June 22, 2022

DO | Two Worlds Syndrome

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One of the most common sentiments you’ll hear among Asian Americans is the feeling of being torn between two worlds. As immigrants and children of immigrants, Asian Americans have a stake in multiple cultures, nations and principles. Our families expect us to live proper Asian lives at home while also sending us out to contend with American beliefs that sometimes directly conflict with what our traditions tell us.

I’ve written several columns about Asian American-ness and have even referenced the dual Asian/American identity complex before. And while I don’t think anyone is lying when they claim to be conflicted between their two identities,  I also don’t think that description does justice to what it’s really like to be Asian American (at least, what it’s like for me).

And maybe that’s just my second generation status speaking. I’ve never had to translate tax documents to my parents or explain in-depth which forms the financial aid office needed from them, so I’ve mostly avoided the usual rough patches that come with a supposedly bicultural family. 

I’ve also been lucky enough to grow up in a diverse community mostly free of the usual microaggressions and overt racism that other Asian Americans face. The only incident that comes to mind is once in fifth grade when I wore a shirt with the South Korean flag on it, and a white classmate joked that I wanted to blow up the sun with my missiles. The comment makes me chuckle now and, more than anything, I’m impressed he was able to recognize the flag. 

All that to say, I’ve never felt the incongruence of living in America while being an ethnically Asian person. All the different foods and media that I consume as a result of my Asian-ness are simply facts of my life, not reminders of my eternal foreign-ness. I’ve never felt like a fish out of water, nor have I ever wished that I could live somewhere where everyone ate the same foods and watched the same zany Korean game shows as me. 

Trying to perform this self-imposed balancing act of Asian vs. American just obscures the actual nuances of Asian American identity. Categorizing every little thing as either part of your Asian side or your American side is an attempt at group identification with groups you don’t fully belong to. It’s fine to feel “too Asian for America and too American for Asia,” as the diasporic think pieces often go, but viewing cultural identity as a comparison to some idealized standard just creates internal strife where it didn’t exist before. 

These manufactured cultural binaries are how we end up with BTS visiting the White House to speak on AAPI hate crimes, as if they would know the first thing about what it’s like to be Asian American. Thinking that BTS being Asian and in America makes them qualified to speak on Asian American issues is the exact mindset that convinces Asian Americans that their cultural identity has to be forever torn in two. In reality, Asian Americans have their own stories to tell that neither BTS nor President Joe Biden know anything about.

Asian Americans aren’t here to become fully-fledged, patriotic Americans or to be ambassadors for trivialized cultural niceties. We have our own histories as families and immigrants that no one else, no matter how Asian they may look, can presume to know. We don’t owe it to American excellence to assimilate into our home country (the history books make that one pretty clear), nor should we view Asian traditions as our only differentiating features. 

What’s more important is that we find pride in whatever Asian American-ness might mean to us. Many of us come from families that fled oppression and poverty in search of opportunity. It wasn’t American liberty or Asian work ethic that provided; it was the suffering and triumph of the people who cared about you. When you have that on your side, not feeling accepted by Asians or Americans starts to matter a whole lot less. 

Noah Do is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Noah’s Arc runs periodically this summer.