Asian Americans: Living with the past, looking to the future

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CSUN student Jane So and her mother have difficulty communicating.

Considering the 22-year-old senior history major grew up in the surfer-stoner-skater culture of Thousand Oaks, and her mother, Kye, is a 50-year-old South Korean native, that might seem predictable.

But the So women’s inability to have a meaningful conversation defies predictability and offers a glimpse into the varied realities of first-generation Asian Americans as they try to make sense of school, family, culture, and America.

“We’re not that close,” So said of her mother. “She barely speaks a word of English, and my Korean sucks.”

LANGUAGE ISSUES

Gordon Nakagawa, associate dean of humanities, said because the Asian American community encompasses many different cultures and generations, there are huge variables in their experiences, while acknowledging certain patterns tend to play out with some consistency.

“Students whose families are recent immigrants are going to face language issues,” said Nakagawa, former chair and professor of Asian American Studies.

As So’s case points out, those issues go beyond students not being able to speak English effectively in school.

So’s parents were born and raised in South Korea and came to the United States 30 years ago. Her father, James, 55, is a successful businessman in the aeronautics field who has mastered the English language.

“He sounds like a white guy on the phone, but he’s not,” So said.

So’s mother never made the English language transition, and for So’s two older siblings and herself, their Korean language abilities depend on their age.

“It progressively gets worse,” So said. “My (eldest) brother’s Korean is really good. My sister’s, it’s not perfect, but she’s fluent.” So’s is limited to rudimentary expressions like, I’m hungry.

As one of only a handful of Asian kids attending school in Van Nuys, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, So said it was difficult to crave experiences she could never have.

“It was really frustrating, more than anything,” So said. “When I was younger, I wanted to join a soccer league. I couldn’t (because my mother) didn’t know how to do any of that. She couldn’t talk to my teachers. She knew very little about my social life.”

So said there is deep love between the two women but because of the language deficiencies, little understanding. Philosophical about it now, So said the lack of detailed mother-daughter interactions had its good and bad points.

“It was good because I was doing a lot of stupid things in high school,” So said. “But in a way I wish she would’ve known. (It) would have been nice if she could have intervened.”

KOREA VS. USA

Like many other first-generation Americans, growing up with foreign-born parents proved challenging as Korean traditions clashed with American youth culture.

“My parents are really nationalistic,” So said about her parent’s loyalty to Korea and Korean culture. “Growing up, they were very strict. (A) lot of the views are obsolete. Like my dad wanted to arrange a marriage for me.”

So’s response?

“We don’t do that here.”

The influence of American culture has had some effect on So’s father.

“Now, he’s so liberal,” So said.

While attending Thousand Oaks High School, whose student body is predominately white, So gravitated toward the few Mexican American students, feeling an isolated cultural kinship with them. In college she dated a Latino guy for two years, but So’s father could not accept that she was dating a non-Korean.

“(My father) couldn’t deal with it,” So said. “But he (eventually) saw through the race thing and he could see that (the Latino guy) was cool.”

Old habits die hard as So relays her father’s new dating philosophy for his daughter.

“You can date outside of your race, but when you marry, you have to marry a Korean,” So said with a laugh.

Enrolling at CSUN, So was immediately struck by the school’s diversity. She credits CSUN’s inclusive atmosphere with helping her appreciate her own culture and opening her eyes to some of the broader issues facing Asian Americans. A race and critical thinking class in Asian American Studies made So see her past differently.

“It was one of the most important classes I ever took,” So said. “A lot of things I didn’t know were racist. I thought back on my life in Thousand Oaks. That’s why things were that way.”

John Tran, senior electrical engineering major, views the introductory AAS class he took much differently.

Tran, 20, said it seemed to him that all the professor did was “hate on white people.”

A U.S. born Vietnamese, Tran said he does not deny that Asians have experienced racism in this country.

“I’m sure they have, but I haven’t experienced it,” Tran said. “There were other Asians in the class who went through that, (but) I can’t relate.”

Although Tran has socialized predominately with Asians since attending Taft High School in Woodland Hills, his self-identity does not begin and end with his Vietnamese heritage. At home, his mother speaks to him in Vietnamese and he answers back in “broken-Vietnamese,” substituting English for words he does not know.

“I’m a ‘not very Asian’ Asian guy,” Tran said. “I still keep my Asian friends and roots, but I don’t really do Asian stuff. Most of my friends are like that, too.”

A more noticeable divide for Tran growing up was a spiritual one.

“My mom is Buddhist; my dad is Catholic,” Tran said. “We went to temple, then we went to church.”

HOME EARLY

Tran’s parents and older brother were born in Vietnam. He said in high school there was a noticeable difference between the parental restrictions placed on first-generation Americans like himself and his friends whose families have been in the U.S. for generations.

“They didn’t have curfews,” Tran said. “They’d have to take us (first-generation friends) home early.”

Although his parents have told him they would like him to marry a Vietnamese woman, Tran does not think he will and that in reality, the parental pressures that Asian immigrant parents sometimes place on their children are mostly gone for him.

“My parents let me do whatever I want to do now,” Tran said. “They see they’ve done their part, and I’m free to do whatever I want.”

John Thi, Tran’s friend from high school and recent CSUN graduate, said if he has children someday, he does not think they will have a significant understanding of their Chinese-Vietnamese culture.

“Third, fourth generation, sooner or later you’re going to lose it,” said Thi, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and Asian American studies last June. “It’s kind of sad, but I think that’s how it is going to be.”

Born in Houston to Vietnamese-born Chinese immigrants, Thi, 21, is the youngest of two children. Although he is the youngest, his Vietnamese language skills are pretty good.

“I speak better than my sister,” Thi said. “Because she doesn’t hang around Vietnamese people.”

PERSONAL HISTORY

While attending CSUN, Thi said Asian American Studies offered a scope and understanding of the contributions Asians have made to the United States that he found missing from his K to12 curriculum.

Just how much U.S. Asian history did he learn at those earlier institutions?

“None,” Thi said.

The most important thing Thi learned in an AAS class turned out to be deeply personal.

“(Our professor had us) write about our families and how they came to America,” Thi said of the class on Asian immigration.

From interviews with his parents, Thi wrote about a 15-page essay.

“I learned a whole new aspect of my parents,” Thi said. “In how they risked their lives to come to America. (I) think Asian parents put more pressure on their kids because they risked so much to give (their children) the opportunity to do better than them.”

Jane So hopes to give any future child of hers the oppo
rtunity to do better, or at least the chance to have a conversation that transcends generations.

“I’m going to make my kid learn Korean,” So said. “Just so she can communicate with her grandparents.”

Rick Coca can be reached at rick.coca.963@csun.edu