One could not have asked for more perfect, southern-California weather. Asian-American organizers were expecting a big turnout for their rally at the Los Angeles campus of California State University, a cluster of glass-and-concrete towers flanked by parking lots that lies only minutes from the suburbs of Alhambra and Monterey Park, where the bulk of the population is now Chinese-American. In the months since the arrest of Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist suspected of espionage, ethnic activists had seized on his case as a turning point in the political awakening of Asian America. According to them, the middle-class professionals in enclaves like Alhambra and Monterey Park were precisely the people who were most concerned about the case and feeling the most vulnerable: if a quiet, hard-working naturalized citizen like the Taiwan-born Lee could be scapegoated, then no Asian-Americans, no matter how successful, were safe.
In the event, perhaps 30 participants turned out for the Cal State rally. Most were plainly students, many of them black or Latino. No more than three or four Chinese-American adults showed up from Alhambra and Monterey Park, and few of the Asian-American students who wandered by so much as paused to listen to the angry speeches and rap monologues written for the occasion. When asked, several young people drinking coffee on the terrace of the nearby student center said they had never heard of Wen Ho Lee.
The disparity between what the organizers had expected and what actually happened could hardly have been more vivid, and the questions this raised hung wordlessly in the brilliant sunshine.
The 35 years since passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act have transformed the Asian-American community beyond recognition. Its numbers have multiplied by a factor of ten, raising the total to roughly 4 percent of U.S. residents, and, on almost every indicator, the newcomers differ significantly from Asian immigrants of an earlier era. Largely though not entirely middle-class, many come prepared with ample skills and education to succeed economically in the new world, and most have rapidly done so.
More than half of this population lives on the west coast, and its presence there is transforming both cities and suburbs. Large tracts of Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, are now dominated by Asian residents; at the heart of the new economy, in Silicon Valley, they account for one-quarter of the engineers and fully a third of the entrepreneurs. But the east coast, too—large sections of Queens in New York City, northern and central New Jersey, the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington D. C., among other places—is now feeling the influx, as are a number of inland areas like Texas.
The new Asian-American community is hardly monolithic; indeed, its sheer variety confounds generalization of almost any kind. Where once the bulk of the population was ethnically Chinese and Japanese, today it hails from all over Asia. As of 1997, Chinese-Americans, still the largest group, accounted for less than a quarter of the total, while Filipinos were a close second, and Indians, Vietnamese, and Koreans all outnumbered Japanese-Americans. Others, relatively few in number but culturally distinct, are Laotian, Cambodian, Thai, and Hmong.
Still other differences within the Asian community are socioeconomic and political in nature. When the group is taken together, its median household income exceeds that of whites. (Among married couples, the Asian figure tops $49,000, while the white number comes in under $45,000). The fraction that has completed college, 41 percent in 1994, is nearly double that of the general population. But the more successful nationalities differ markedly from those at or near the bottom: among Indians, nearly 60 percent have finished college, as against only 5 percent of the Hmong, and the two groups’ professional attainment, income, and rate of acculturation vary accordingly. On top of this, there is significant variation even within national groups. The earliest wave of Vietnamese immigrants, for example, the middle-class professionals who came at the end of the war, still score differently on all socioeconomic indices than the “boat people” who arrived in later decades.
Among the nationalities, Koreans are by far the most entrepreneurial; in Los Angeles, more than one-third of them are self-employed. But the Chinese tend to start bigger and more sophisticated businesses: import-export concerns and technical manufacturing rather than neighborhood groceries. Indian-American doctors are spreading through the 50 states, and many Filipinos, too, gravitate to health care: 16 percent of the nurses and 18 percent of the lab technicians in the Los Angeles area are Filipino. Southeast Asians generally vote Republican; Japanese lean heavily Democratic. And so forth.
Yet despite their diversity, Asian-Americans are often perceived as a single group, not only by other Americans but in their own minds as well; and as the distance grows between them and their countries of origin, the distinctions may fade even further. Today, what unites them is their newness to this country. An astonishing 60 to 70 percent are foreign-born, and as many as 30 percent, even among the most successful groups, report that they speak English poorly. Most came to the United States as young adults, and only now are raising their own children to adulthood.
It is the members of this burgeoning second generation who, far more than their parents, will set the pattern for the Asian-American experience. As with every immigrant group before them, they are facing the challenge of somehow fitting in—of juggling their heritage and their identity with participation in the mainstream. The big difference is that they are doing this in an atmosphere of unprecedented affluence and in a society besieged by the ideology of “diversity.” For the first time in history, it would appear, a large immigrant group can actually decide if and how it is going to assimilate. The choices these particular newcomers make, and the way they make those choices, will thus prove of the utmost significance both for them and for the rest of us.
There are two self-imposed obstacles in the path to assimilation, the first of them ideological and political. In the eyes of Asian-American activists like those who organized the Cal State rally, both they and their countrymen are quintessentially “people of color.” Indeed, the very term “Asian-American” traces back to the 1960’s, when it was coined, in the spirit of “Black Power” and “Chicano studies,” as a kind of battle cry.
From the beginning, Asian-American partisans have focused on the history of their people’s persecution in the United States. It is a long, bitter saga that starts with the harassment of the first Chinese who came to join the Gold Rush and build the transcontinental railroad, takes in persistent hatred by American workers and official persecution on a par with almost anything in the Jim Crow era, and climaxes with the World War II-era internment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese suspected of dual loyalty. But today’s activists do not stop with the past. Like other ethnic advocates, they are convinced that their constituents still face a wall of prejudice and that the only appropriate response is an angry, oppositional, “minority” attitude.
In recent decades, ethnocentric professional associations, legal defense funds, ad-hoc protest committees, and community groups have emerged in every city and state with a significant Asian presence. In universities, Asian-American studies departments have mushroomed, doubling in number in the last ten years alone, often in response to 60’s-style student demonstrations. A wide range of publications—from scholarly journals to glossy youth-oriented monthlies—make the case in different voices. And a bumper crop of Asian-interest web sites is daily adding new outlets, some in English and some, as their purveyors say, “in-language.”
A recent issue of A. magazine lays out the familiar catechism. In between features on Asian-American fashion designers, the hottest Mandopop (as in Mandarin) CD’s, and a page of Chinese horoscopes, a headline screams “Alien Americans.” Under it, four young writers dolefully explore what it is like to be a “permanent foreigner,” ruminating on everything from the threat posed by white supremacists to the experience of being complimented on one’s English and then asked condescendingly, “Where do you come from?” The subtext is plain enough: Asian-American equals minority equals victim, persecuted by an inherently and irreparably racist America.
Acting assistant U.S. attorney general Bill Lann Lee echoed these views not long ago in a speech on the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, in which he asserted that he never would have gotten where he is without racial preferences. Helen Zia, a journalist and self-described “political activist,” goes further still in her recent, widely reviewed book, Asian-American Dreams. Chronicling some nine or ten episodes of persecution—the 1982 murder of Detroit auto worker Vincent Chin, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, boycotts against Korean groceries, etc.—Zia not only urges her readers to experiment with more “dramatic” protest tactics but welcomes “the emergence of Asian-American leaders who could stir up passions in the manner of the Rev. Al Sharpton.”
For these activists and others like them, the Wen Ho Lee case has proved a bonanza, as has the 1996 campaign-finance scandal over donations to the Democratic party: proof positive of the bigotry that stalks Asian-Americans. As it happens, both situations are shadowed with ambiguity. The campaign-finance scandal has exposed legal wrongdoing, but also cast suspicion on scores of innocent Asian donors; in the Wen Ho Lee case, with most of the information highly classified, there can be no serious assessment yet of guilt or innocence. But the outpouring of hurt and anger surrounding the two cases has been astonishing.
Together, they have prompted hundreds of rallies, demonstrations, panel discussions, and campus teach-ins. Warning young Asians that they will never be welcome in the United States, militants make a direct connection between the Lee case and the Japanese internment in World War II—and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Communist “Red scares” of the 50’s. “The cases have changed,” one of Lee’s lawyers, Brian Sun, recently told a group of students at Yale Law School, “but the discrimination and the hostility have not changed, and your generation better be aware of it because you are going to run smack into it, whether you like it or not.”
To the degree the ethnic advocates are making inroads, it is indeed on college campuses like Yale. Virtually all Asian-Americans, no matter how poor, excel in school, and for several decades they have been flocking to the nation’s top colleges. At Harvard and Yale, they now account for 15 to 20 percent of the undergraduate student body; at the elite campuses of the University of California system, they outnumber all other groups, including whites.
Most of those who make it to an Ivy League college are middle-class and second-generation (or born abroad and raised in the United States) and, as often as not, they have grown up in integrated suburbs. These young people do not generally come to college wearing their ethnicity on their sleeves, but, like so many students today, they almost invariably discover it in the balkanized environment that is a modern university campus.
At Yale, the drama plays itself out in a familiar ritual. In addition to the routine counseling available to underclassmen, minority freshmen are assigned an “ethnic counselor”: an upperclassman whose job it is to help them negotiate whatever alienation or prejudice they encounter. Blacks and Latinos tend to gravitate to these advisers. Many Asian-Americans resist them—but only at first. By graduation time, scarcely an Asian student at Yale has been able to withstand the lure of ethnic involvement.
Many have participated in one of the dozens of ethnic associations open to Asian-Americans, and some make them a focus of their campus lives, giving as much as ten to fifteen hours a week on top of a grueling academic schedule. Others express their ethnicity in a scholarly way, majoring or minoring in “ethnic studies” or writing a thesis on some aspect of their heritage. Still others take courses in the language they did not learn from their parents. And, by they time they are seniors, many who initially avoided their ethnic counselors are eager to serve in that capacity.
Why students should gravitate in this direction is not hard to understand. In their integrated suburbs, many knew no other Asians, and had no one to turn to when they felt mocked or rejected by schoolmates. (Quite a few, even in high school, looked for this reason to black and Latino friends.) Then, when they arrive at Yale, the Asian connection solves all sorts of problems facing bewildered freshmen. Apparently less comfortable around whites, who do not seem as serious or studious (and who can also strike Asians as shockingly disrespectful of their parents), many end up eating exclusively at “Asian tables” in the dining halls and forming friendships mostly with other Asian-Americans. A walk around the campus reveals some interracial dating and friendship, but also a great deal of ethnic clustering. A number of Asian Yalies also report stiff peer pressure to organize their lives around their ethnicity, and those who do often find that the ethnic focus has a sharp political edge.
The politics are grievance politics of the kind favored by embittered activists. Students who never particularly noticed race in high school learn at college to count the number of Asians in any room or gathering. For some, discovering their minority status breeds a desire for minority privileges: they want to be part of the quota that gets into medical school or gets a management-consulting job with McKinsey & Company. Still others say they envy black pride and black militancy. And the most confrontational make no pretense: they are actively looking for grievances to galvanize their community. The Yale environment rewards this kind of chauvinism; ethnic activists are honored with all the status the school can confer, including membership in its prestigious and once exclusively WASP senior societies.
If the campuses exert one kind of anti-assimilationist pressure, another kind, more purely social, knits together the middle-class Asian-American enclaves that dot California and several eastern states. Unlike in the past, when immigrants huddled first in urban ghettos but then moved out to relatively integrated suburbs, today’s suburban Asian-Americans have created upscale Chinatowns and Indian villages complete with shopping malls, expensive restaurant rows, ethnic movie theaters, community banks, native-language Rotary Clubs, and more.
Not all of these enclaves are majority-Asian. Monterey Park outside Los Angeles is predominantly Chinese, but the ethnic concentration in many nearby towns—Alhambra, Rosemead, Hacienda Heights—runs to more like 30 or 40 percent; and few of the Asians dispersed through Silicon Valley live in recognizably Asian neighborhoods. Still, it is possible to reside in, say, Hacienda Heights and speak mostly Chinese, both at home and at work, do all your shopping in stores that specialize in Asian products, socialize exclusively with people who look like you, get all your news from “in-language” ethnic media, and even manage your six-figure professional income without ever speaking a word of English (by patronizing ATM’s with Mandarin screens or the local Charles Schwab branch where business is done largely in Chinese).
These enclaves are entirely voluntary. Asians have been able to live wherever they want in most parts of America for at least 45 years now, and many residents claim they have chosen their ethnic bubbles largely for convenience’s sake—often, particularly for the Chinese, to be near restaurants and supermarkets that carry ethnic products. But once the clustering begins, it can take on a momentum of its own, creating a kind of insularity that is often difficult to crack.
The worst of the barriers are linguistic. In the Bay Area, there are three TV channels and numerous radio stations in both Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as some half-dozen Chinese-language newspapers. These are no old-fashioned ghetto tabloids: both print and broadcast outlets review the latest-American movies, albeit in Chinese, and the newspapers feature ads for suburban dream houses.
The problem is that these media do not always cover the same news as the mainstream media. A big topic in the Bay Area Chinese press in recent years has been local disputes between Asians and environmentalists over killing live animals for meat. Yet the California ballot initiatives to end affirmative action and bilingual education—presumably matters of real moment to these communities—have received scant attention. According to local leaders, up to 60 percent of the Chinese in the region get their news solely or primarily from ethnic outlets. And even in the more porous enclaves, it can be difficult to tell what exactly is American about residents’ lives.
How much will the campus experience, or life in the enclaves, slow Asian-American assimilation? The oppositional multiculturalism that young Asians pick up at college plainly leaves some mark. A comparison of twenty-something Asian-Americans with their parents reveals considerably greater ambivalence in the younger generation about the very word “assimilation.” “I don’t like the sound of it,” said one recent college graduate I spoke to, a Chinese-American living in Los Angeles. “If what it means is joining a mainstream that’s defined as white, then I’m not interested, and I don’t know many people like me who are.” Others who have been through the college ethnic experience seem to face the world with an extra measure of pessimism, convinced that they are going to encounter anti-Asian prejudice even if they have never before experienced it.
But the important question is whether and how long such emotions will last. And strikingly, in contrast to many of their black and Latino peers, even the most ethnically aware Asians at Yale seem to see that their separateness has limits. “Of course it’s a loaded term,” one Chinese-American woman noted honestly. “But we’re all ‘assimilated.’ If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be at Yale.”
Whatever their influence on college campuses, embittered Asian activists appear to have little following among the broader rank and file, as the sparse attendance at the Cal State rally vividly attests; and among Asian-Americans over twenty-five, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about assimilation. “I don’t see why people would not want to assimilate,” said Dan Yuen, a Chinese-American lawyer in Silicon Valley. “Assimilation is not a dirty word,” stressed Samson Wong, thirty-eight, a journalist in San Francisco. Lester Lee, the CEO of a computer-products manufacturer and a well-connected player in California state politics, drew an explicit distinction between “civil-rights-movement types”—whether black or Latino or Asian—and ethnic Asians like himself who “want to be Americans. We see that the opportunity is right here and that all we have to do is participate. We want to participate. We want to contribute.” “I make every effort to assimilate,” agreed Charlie Woo, who runs a large wholesale toy firm and is a major civic figure in Los Angeles. “I make every effort to be American first.”
As for the ethnic enclaves, whether or not they will end up retarding assimilation is something that may not be known for a generation. There is no question that the cultural resources they offer permit a kind of existence that would be difficult to sustain in a more neutral environment. But even the most insular of these towns are less segregated than they appear.
Many Asian enclave-dwellers, particularly in the Bay Area and in Silicon Valley, make a major effort to participate in mainstream civic life, serving far out of proportion to their numbers on school boards and in PTA’s and philanthropic organizations. While adults may socialize mainly with similar-looking adults, their children tend to play and go to school with a much more diverse circle of friends. And young people who have grown up in these suburbs scoff at the idea that they might get stuck there. “Our parents knew the score,” said one young man, a computer programmer. “They knew we were learning English.”
Ultimately, according to many enclave residents, it is the environment outside the bubble, not within it, that will make all the difference. Mostly what they seem to want from that environment is simple tolerance. Some, particularly those who discovered diversity at college, say they feel it would be easier to integrate into a mainstream that recognized their heritage. “I don’t like the word ‘assimilate,’ ” said one young man, a Korean-American, taking a standard line, “though I guess I can do it if it’s a two-way street.” Others, both in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, advanced a more subtle argument: a defense of what might be called diversity with a small “d.” “California is so cosmopolitan, you don’t have to think about ethnicity here,” said Sid Agrawal, an Indian-American engineer-turned-entrepreneur. “It just doesn’t matter—to anyone.”
Indeed, if Agrawal and others like him are any guide, Asian-Americans may be pointing toward a model of ethnic absorption that is, if not exactly new, then largely forgotten in America today. As a group, they seem as keen as any other minority to hold on to their heritage and whatever it is that makes them ethnic. But most, both young and old, are determined to balance the two sides of their existence—the Asian and the American. What makes them different from other contemporary minorities is that most see no inherent conflict in doing so.
Unlike many blacks, for example, who, in the famous words of W.E.B. Du Bois, are forever wrestling with their “two-ness”—“the Negro” and “the American,” “two warring ideals in one dark body”—most Asian-Americans seem to feel that they can have it both ways. “I’m determined to hold on to my Chinese heritage and my Chinese culture,” said one young man, a recent graduate of Stanford. “But there’s absolutely nothing about America that I reject because of my ethnicity.” Toy-importer Charlie Woo agreed: “They’re two parallel tracks, and there’s no reason to choose between them.” Sid Agrawal, the engineer, lives in a neighborhood that is 30-percent Indian and that boasts, among other amenities, a multiplex cinema specializing in Hindi movies. But he is absolutely confident that his children will rise as high in American life as the children of any other professionals, and he sees no reason why his choice of neighborhood or friends should in any way limit his absorption in the United States.
As if updating the 19th-century Russian Jewish poet J.L. Gordon, whose ideal was to be “a Jew at home and a man in the street,” many Asian-Americans are convinced it is possible to lead a two-track life, at once ethnic and assimilated. And so far, statistical evidence supports their confidence. Although Asian-Americans, like blacks and Latinos, are what some call a “visible minority,” their path is very different—a much more direct and rapid march toward mainstream life.
Asian naturalization rates are about twice the Latino figures, and the proportion who become citizens is significantly larger than the share of other foreign-born residents. Asian-Americans are more likely to marry outside their ethnic group. (By the third generation, according to the 1990 census, 42 percent of Asian-American women have married non-Asians.) On home ownership, another classic measure of assimilation, Asians stand out: the U.S.-born are more likely to own a home than any other group in the country, including U.S-born whites. Whether they own or rent, Asians (even those in the enclaves) live in less segregated neighborhoods than blacks do. As for language acquisition, many in the immigrant generation struggle with English, but virtually all their children learn it fluently; and by the third generation, some 85 percent of Asian-Americans speak only English.
Other measures of assimilation are more anecdotal. According to Eliot Kang, an advertising executive who specializes in marketing to Asian-Americans, U.S.-born Asians making more than $100,000 a year watch the same TV and read the same magazines as white people—in contrast to blacks, whose list of favorite TV shows hardly overlaps with that of white viewers. More striking still, according to the sociologist Sharon Lee, more than 50 percent of children born to couples of one Asian and one Caucasian parent identify themselves as white, not Asian. (Again in stark contrast, virtually no children of mixed black-and-white marriages identify as white.) A U.S. government study conducted in the mid-90’s found that 30 percent of those who normally check an Asian nationality on their census forms would check “multiracial” instead if that were an option, reducing the number of self-declared Asian-Americans from 4 percent of the population to 2.7 percent.
Just what will remain Asian about Asian-Americans in the face of rapid change like this? Of the aspects of their heritage that seems to mean most to them—food, language, and values—values, particularly family values, and their respect for tradition and authority will likely prove most durable. But even if most Asian-Americans find a way to be both ethnic at home and citizens in the street, the question remains what kind of citizens they will be—specifically, what kind of political citizens.
Among Asians themselves, it is a common stereotype that they are not particularly political—that they shun confrontation in favor of cultivating connections with those in power. True or not, political participation, as measured by conventional yardsticks like voter-registration rates, has traditionally lagged behind that of the general public. In California, for example, Asian-Americans are 10 percent of the population, but only 4 percent of voters.
Part of the reason for this may be the fact that so many in the Asian community are foreign-born, a circumstance that will eventually change. Unlike other minorities, Asians do not tend to live in isolated ethnic neighborhoods (even the California enclaves tend to be relatively integrated), and this geographic dispersal also limits—and will continue to limit—their political clout. Since the 1980’s, Asian-Americans have begun to make up for their voting record with political fund-raising, contributing in the last two presidential campaign cycles far out of proportion to their percentage of the electorate. In the wake of the campaign-finance scandal, that, too, may change, though fund-raisers say that a new generation of givers, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, may be taking up the slack.
Still other questions concern just which way they tend politically—and whether in fact they all tend together. Conventional wisdom holds that when they begin to vote in larger numbers, Asian-Americans will exercise a moderating influence, at once fiscally conservative and driven by traditional social values. Yet, in reality, each of the different nationalities has a different political profile. Like the Japanese, Filipinos (the second largest group) vote heavily Democratic. Chinese-Americans are said to lean Republican, and so far, those who come from Communist countries have likewise tilted toward the GOP, though, being the poorest, they may yet prove susceptible to Democratic blandishments.
When it comes to the litmus-test issue of affirmative action, Asians are skeptical but divided: the percentage that voted for the 1996 California initiative banning racial preferences far exceeded the black and Latino percentages, but, perhaps in deference to the diversity agenda, the total number still fell short of a majority. Just how Asian-Americans will end up exercising their political muscle is also unknown. Many in San Francisco believe that the city will soon emerge as an Asian equivalent of “Little Havana” in Miami, with a block of voters, probably to the right of San Francisco norms, rising up to turn the Bay Area into the capital of Asian America. But others scoff at this notion and argue that Asians are more likely to follow the “Jewish model,” maintaining their influence largely by means of financial contributions as they work behind the scenes through groups of well-connected community leaders like the “Committee of 100.”
None of this will necessarily interfere with relatively fast and easy Asian assimilation, except that the best way to mobilize voters is through grievances, and ethnic grievances tend to breed alienation. The massive registration drives of the mid-1990’s—some 75,000 new Asian-American voters joined the rolls nationwide—were fueled by perceived threats to immigration and immigrants’ social benefits, whether from then-California governor Pete Wilson or the national Republican party. And recent episodes like the Wen Ho Lee case have given activists ample ammunition for the future. “Developments like this wake you up,” said Henry Tang, an investment banker and president of the Committee of 100. “Let’s face it,” agreed Matt Fong, a Republican from California who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1998, “politics are about galvanizing people, and the issues that galvanize people are setbacks.”
Even more than the Wen Ho Lee case or the fund-raising scandal, the problem the activists dwell on most is the “glass ceiling”—the one issue that could indeed drive Asian-Americans leftward. According to a poll of high-tech professionals in Silicon Valley, 80 percent feel that their paths are limited by their ethnicity: in the words of one, “You can be the top technician, but you’ll still never get to be president or even vice president.” Henry Tang reeled off a barrage of statistics: of the 7,000 seats on the boards of the Fortune 500 companies, fewer than 50—less than 1 percent—are held by Asian-Americans. No top New York City hospitals have Asians on their boards (despite the disproportionate number of Asian doctors who staff them), nor do many major universities (despite the influx of Asian students). According to the 80/20 Initiative, a nationwide campaign to encourage Asian-Americans to vote as a block, in 1998 Asians accounted for only two of 250 cabinet and subcabinet positions in the federal government. Although younger business people assert that things are changing, even they notice that of the Fortune 500, only one company not founded by an Asian has an Asian-American CEO.
And yet, even so, Asian-American politics continue to be remarkably free of the anger and alienation that marks much other minority organizing. Activists in San Francisco know they will have no influence except through coalition politics. And while older community leaders are still agitating for more Asian faces in high places, the younger generation is beginning to move beyond that kind of ethnic politics. According to David Lee, the energetic young director of the Chinese-American Voter Education Committee, “We need politicians who serve our interests, not politicians who look like us.”
Community spokesmen of all ages contrast their political style with that of other minorities. “We’re not interested in confrontation,” said the toy-importer Charlie Woo. “We’re not going to demand anything.” “Instead of fighting for a slice of the pie, why don’t you work on growing the pie bigger?” echoed Bay Area community leader Lester Lee. “That’s what we’re trying to do.” Although the theme of the 80/20 Initiative’s largest fund-raiser to date was the glass ceiling, the evening’s showy political theater was all about patriotism: the dinner began and ended with two Asian-Americans dressed as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, reciting a long list of cherished American texts and urging the audience to participate even more actively than they already do in the American civic life around them.
From the mid-19th century through World War II, when Asian immigrants faced relentless prejudice and persecution, one of the ugliest canards about them was that they were “unassimilable”—just too foreign and too different ever to fit in. Today, most Asian-American activists repudiate the very idea of fitting in, and many in the mainstream, intoxicated by the idea of diversity, echo and reinforce their poisonous skepticism. Along with ethnic spokesmen, American schools and government officials and corporate marketing departments encourage newcomers to think that assimilation implies an unacceptable subordination and a surrendering of one’s true, ethnic identity—a message that only makes it harder for immigrants to make their way into the mainstream.
Still, both the statistical evidence and my conversations with Asian-Americans suggest that assimilation, albeit a particular kind of assimilation, is taking place. Not even the oldest and most acculturated Asian immigrants aspire to lose themselves or their heritage in a homogenized America. But neither do most, not even the youngest and most radical, seem to share the oppositional attitudes and race-obsessed politics of today’s civil-rights establishment. In cities across the country, Asians are charting another course, defining a vision of integration that allows for ethnic differences—sharp, flavorful, persistent differences—at home, but does not make too much of them in public life. It is an ideal that asks for tolerance, but not a public preoccupation with ethnicity. It comes with pride, but not a self-fulfilling prophecy of alienation, and it leaves it to individuals to balance their ethnicity with their citizenship.
Appealing as this may sound, it is not an easy prescription, especially for the young. Both on college campuses and in multiethnic cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, many in the transitional generation are very much at sea—caught between their old-world values and their evolving place in American society. Many feel torn between their revered parents and their peers. Others hop between peer groups, or neighborhoods, or jobs—one distinctly Asian, one relatively American. Still others change their attitude toward absorption as often as they change outfits. “Sometimes I feel like a pinball,” complained one, a young Chinese American.
For these newcomers, as for generations of immigrants before them, assimilation is a wrenching process under any circumstances. In the end, it can only work in one kind of milieu—a culture in which ethnicity is honored in its place, yet not allowed to upstage the nation’s common enterprise. Only the mainstream—the nation’s teachers, politicians, corporate leaders and marketers—can create, or restore, such an environment. But if the culture were to permit it, these latest newcomers might yet provide a model for other groups, transforming the minority dynamic in the United States and offering a new lesson in how the melting pot might still work.