My latest Instagram friend, Paul, took me to Little Bangladesh in Brooklyn. It was around 7 pm, and the street was full of people, mostly men, congregating and chatting in a language I couldn’t understand. I loved the vibe because I felt like I had traveled to a foreign country. It’s not so much the place but the people that evokes that feeling powerfully. Because my family moved almost every year during my childhood, being in a foreign environment feels like home to me.
Paul asked me if I had an identity crisis in my younger days. It’s a reasonable question because I’ve seen many Asian Americans go through identity crises, but I’m not sure if it’s common among the immigrant generation. Not in my observation.
I can see why second-generation Asian Americans struggle with identity. They are Americans but still seen as foreigners. That must be frustrating. Many of them hate the question, “Where are you from?” If they reply, “I’m from New York,” the inquisitor is annoyed because that’s not what he wants to know. If he doesn’t take a hint, he might elaborate, “If you are born here, then where are your parents from?” Many second-generation Asian Americans resent this because they see it as an attempt to classify them as foreigners. If your society sees you as a foreigner, but you don’t feel like a foreigner, an identity crisis would be a natural consequence.
The immigrant generations are spared of this problem because we are indeed foreigners. “Where are you from?” is a perfectly reasonable question that shows they are interested in knowing my native culture. There is no discrepancy between what I am and how society perceives me.
I think second-generation Asian Americans often feel pressured to either represent their parents’ culture (like David Chang mastering Asian cuisines) or disavow it. The former is an easier choice because you wouldn’t have to keep fighting the public perception of you, but just because your parents are from Asia doesn’t mean you have any interest in Asian cultures. This becomes an irresolvable contradiction for many.
It’s ironic that immigrant generations, like me and these men from Bangladesh, have an easier time fitting in.
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