigues people who live in homogeneous societies. The important question is, does diversity in America create unity or division?

To begin with, the term “melting pot” is a metaphor for a society or nation composed of different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture. However, historically, America has generally viewed immigration as a bad thing and had racial conflicts and discrimination against people based on race. For example, it’s still very conventional in America to say “Asian Americans”, “African Americans”, “Hispanic Americans” as identities for different groups of people whereas it’s “Canadian”, “British”, “Australian” for their citizens regardless of skin color or race. Students throughout the US are likely very familiar with this one fundamental question on a test or even college, job application: “What race are you?” followed by pre-printed boxes of answers such as Caucasian, Asian, African, Hispanic, etc. “Why is that?” is the question. It’s perhaps the ingrained obsession with race in America that makes its people prejudiced against one another.

Before diving in the moral stance, scientifically, skin color and race are irrelevant and unrealistic as it’s merely a social construct created by humans. In other words, race isn’t biologically real as studies and research on humans and animals are determined by genetics. Genetically speaking, two Vietnamese can be as genetically different as a Spanish and a Vietnamese; overall this distinction doesn’t matter on the species level. The genes that determine skin color have nothing whatsoever to do with the genes determining our eye color, blood type, intelligence, athletic abilities and so on.

Moving to sociology, the Waterline of Visibility is one of the most fundamental sociological perspectives which states that there is so much more to an individual than his/her innate features such as race, skin color, gender and age.

The essential fact about an iceberg is that there’s always more ice underneath the water than the visible on the surface. Analogously, it’s the whole collective of societal factors, from culture, heritage to life experience, thinking style, etc that really makes up a human individual. The evident cultural differences between Asians who have lived out their formative years in their Asian home country and those who were either born in America or brought in at a very age can help clarify the two distinct identities.

I’ve come to America and stayed specifically in Maine for almost 4 years now to attend high school. Over the memorable high school years, from freshman to senior, I’ve got the chance to make friends with people from a lot of different nationalities and the experience is truly one of a kind. Through daily interaction with my international friends, not only I can learn how to swear in foreign languages other than English to avoid teachers’ attention at school but also I have had the good fortune to know their backgrounds, cultures, etc, basically them as human beings. The international kids, including me, who have decided to come attend high school in USA, always have a clear identity of themselves, from their nationalities to the first language that they speak. The two seemingly similar identities that I’ve closely paid attention to are Asians and Asian-Americans.

Before I arrived in USA, I always assumed that there’s almost no difference between Asians and Asian Americans, but that thought of mine soon fell short. The assumptions that Asian Americans are in general conservative, introspective and most importantly, loyal to their home cultures just like us Asian turned out to be flawed. Not only that Asian Americans, from those who I had interacted with, appear to be a lot friendlier than the traditional Asians but also they mostly carry out the American culture, not the one of their parents or previous generations having immigrated to USA. The American culture, without a doubt, has a broad allusion; in this case it refers to the values of independence, directness and informality that I notice in my everyday life. Having exposed to American films and music since I was a kid, I wasn’t so surprised at an image of a teenager in America getting a job at 16 and leaving his family house to go to college, along with student loans or an image of an American clerk in a store informally introducing themselves by their first names and saying “it’s a nice sunny day today isn’t it?”

The very core values of American culture, independence, directness and informality embodied by Asian Americans have not only made me thoughtful of the whole picture but also led me to the conclusion that even though Asian Americans look very much like the traditional Asians on the outside, on the inside, they’re very much Americans.

The question on whether Asian Americans are Asian or American makes me go a bit further “Does race or skin color even matter the first place?” It seems to me that, it’s such an insignificant label created by society. I often wonder to myself, how often conflicts happen due to how eager people are to judge others prejudicially. There are surely a lot of different countries with distinct cultures and languages across the globe, but why see the differences when in fact everyone is on the same planet, Earth? It’s a norm that children are taught about the flags and names of different countries as well as the borders on the global map, but profoundly, those are just division that distinct nations of people have established to differentiate themselves. The following speech called “Pale Blue Dot” from the book of the same name written by Carl Sagan-an American astronomer, would steer our perspective to a whole different level:

Ultimately as we navigate this tiny dot called Earth that’s constantly floating through the vastness of space, what may be most important to appreciate is that we’re all sharing one home.

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