When someone moves to a new place, most people immediately think about losing touch with friends but in Jason Kerr’s case, he feared losing himself. Sometimes a move can be something as little as relocating to the next town or as big as flying halfway around the world. Imagine packing up your whole life in five boxes and having it shipped away to your “new home.” As a young boy of eleven, Jason Kerr feared that he would lose his identity because he left all he knew to venture to a new place. He was born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States, and raised in both cultures. He spoke Mandarin Chinese at home, English in school, and on the streets of Hong Kong, he slowly learned Cantonese. Arriving in the United States, he had no intention of trying to become American or less Chinese, but because of daily experiences and an exposure to stereotypes, he developed an identity. For Jason Kerr, his new racial identity would be a hybrid of two worlds, for he stood on a threshold with one foot in Chinese culture and the other in American beliefs; thus, rather than having the two identities contend each other, he had them complete each other.
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Language is a component by which many judge others as belonging or simply living on the margin. English is fundamental to navigate through American society and is also a benchmark for proving intelligence. Timothy P. Fong, Chair and Professor of Ethnic Studies at Sacramento State and author of The Contemporary Asian American Experience, states that “language discrimination is becoming a growing trend” (Fong 122). Fong is referring to accent discrimination and language rights concerning Asian Americans’ lack of English language proficiency. However, Jason has instances in which speaking Chinese had greater power than speaking English. Upon entering a Chinese restaurant, he spoke English to the waitress who informed him that he would have to wait about fifteen minutes for a table. Half an hour later, Jason asks why it is taking so long in Chinese and within five minutes, he was seated at a table. This proves that today Asian Americans are also guilty of discriminating and Chinese restaurant owners have decided that people of their own race have priority over whites. There is a language barrier and by speaking Chinese, Jason was able to validate that he belonged. Thus, Asian Americans have to defend themselves against the dominant white race but at times, they also have to defend themselves against “the subdominant discourse” imposed by other Asian Americans (Fong 87).
Another instance that Jason recalls has more to do with respect than power. Jason was studying at the UCLA library when a group of Chinese students walked in and were speaking loudly in the study lounge. He politely tells them to lower their voices and they ignore him. Sometime later, Jason walks up to them and says in Chinese that they are being inconsiderate to everyone at the library. At this point, they take him seriously. It could have been partly because he walked up to them and spoke face to face but it is more likely that respect was gained based on language. Since moving to America, Jason has not encountered instances of English language discrimination but this could be due to the fact that he was already learning English in Hong Kong. In a few years he will be entering the work force and as Fong notes discrimination in employment are based on ” English language proficiency, accent and the desire to speak another language at work” (Fong 126). Those forms of discrimination are illegal but nothing can prevent a potential employer from judging an Asian American, based on their appearance, as someone with “a potential language problem” (Fong 126). Jason’s experiences taught him that every language has its own social meaning and value for it creates a relationship between the speaker and the listener. Multilingualism can be viewed as an asset for it allows one to travel between cultures.
Chinese philosophy and tradition value hard work and other ethics that reflect the American dream of rags to riches; however, white Americans have twisted these normally positive characteristics into the negative term “yellow peril.” Many Chinese immigrated because they hoped to find a better possibility of wealth to improve living conditions for their family. Jason, however, came to the United States because of the educational opportunities. According to Lynn P. Dunn, in Asian Americans: A Study Guide and Sourcebook, which recounts the difficulties that minorities faced due to white racism, Asian Americans set very high standards for themselves and these standards often led to conflict. Asian Americans’ competitiveness became viewed as a threat for the demand of Asian Americans was at the expense of the jobs for white laborers (Dunn 22). In Jason’s experience, this competition plays out not in labor, but in education. A stereotype he came in contact with is that Asians are overachievers. In his opinion, his high school teachers often called on him because he is Asian and an Advanced Placement student. Many of his non-AP teachers immediately assumed he was “more superior” than his classmates. Jason also had his own preconceived notions of Americans. Though he came for better educational opportunities, he did not view Americans highly because a common stereotype of Americans in Hong Kong is that they are “big, fat, and dumb.” Because of this stereotype and the truths Jason sees in it, he believes the academic competition here in America is less intense. His views were confirmed when he realized that American schools teach at a much slower pace and many teachers would point out how industrious Jason was. Even though the stereotype appears to be a positive perception of Asian Americans, it is as negative as Jason’s preconceived notion of Americans. It implies that Asian Americans are naturally intelligent when in reality the factors that contribute to Asian American success in school are Chinese culture’s belief in and respect for education, the hard work and effort Asian Americans put into achieving their academic goals and parental expectations and pressure. For education, Jason identifies more with his Chinese cultural heritage because like Chinese beliefs, he focuses on family and feels obligated to change his life and the lives of his family for the better.
Since Chinese immigrants often come to the United States for the purpose of obtaining the best education available, they continue on to higher education and strive to enter elite universities and colleges. The result was a “backlash in higher education” (Fong 94). Fong reports that many colleges across the nation placed quotas against Asian Americans and school officials have made comments about “the number and quality of Asian American students” (Fong 96). Although deliberate quotas cannot be placed due to their violation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Jason, when applying to UCLA, still feared being denied entrance. Upon reflection, he believes that by choosing to not mark a race on his application, he gave himself a greater chance of getting accepted. His last name, Kerr, is not the typical Asian last name such Chang or Lee. This may have also helped him since UCLA is predominantly Asian and schools will often accept people of other races to create more diversity on campus. He chose to not check a race not because the college application did not allow him to accurately convey what he views his identity to be. Due to the circumstances, he also simply wanted to get accepted and did not want race to be an underlying reason for a rejection. Asian Americans continue to be seen as perpetual foreigners. While their accomplishments receive acclaim, many times their accomplishments are also scorned and seen as a threat.
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There is a belief that immigrants have to make a choice. They can either maintain the culture of their childhood, family, and homeland or they must adopt the culture and principles of White America. Jason chose to create a middle ground, a double identity of ethnicity and nationality. He embraced some aspects of American life, while giving up some Chinese traditions. At the same time, he retained Chinese philosophy and culture while also adapting to American principles of democracy and freedom of speech. Having grown up in Hong Kong and having been (being) exposed to multiple languages, he judges people not by the language(s) they speak or their race but by the principles they live by. Because academics have always held an important part in his life, those who also work and study hard have his respect. I conclude that he accepts being a hyphenated American and that there is no need to prove how American or how Chinese he is. He now lives the America but he refuses to let go of his Chinese roots because the two cultures are two halves of a whole. He would not be complete if he became un-hyphenated. Having a hybrid identity should not be viewed as a weakness but rather as a strength and those who embrace their hybridity will live with the benefits of a conglomeration of two cultures.
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