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Asian-American Ideas (Cultural Migration)


Asian migration to the United States is a trans-Pacific flow of people, social networks, and cultural values. Asian immigrants arrived in America with their own lifestyles, labor and vocational skills, business expertise and capital, family rituals and traditions, religious and philosophical beliefs. As Asians have adapted to American society, some of their home cultures have remained, others have disappeared, and still others have changed. Migration is often a process of negotiation over cultures during which Asian immigrants and their descendants construct new identities, community structure, and cultural sensibilities. Race and ethnicity play important roles in such processes. The formation of Asian-American culture is not a simple blending of Western and Asian cultures. (This entry will not cover immigrants from South Asia.)

The Migration of Values: Religion and Education

Asian experience in America illustrates how cultural values are transplanted, transformed, and developed. In Asia, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism play important roles in people's spiritual life. Confucianism is a philosophical doctrine that guides Asians in human relationships, such as the relationship between the rulers and the ruled or between parents and children. Although Buddhism is a religion, Buddhist teaching is more psychological than theological. When monks pray for deceased family members at a funeral, they help people relieve pain. Daoism advises people to live a simple life and to pursue tranquility and harmony with nature. Those belief systems accompanied Asian immigrants to America. The respect for elders and filial piety advocated by Confucianism have influenced family relationships in both early and contemporary Chinese-American families. Family and district associations of early Chinese communities made sure that a joss house for ancestry worship was available for immigrants and sometimes built temples for prayers. Hsi Lai Temple, completed in 1988 in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles County, is the largest Buddhist temple in North America. A high percentage of early Japanese immigrants were Buddhists as well, since the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land) branches of Amida Buddhism were prevalent in the southwestern part of Japan where immigrants came from. Once rooted in American society, Asian cultural institutions have adapted themselves to local settings. In the early twentieth century, Japanese Buddhist priests often prayed in both Japanese and English, referred to their temples as "churches," installed pews in the temples, and even used hymnals in prayer activities.

Influenced by Confucianism in China, education is the most important social mobility path in Asia. Asian immigrants have brought their belief in the value of education to the United States. Children are expected to compete vigorously at school and earn good grades, and parents often feel obliged to see children through college. Ethnic-language schools have existed in Asian communities since the nineteenth century. Asian children often go to ethnic-language school after attending regular American public schools, though many of them dislike the arrangement. However, language class is only part of the curriculum, as ethnic-language schools often provide Asian cultural classes as well as classes supplementary to public school education. Ethnic-language schools in the early Japanese community offered English-language classes to assist the second generation to do well at American public schools. Contemporary Chinese-language schools often provide SAT or other college entrance preparation classes. Education is an important agenda in the Asian-American family. The value of education has been transmitted to the second generation as Asian parents send their children to attend ethnic-language schools.

Media and Festivals

Other cultural components of Asian-American communities include ethnic-language newspapers, journals, and Web sites, as well as radio and TV stations. Ethnic mass media are instrumental in allowing immigrants to receive news about both America and their home country and to obtain information on job and business opportunities. It also gives them a sense of community. Ethnic festival celebrations are the most visible community events to provide Asian-Americans with a collective cultural identity. Nisei Week in Los Angeles is the largest ethnic festival for Japanese-Americans. Created in the 1930s, the Nisei Week festival aimed to rejuvenate Little Tokyo's economy and reach out to mainstream American society. More importantly, the issei (immigrant) generation was concerned about rapid assimilation of the nisei (second) generation and wanted to use this occasion to promote ethnic pride among the American-born Japanese. Nisei were often advised that buying in Little Tokyo demonstrated their loyalty to Japanese culture. During Nisei Week, stores were colorfully decorated, fashion and talent shows were performed, and a grand parade was organized. The Nisei Week queen often rode together with local government officials in the parade. Under the festival atmosphere, however, lay conflicts between generations, racial tensions, and the struggle of Asian small-business owners.

Lunar New Year is the most important festival for Chinese-Americans. In China, it is essentially a family celebration. Family members clean the house, pay off debts, cook a rich family dinner, give red envelopes containing money to children, and use firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. In America, however, it becomes a public event. Chinese community organizations sponsor the Lunar New Year banquet, organize a dragon or lion dance parade, and decorate the community with red lanterns and bright banners. Before the Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed in 1943, many Chinese immigrants were separated from their wives and children in China. Clan association banquets replaced the family feast in order to give the single males a sense of family life. Merchants allowed their employees a couple of days off from work to express ethnic solidarity. The Lunar New Year festival was also an occasion to reach out to mainstream America. While most stores were closed in China during the holidays, decorated Chinatown welcomed visitors as merchants commercialized it to attract tourists. Modeled after the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year's Day in Los Angeles, the Golden Dragon Parade tradition originated in the San Francisco Chinese community in the 1950s. Local celebrities, government officials, famous Chinese professionals and artists, and Miss Chinatown U.S.A. all rode on the floats during the parade. As the Chinese take this occasion to show their ethnic pride, the Lunar New Year gains new meanings in America.

Influences on Mainstream Society

Asian-American culture has influenced American society at large. Grocery chains such as 99 Ranch Market attract both Asian and non-Asian clients. Many Americans consult acupuncture specialists or feng shui masters. Asian food is probably the most visible transplanted culture in America. Wherever they went, immigrants brought their cookery with them. A business directory in 1856 listed five restaurants and thirty-eight grocery stores among eighty-eight Chinese businesses in San Francisco. Obviously Chinese immigrants cooked their own meals and visited Chinese restaurants during their leisure time. However, as racial discrimination gradually forced the Chinese out of other occupations and channeled them into menial service jobs such as the restaurant or laundry business, many Chinese picked up cooking skills and worked as professional cooks. With numerous Chinese restaurants and laundry shops in metropolitan areas during the exclusion years, cooking and laundry became an ethnic label for Chinese-Americans. To adapt Chinese cuisine to American society, Chinese immigrants created "sweet and sour pork" or "chop suey" as "authentic" Chinese dishes in America and invented the "fortune cookie" as an additional incentive to American customers. Restaurants in China had no such thing as a "fortune cookie." Original "chop suey" consisted of intestines and giblets, as ordinary Chinese did not want to waste any part of butchered livestock. Hundreds of "chop suey houses" appeared in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and Chicago in the 1900s after Li Hongzhang, a senior Chinese official, visited the United States in 1896. Chinese restaurant operators capitalized on the visit and marketed "chop suey" as Li's favorite dish. Being an authentic Chinese food in America, chop suey is defined in Webster's dictionary as "a dish prepared chiefly from bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, onions, mushrooms, and meat or fish and served with rice and soy sauce." While the Chinese restaurant has become popular in America society, cooking is a false trademark of Chinese ethnicity.

Herbal medicine, on the other hand, is a true ethnic skill of the Chinese. Like Chinese restaurants, herbal stores began to appear as soon as the Chinese arrived in America. With the growth of Chinese immigrants, more and more herbal doctors arrived to serve the needs of the community. Soon the herbalists began to serve non-Chinese patients as well. By the 1930s, many Chinese herbal doctors had more Caucasian patients than Chinese. Unlike Chinese cuisine, herbal medicine could not change its ingredients, flavor, or dispensation to suit the taste of mainstream Americans. As a transplanted culture, it had to remain distinctively Chinese for its effectiveness. Herbal medicinal formulations were made from hundreds of indigenous herbs gathered in the mountains and valleys of China. The supply of medicine relied on the constant importation of herbs from China. In their efforts to bypass unfair restrictions and cross ethnic boundaries to serve a larger community, Chinese herbalists developed and expanded an ethnic career and business in a Western society where most of their patients were not familiar with Chinese culture and where the medical profession was becoming increasingly standardized and regulated. Acceptance of and respect for Chinese herbal medicine demonstrate how mainstream American patients adapted themselves to an Asian medical therapy. The history of Chinese herbal medicine is a case of reverse assimilation and an expression of ethnic resilience in cultural migration.

See also Confucianism ; Identity, Multiple: Asian-Americans ; Race and Racism: Reception of Asians to the United States ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .


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Haiming Liu

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