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Your e-mails: Defining the Asian-American experience

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(CNN) -- The term "Asian-American" encompasses an array of national origins, cultures, languages, dialects, religions, generations and histories. It refers to experiences so diverse that in many ways it defies definition.

In a quest for understanding, asked readers for their perspectives on the Asian-American experience. The vast differences in the Asian-American community are reflected in the different realities expressed in these responses.

Here is a selection of e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and clarity.

Roger Dong from Alameda, California
I am a fourth-generation American and retired after 32 years of government service. I have no links to China, and my generation of ethnic Chinese are pretty much Americanized. However, we cannot deny our ethnic heritage, although some of us try to do so. That is foolish as others see us as an ethnic entity, just as we, like most other humans, size up people and make generalizations and stereotypes based on race, gender, and other purely visual and physical factors.

Occasionally, it has irked me when a few people still distrust me and question my loyalty to America and wonder if I have any allegiance to the Chinese govt. After 32 years of federal government service -- 28 years as a military officer, and four years in the diplomatic corps -- serving our nation, I should not have to defend myself. ...

... We have made many contributions to America, but no one knows about the contributions, not even us. It will be extremely tragic if our fellow Americans get irrational and Chinese Americans are [made scapegoats] for our frustrations in dealing with a China that is getting more powerful.

Chao Moua from Menomonie, Wisconsin
Being an Asian in America is definitely culturally clashing because you're living in a modern world where you need to assimilate in order to be successful. I am the first generation to be born in the U.S. and I am happy that my parents had the chance to come to the United States. My family is Hmong and the Hmong people helped out in the Vietnam War. This part of the war was called the "secret war." But without this part of the war I would not be here. Assimilating was very easy for me because I went to an all white school in Wisconsin. But once I assimilated, I became pulled by my heritage and culture that my family has taught me. But, then I am pulled by the American culture. It's difficult to know where the line is or how to create a compromise between each culture. Challenges for the next generation would be to keep some of the Hmong culture and not become a race where the language and cultural things have become extinct. I'm already having a hard time with this because I have a lot of American friends at school and with my Hmong friends we speak English a lot and only a little Hmong.

Ravi Ransi from Hainesport, New Jersey
There are a lot of other countries in Asia other than China, Japan, Philippines, etc. I am a native of India (South Asia) and came to this country 10 years ago. The thing that bothers me is media and people's perception of who is of Asian heritage. Almost all the times when we talk about Asians in this country, we are talking about folks from Eastern Asian countries like China, Japan, etc. I am always perceived as a Middle-Easterner (being a brown guy), and so are the people from other Asian countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. Trying to overcome this has been difficult, especially after 9/11. I just hope that my kids don't face the kind of xenophobia that exists today.

Conan Hom from Lexington, Massachusetts
I was born here, and I speak only English, and yet many expect me to know an Asian language. In fact I am often asked, "Where am I from? Or what am I?" When I answer U.S. (or American), I [am] told, "No really, tell me." Yet a person who's last name is Schmidt in the U.S. isn't expected to speak German? If I am asked what am I and I do say Chinese or Filipino, it's more construed to be where I was born. When someone says, "I'm Irish" we don't assume that person is born in Ireland most of the time.

Though born here there are those in the U.S. who would consider me not truly an American, yet they would assume a non-Asian who is born abroad to be more of an American. Being of Asian heritage, I am not considered a minority in many things even though I really am. Also strangely enough, I have been the object of racial slurs by the majority as well as other minorities -- including those which are larger than the Asian contingent.

Steven Cho from Diamond Bar, California
Being of Korean descent, I always found it hard to prove my "Americaness" to non-Asian Americans. Growing up in predominately white neighborhoods in Washington and Oregon, I'd always felt like an outsider no matter how hard I tried to ignore racial differences. Moving to California was difficult in an entirely different way as now, I'd be surrounded by people who "looked" like me but who wouldn't necessarily accept me. Although these people "looked" like me, I still felt like an outsider around them as I was ostracized for not being Asian enough. I feel as though many Asian-Americans go through this same identity crisis that I've been dealing with my whole life.

Fan Yang from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
My name is Fan and I am a Chinese-American. I came over to North America when I was 5 years old with my parents, who came here to start their doctorate degrees. My parents made less than $20,000 Canadian dollars from their graduate school stipend. To save money, we lived in the basement of a small apartment building. I attended kindergarten in an elementary school with no ESL program and for months, I struggled to learn the new language. I eventually learned English, and life got back to normal again.

As the years went by, I moved from Montreal to an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston for the sixth grade. This transition was quite difficult for me. At my new school, I was surprised at how arrogant some of the students were. I was Chinese-American, and that defined me whether I liked it or not. I made many great friends, but some of the students felt necessary to subtly degrade me and to remind me of my race. For example, on a daily basis, a few classmates would comment in a derogatory way about my facial features. "Did someone drop you on your face as a baby? Is that why it is so flat?" This treatment went on for years, but I eventually became numb to it.

In the middle of high school, my parents moved to Houston, Texas. I felt right at home in Houston since many students in my high school were also Chinese-American. For the first time, being Chinese-American no longer defined who I was. During my two years there, no one asked why my face was so flat. Life was great.

After high school, I attended college at a school that was almost 40 or 50 percent Asian- American. I pursued my studies and got into medical school. I did not stand out one bit and I loved it.

Now, I am a medical student living the American dream. My parents are both professors and they now live in a brand new four-bedroom house in an upper-middle-class suburb in Philadelphia. This suburb reminds me so much of the Boston suburb where I experienced the subtle racism and prejudice, but this time, I know that things are different. The journey to reach the American dream is a long and difficult one, but now that I am here, I am so thankful for the life that my parents provided for me here in America. God bless America.

John Sanda from Sweet, Idaho
For me, being Asian in America is not much different than being white. Of course there is the occasional racist incident or comment, but the vast majority of people seem to be colorblind. This subject, however, is far too complex to discuss in a forum like this. It would take volumes of text or hours of conversation. I look in the mirror and I am Japanese. I look outward and I am an American of no specific ethnic origin. God bless America.

S.K. from Tucson, Arizona
I am mixed -- White and Asian-Indian. My mother emigrated here legally from India in the 1960s. I was born in 1975. In the late 70s we moved to Houston, Texas. Living in Texas set a lot of my definitions to what I thought of being Asian. ...

... I remember sitting in a darkened living room and having my mother come and ask me why I didn't want to go outside. I asked my mom, "Mom, when am I going to turn white"? I was so confused because I knew my father was white and didn't know why I wasn't. I had been trying to avoid the sun so I could be lighter.

So as a mixed-race Asian, who grew up in a "white" culture, I felt somewhat rejected from that culture. On the flip side, if I were to tell an Indian from India that I were Indian they would at first not believe me. I don't look like a typical Indian I guess. So, in some ways, I have felt disassociated from both cultures.

Marquis Leu from Garland, Texas
Being Asian in America means acting as the "Model Minority," a term used by the "majority" of America, therefore setting an example of being the best of the worst.

Makoto Hirata from Paramus, New Jersey
I am an Asian-American in the United States Army, and I am currently in Iraq. I am Japanese and the only Asian person in my platoon. In the infantry, mostly everyone is white. They make fun of me a lot and joke with me a lot, but they are still pretty cool with me. I feel they still do look at me differently then the other soldiers, but we still are all friends.

Jessie Park from Gabriel, California
The struggles of the Asian-American are that of any other American. All have gone through the ever so present stages of poverty and discrimination. All have chased after the American dream. However, the history of the Asian-American is an epic which cannot be shoved into that simple category alone.

Each demographic has had their own personal struggles while integrating into American society, as if the label "Asian" had no bearing on their vastly different experiences: the sweat of the Chinese workers during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the Japanese- Americans' detention during World War II, the missing recognition of Filipino WWII veterans, the Korean-Americans' dilemma as the world settles a nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula.

These situations hardly had anything to with each other, but it was all part of the American experience. ... We all must realize that each one of us has a rich history, that a simple label based on the color of our skin is a poor sampling of history.

Tommy T. from Houston, Texas
I am proud of our cultural development in the United States. We are silent but powerful. We don't mask ourselves in the media complaining and trying to justify everything like some other groups. We are no longer the minority but the majority in medical school in Texas. We are owners of more successful businesses than many groups that have settled here for decades before us. We hold powerful positions.

Socially, Asian women are looked at as exotic and a prize, but the Asian men have it the hardest out of all the ethnic groups in the United States. Dealing with physical deprivation and having to stand at the cultural presence of being the breadwinner in a society which see Asian men as weak is hard to overcome. We need to involve Asian men in the mass media in the most positive ways to overcome these stereotypes.

Yiu Wai Chan from Brooklyn, New York
I'm Chinese (from Hong Kong) and a naturalized U.S. citizen of [more than] 30 years living in probably the most racially diverse city in the world. Being Asian means dealing with some racism, both discreet and blatant, from all other races. It means having different expectations and standards, from everyone including myself. It means having pride in our culture and our family's boldness and courage in immigrating with virtually no money to the greatest country in the world.

Our most difficult challenge, I believe, is when we try to keep our culture and language largely intact through ongoing generations. Americanization, while having many advantages, inevitably erodes any culture to the point where a fifth-generation Chinese-American will have nothing in common with a first-generation Chinese, except for, possibly, the last name, some facial features, and common ancestry. I'm not sure this challenge can be overcome or even if it's a good idea to try. But hopefully this homogenization will go hand in hand with a more racially tolerant society.

Coco Upton from Highlands Ranch, Colorado
As a fourth-generation Japanese-American, I feel very fortunate to be living in America today. I am lucky because growing up I heard many stories from my grandparents about their challenges during World War II. They were faced with the choice of evacuating their home in California or face a life in internment camps. They chose to pack up their family and move to Colorado to begin a life in farming. They struggled for years but managed to build a very successful life in Denver. Today, I live in a beautiful home with my husband and two children and am thankful everyday for the integrity and perseverance that my grandparents instilled in me.

Sunetra Chavan from Webster, New York
Being an Asian in America means sustaining a cultural shock when you land here, bringing up confused kids, straddling both cultures, native and adopted, being 10 times better than anyone else at work, dealing with stereotypes and discrimination, not to mention the emotional impact of leaving behind everyone and everything you have ever known and loved to start all over again.

Hope it sums it up!

Ravi Upadhyay from Jersey City, New Jersey
Living in today's America has been much easier for me than it was for my parents. When they came here in 1974 the Asian-American community was nowhere near the size it was today. I was born into a more diverse America than that of the previous generation. Perhaps my ability to assimilate easier is facilitated by the fact that I live in the Northeast. If I grew up in other parts of the country such as the South or Midwest I would have had a much harder time growing up and facing discrimination. But, despite the fact that it's been an easy ride for me so far, I still think our community deserves more recognition, especially in Congress.

Chun Yeung from Sacramento, California
To be Asian-American today means constantly pushing oneself to live up to your parents' old- country expectations, while striving to overcome stereotypes to succeed in the new country, America.

It means being humble yet aggressive, honest yet conniving.

To succeed in something so those parents who emigrated from hardship, war, and poverty can feel proud, that they did not go through the hardship to find their way to the "Land of Gold" for nothing.

To make the best cars yet [be] viewed as the worst drivers. ...

... Those are just some random thoughts about the subject. But the pioneering generations definitely went through much more hardship paving the way for us.

... Although we have somewhat assimilated into American culture, we will never be viewed as just plain ol' American.

But I am proud. I am Chinese-American.

Farzana Choudhury from Los Angeles, California
Asian is an exceptionally diverse and heterogeneous word -- ethnically, culturally, linguistically, [and] religiously. I think it is also a bit crude in a way. As a native Bangladeshi, I do not know whether I am better identified as an Asian or a South-Asian or an Asian-Indian. I have never seen anyone here in the U.S. identifying me as an Asian, although I am an Asian by definition. My friends from China, Korea or Japan have absolutely no problem. So, I do think there should be finer categorization before considering all the cultural issues. If I do not know what I am, how can I tell my small children what to call themselves?

Gururaj Pare from Sunnyvale, California
I think either whites or blacks born and brought up here in the U.S. immediately become American, while Asians even after 10 generations only become Asian-Americans at the most. This is a fact. But America is a very tolerant and great nation. As long as you speak English well and adjust to the American culture, in my opinion, nobody would feel left behind. But since I just came here three years [ago], I find it a little difficult to mix with the mainstream crowd.

Dennis Lee from Staten Island, New York
I am a 23-year-old Chinese-American from Staten Island. In 1989 my sister and I were the only Chinese students in our elementary school on Staten Island in a predominately black neighborhood. We faced many problems in our school from other students, such as racial remarks, physical attacks, [being] spit on, robbed of our money, defacing of our clothing and book bag. I grew up sad wondering why African-Americans who had their own discrimination issues in American society would treat others this way.

Ultimately, we had to change schools and go back to Chinatown, New York, where there were more Chinese students. It was a shame that even in American cities people of different ethnic groups needed to stay in their Chinatowns, Spanish Harlems, and neighborhoods of their own national origin just to feel safe and "at home."

However in 2007, my brother is attending the same elementary school that I originally started at on Staten Island. He hasn't faced as many issues as my sister and I faced. Of course he gets a racial comment here and there but kids will be kids. You may ask why I think my brother faced less problems then me ... I think it comes down to more education from school, parents, racial awareness, and more diversity in our neighborhood.

Anjali Jones from Memphis, Tennessee
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Bible belt was no fun. There are still plenty of racial tensions here. I've gotten supposed compliments from White people on how being an "Oreo" is OK (white on the inside, brown on the outside) and I've been proselytized to most of my life. There was a feeling of never really belonging, whether for the color of my skin or for religion or for being from a "weird" background.

All in all, there were some crappy times, but it definitely taught me how to stand up for myself. It also helped me figure out what I love and don't love about my background, about my culture, about ME. So my approach now is to take what I like about my culture and what I like about American culture to help make myself into a better person. As a result, I'm a pretty firm believer in difficulties making a person stronger, so long as they have positive influences in their life that can help keep them on track.

Aditi Samarth from Dallas, Texas
Being an Asian in America is easier now than it was 20 years ago. Media coverage, public interest, work visa allocations and the post 9/11 environment have added to the significance of the 'other' in American society. Further, Asia is no longer a homogeneous geographic and cultural entity in the general public's imagination, thanks to films like "Monsoon Wedding" and "The Namesake" and [business processing outsourcing firms], who have done much to raise public consciousness of the many subdivisions within Asia.

Because of this awareness and the ubiquitous Asian and Indian restaurants and grocery stores springing up all across the U.S., it is much easier to be Asian in America today. The H1B's and other immigrants since 1995 have it really easy in America. There is so much comfort for them now. They may be away from home, but their "home" has been recreated here. They can -- and do -- everything like they did back home. They face fewer challenges because they are certainly not pioneers [and] don't have to carve a place for themselves. They come ready with a visa to work and earn good salaries right from day one of landing in the U.S.

The first generation has created many possibilities and opportunities -- opened doors -- for the next generations (and new immigrants). The hard work, resilience, perseverance, entrepreneurship, and many other personal and cultural/collective qualities have led to the acceptance of Asians in America.

The next generation -- the younger generation -- has fewer battles to fight. I predict their task will be to enter areas of public domain and gather visibility and not lose the "Asian" connection. They will continue to struggle for family name and success. They will also tread into non-traditional Asian educational/vocational areas. I am looking forward to seeing what my 3-year-old son makes of being Asian (Indian) in America. It should be fun.


Hong Pham, with her daughter Hana, said being Asian-American sometimes means feeling like you are "stuck in the middle," where you are neither Asian nor American.



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