Asian American Leisure Lifestyles

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Presenting a broad overview of the leisure lifestyles of Asian Americans can lead to deceptive stereotypes in our understanding of a population that is extremely heterogeneous. The term "Asian American" originated as an outcome of the post–civil rights movement of the 1960s. A consensus among U.S.-born Asian American civil rights activists to dismantle the then-commonly held stereotype of "Orientals," led to their initiation of the term "Asian American" as a political tool for recognition and empowerment (Kibria). The U.S. Census Bureau identifies "Asian Americans" as those individuals having ancestral origins in countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, such as China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan (Humes and McKinnon).

An effort to collectively understand the leisure lifestyles of people from a wide array of nationalities and cultural backgrounds, consolidated under an umbrella denomination or group, such as Asian American (as determined by the U.S. Bureau of Census) would not yield many meaningful results. The Asian American population in the early twentieth century was largely composed of individuals from Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. Asian Americans in the early 2000s were diverse in their originating nationalities and thus represented a mosaic of ancestral and cultural traits, languages, religions, and lengths of residence in the United States (Kibria). The identification of distinctive Asian American leisure patterns would require a full-scale analysis of the lifestyles of all U.S. cultural groups originating in Asia, the world's largest continent, which includes more than forty-five countries and various islands and archipelagos. Leisure behaviors and patterns of Asian Americans encompass all special activities and characteristics of a multitude of distinct subethnic groups, because each Asian group has its own unique set of distinctive culturally oriented leisure preferences and lifestyles. Hence, it is difficult if not impossible to generalize anything about Asian Americans. The following discussion highlights some of the demo-graphic, social, and economic characteristics of Asian Americans and corresponding implications for the leisure lifestyles of this population.

Immigration and Acculturation

An overarching factor that dynamically influences the construction of Asian American leisure lifestyles is the role of immigration. Although Asian Americans composed only 4 percent of the total U.S. population, they were the fastest increasing group with annual growth rates that could exceed 2 percent until 2030 (Day). Factors that contributed to that high rate of growth included increasing immigration and dramatic increases in the number of births. Most Asian Americans were recent immigrants (as of 2004), and that trend was expected to increase in the future. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one-fourth of the 32.5 million foreign-born U.S. residents were of Asian origin (Schmidley). Further, approximately 88 percent of the 12.5 million Asian Americans were foreign-born (Schmidley). During the process of establishing their roots in U.S. society, it was commonly assumed that new Asian immigrants would experience acculturation and begin to gradually replace traditional culturally oriented leisure lifestyles with American leisure practices. Since the majority of Asian Americans were recent immigrants, the diasporic communities of Asians residing in the United States were likely to resist cultural assimilation with the dominant society. Rather than gradually acculturating and adopting dominant leisure lifestyles, Asian Americans were likely to maintain their native qualities as a combined consequence of the continuing influx of new Asian immigrants and strong cultural and homeland ties of new immigrants.

One of the significant findings of Ping Yu and Doris Berryman's 1996 study was that recreation participation among Chinese individuals generally matched immigrant lifestyles. Since acculturation takes place at the individual level and changes take place at varying rates, new immigrants may continue to reinforce and retain native cultural leisure lifestyles in order to maintain high cultural loyalty and identity. Within the context of leisure, while some native cultural characteristics are rapidly replaced by host traits, others happen gradually. Further, improved global communication technologies that allow virtual networking with ethnic peer groups may facilitate ongoing strong linkages between the high proportions of Asian immigrants in the United States and their origin countries. Thus, continued homeland connections will allow foreign-born Asian Americans to maintain and strengthen their culturally oriented leisure lifestyles. For example, Kenneth Thompson notes that Asian immigrants from the Indian subcontinent use old and new technologies (and media outlets) such as cable and satellite TV, video, radio, telephone, and the Internet as means to stay connected with ethnic-group lifestyles. Such technologies are major components of the leisure lifestyles of this group and play a central role in maintaining pronounced resistance among South Asian immigrants (such as Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Bangladeshis), particularly those of middle-class status, toward cultural assimilation with the dominant U.S. society.

Urban Concentration and Socioeconomic Conditions

Asian Americans are predominantly urban, with almost 96 percent living in metropolitan areas (Humes and McKinnon). Asian Americans are more likely to reside along the western seaboard of the United States than in any other region of the nation. They are particularly concentrated in gateway metropolitan areas that already have an existing Asian presence, and much of this concentration is a result of chain migration, where friends and family members follow those who have already immigrated and established residence in the United States. Accessibility to Asian American social networks in gateway communities provides group-based resources that aid new Asian immigrants in making advancement in the host society (Sanders, Nee, and Sernau). The high urban concentration of Asian Americans has several implications for their leisure lifestyles. Since the majority of households within an Asian enclave tend to consist of people from the same ethnic background, ethnic-based social networks and cultural preferences tremendously influence the leisure activities of Asian Americans living in such areas. Further, most Asian groups in the United States see religion as a tool for identity formation. As a result, it is traditional for Asian American groups to regularly congregate with others from the same religio-ethnic backgrounds at religious institutions such as churches, temples, and mosques. Such religious venues play a dominant role in the formation and strengthening of ethnic-based social networks, thus further reinforcing the propensity among Asian Americans to follow culturally oriented leisure lifestyles.

With increasing affluence and education, Asian Americans tend to move away from the tenements of ethnic enclaves and choose prosperous residential neighborhoods with fewer Asian households. Asian American households residing in non-ethnic neighborhoods are more likely to engage in Western leisure practices than those living in ethnic enclaves. According to Yu and Berryman, social and economic situations determine the leisure lifestyles of Asian Americans. Their study of the Chinese community in New York City indicated that highly acculturated Chinese Americans with high levels of education and income were greatly influenced by Western culture and exhibited patterns of leisure participation that were closely similar to those of mainstream U.S. society. Further, Chinese Americans with high levels of acculturation were less likely to participate in leisure activities involving other Chinese individuals. But increased acculturation combined with longer work hours among Chinese Americans resulted in sedentary lifestyles involving lack of participation in leisure and recreation activities.

Asian Concepts of Leisure and Recreation

Asian Americans, in general, exhibit low frequencies of participation in leisure activities that are physical in nature. Low involvement in physically challenging leisure activities is particularly evident among new Asian immigrant women. Long hours of family-oriented household work, language barriers, and lack of transportation greatly reduce the availability of and access to leisure opportunities for these women. Their sedentary leisure lifestyles pose severe health consequences. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of deaths occurring to the Asian American group is expected to more than quadruple by the middle of the next century, as this group both ages and increases its share of the population (Day).

An examination of physical activity participation among college students reveals that lack of physical activity is most widespread among male and female Asian American college students. One reason for their lack of physical leisure activities could be the cultural orientation of Asian leisure. Yu and Berryman confirm that the leisure activities of the Chinese are characterized by passive, spectator-like involvement as opposed to vigorous physical exertion. Additionally, Chinese individuals tend to favor games that are oriented toward the individual over pastimes that require group interaction, such as outdoor recreation and sporting as well as activities involving team work or group play. Thus, leisure activity preferences of Asian Americans, especially among new Asian immigrants, might vary significantly from traditional U.S. leisure and recreation practices. Yu and Berryman noted that new Chinese immigrants in New York City's Chinatown were more likely to participate in leisure, often indoor activities that were readily available, requiring minimal organization and physical skills and less financial commitment. These activities included watching Chinese programs (television and video), listening to Chinese music, talking on the telephone, and reading Chinese newspapers, magazines, books, and comics. While girls preferred arts and crafts activities such as singing, ballet and modern dance, letter writing, paper cutting and folding, and needlework and sewing, boys preferred woodworking and sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer, billiards and pool, swimming, weight lifting, and karate.

A study investigating differences in urban park visitation by ethnic groups, conducted by Vinod Sasidharan found that Asian Americans with lower acculturation levels visit parks, forests, and recreational areas in large groups consisting of members from the same ethnic/racial groups. This characteristic may be attributed to the collectivistic orientation of Asian cultural groups and the profound emphasis given to a closely integrated social framework. While collectivist cultures stress the importance of the "rights and needs of the group," individualistic cultures emphasize "individual achievement and rights of the individual" (Rosenthal and Feldman, pp. 495–514). Thus, visitation to parks in larger groups with members from the same ethnic/racial background may be an indication of the significance of "group efforts" among the lower acculturated Asian American groups. The higher acculturated groups may have somewhat weaker collectivistic orientations (coupled with varying degrees of individualistic orientations) compared to the lower acculturated groups, thus exhibiting a lower propensity to visit parks in groups with members from the same ethnic/racial background. While the higher acculturated Asian American groups are more likely to establish leisure networks with individuals from other ethnic/racial backgrounds, lower acculturated groups generally tend to take recreation with relatives and friends of the same ethnicity.

Centrality of Family, Kinship, and Community

Family and kinship are central to most Asian Americans and fulfillment of filial obligations is considered a fundamental responsibility in Asian society. Asian household members are expected to maintain cultural traditions and subordinate their individual needs and wants to accommodate overall family interests. The core importance of family and kinship ties among Asian American households and the ascribed responsibility of Asian children to take care of their parents and siblings have a profound influence on family size. Among married-couple Asian American families, almost 23 percent consisted of five or more household members (Humes and McKinnon) while 21 percent of foreign-born Asian Americans live in households that have five or more family members. Strong collectivistic values among Asian American households and the roles played by individual members of the family greatly determine the types of leisure and recreation activities pursued. According to Sasidharan, Asian Americans tend to visit urban parks and recreational areas in groups (of families and friends) that are larger than the traditional Anglo recreation groups. Paul Gobster and Antonio Delgado reported that, while Anglos visit parks on their own or as couples with an average group size of 1.6, Asians usually visit parks with families with an average group size of 5.0. Gobster reports that almost 47 percent of the Asian American users of Chicago's Lincoln Park visited the park with extended families, consisting of the immediate family along with close relatives (2002). These findings suggest that families and organized groups are the most important social units of leisure participation for Asian Americans.

Community (group) orientation plays a significant role in Asian American leisure. Sasidharan's study indicates that Korean and Chinese Americans usually visit urban parks with others from their own racial/ethnic group. Korean and Chinese Americans frequently participate in group-oriented, weekend activities such as social activities (playing with children, talking with friends, playing board games), team activities (soccer, basketball, softball and baseball, Frisbee), community activities (festivals, parties), and food-related activities (picnicking, eating, barbecuing), usually requiring longer durations of time. Tingwei Zhang and Paul Gobster's study of Chicago's Chinatown residents found that "socially relaxing" (including people watching, sitting, and chatting) along with team sports such as basketball, baseball, volleyball, and tennis were among the top outdoor activities of Chinese American respondents. Hutchison found team sports such as soccer and volleyball, and community events and festivals to be major outdoor activities among the Hmong population residing in Green Bay, Minnesota.

The predominance of social activities, team activities, community activities, and food-related activities during the recreation and leisure pastimes of Asian Americans may be attributed to the cultural importance of social gatherings to this group. Once again, the argument of the centrality of family and friends in leisure settings may be a compelling factor for the central focus of picnicking, playing, and relaxing with family members within Asian American recreation practices. The importance of family life and family cohesion to the Asian cultures and the heightened dependence on the family among Asian individuals may cause an aversion to solitary activities within Asian American households, especially among lower acculturated groups. For most Asian American groups, especially among those with low levels of acculturation, frequency of participation in food-related activities is significantly higher compared to Anglos (Sasidharan). The symbolic significance of food as a means of reinforcing ethnic identity in traditional Asian cultures, especially during ethnic gatherings, may explain the high incidence of food-related activities as part of their leisure lifestyles.

Leisure activities that are culturally oriented are highly prevalent among Asian Americans (Sasidharan). This pattern might suggest the possibility of using cultural activities as part of the ethnic identity reinforcement process among Asian American groups, whereby closer social networks (or ties) are established between subethnic members through group recreation and leisure activities.

See also: Urbanization of Leisure


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Vinod Sasidharan

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Asian American Leisure Lifestyles

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