Identity Is What Is In Your Head and Not In Your Blood

Jason K. Chen.

From my own experience, most 2nd generation Chinese have a sense of the identity crisis. For example, they do not know if they consider themselves Chinese or American or both or neither. Most seem to feel that their identity lies somewhere in between, in a purgatory type of space, but there are a few who consider themselves to be completely one or the other. Of course, there is no right answer, everyone has to figure this out for themselves.

What I think can help the process is to understand that there is a difference between ethnicity and identity. This might sound obvious, but I feel that many people do not treat them as separate concepts although they understand their separate meanings. For example, White Americans are from Europe right? So why are they considered Americans, but not Europeans? The answer is simple, they are ethnically European, but culturally American. Their identity is American. I suspect the same phenomenon will happen with other races as well, especially if they live in an immigrant country such as the United States.

The reason why people mix the concepts of ethnicity and identity is because for most people, they happen to be the same. For example, most ethnically Chinese people identify themselves as Chinese. But once the world becomes even more international, there will be more ethnically Chinese people who identity themselves as German, Russian, Mexican, Canadian etc. In other words, the smaller the world becomes, the more variability in combinations we will see between ethnicity and identity.

So for those of you who are struggling to figure out who you are, keep in mind that your identity is what is in your head and not in your blood.

If you are very interested in this topic and would like to know more, you can watch these interviews that I conducted when I was studying abroad in Beijing. Everyone in these videos is ethnically Chinese but born and raised in a different country.

Documentary: Ethnicity and Identity

1. Marc Kuo, 21, from Rotterdam, Netherlands.
2. Yvonne, 24, from Senlis, France.

3. Huang Weixin, 22, from Singapore.
4. Veronika Lee, 23, from Moscow, Russia.

5. Andres Alvin See, 23, from Manilla, Philippines.
6. Melissa, from Sydney, Australia.

7. Andrew Ho, 19, from Stockholm, Sweden.

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  • Jay K.


    All bow before me and hail me as your Diaspora Sofa King!

  • Interested

    Just to be provocative. How about finger print id or genetic id?

  • Daniel

    Interesting article. Thanks for posting your videos.

    I found the last one really informative. I’ve noticed that the Asian woman, like many Asian women here in NA, are very concerned about fitting in their home countries, whereas the majority of Asian men don’t seem concerned about it at all. Just watch the last video and you’ll see what I mean. The difference is like light and day. Like many Asian women born outside of Asia, she’s very insecure and constantly tries to reaffirm the fact that her nationality isn’t Asian but Australian.

    It reminds me of so many Asian women from America who consider themselves to be American and “white” first, but don’t acknowledge their Asian heritage. It’s as if they are ashamed of their real origins.

    What is really telling, however, is that the Yvonne woman from France doesn’t seem overly concerned with her own ethnicity. Watch her entire interview and then compare her with the other woman and you’ll see what I mean. She has a very healthy perspective like many Asians I have met in Canada. I find that Asians who grew up in countries where there was plenty of other ethnicities grow up with a healthy perspective like this, whereas people who come from very racist countries like Australia or America do not.

    • Jason Chen

      I haven’t noticed that Asian women and Asian men differ in their views of themselves. I think it has to do with mostly who you grew up with. Personally, I identify myself as American and not Chinese, although I acknowledge that I’m ethnically Chinese.

      I don’t think America is more racist than other countries (I don’t know about Australia). I actually think America is less racist than Europe and China. There are things that are so normal in Europe that wouldn’t be accepted in America. For example, in Germany, they commonly use the term “black music.” In France, they just banned the burqa. In Switzerland, they’ve banned minneretts. The Spanish olympic basketball team took a team photo in which they made the “chinky eyes.” I don’t think I need explain why China is more racist; I think it’s pretty obvious.

      • McCurry

        The contest aren’t even close to who is more racist between Chinese and America. China been 98% Hans still manage to be one of the most judgemental places on the planet. Labels are threw on everything, ‘Leftover Woman’, ’80后’,‘90后’, Rich 2nd gen. Shanghai gold digging women etc etc.

        I think the biggest difference is that the Chinese are learning about other nationalities mostly through news and the internet – through a looking glass, while other nations are actually experience first hand. Chinese people are pretty isolated from rest of the world: their media is the mouthpiece of the government, their social networks are mostly local, they’re very tradational, etc. etc.

        However, with more and more laowai coming to China and zounds of Chinese going overseas, hopefully the future they will be more accepting

        • Daniel

          I’ve noticed that about Asian Americans, Jason. They tend to identify themselves as American first and then Asian next. This isn’t the case in many other countries. Why do you think that is? That was sort of my point as well, comparing the women from Australia and France.

          What I have noticed is that in places where there is a lot of “open” and “vocal” racism like in Australia and America, Asians indentify themselves through their nationality instead of their ethnicity maybe cause they feel they have earned the right to do so. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism. Maybe it’s a way to feel included or fit in.

          It’s a perspective I may not be too familiar with since I grew up in Canada and we aren’t very patriotic or nationalistic here. At least here in Toronto many Asians, especially us Chinese and some Indian identify themselves usually as Asian Canadians and not just “Canadian.” To us, to identify first with your nationality is seen as a negative I guess. I’m generalizing here just to be clear, not all Canadians are like me and I don’t claim to speak for all Canadians. But most of us are like this, especially in Toronto.

          McCurry, yes, let’s hope it will be. I’m not sure it will be anytime soon though. I pretty much agree with what you wrote word for word but I would add that many Chinese are “secretly” racist towards white/black/other races. Whereas in Europe and America it’s more open and I’m not referring to the extreme either, eg. Jim Crowe laws.

          A Chinese person might try and charge you more money if you are a foreigner and there is clearly discrimination based even upon the tone of your skin, eg. light skin is considered better than dark skin. Many other shameful things my people do too, but it’s all relative I guess. The more people, the more racism because the bigger the majority the larger the prejudice against minorities.

          • Jason Chen

            I don’t think Asian Americans are more likely than Asian Canadians or Asian Australians to identify themselves according to their nationality. I don’t think the difference is between America, Canada and Australia. I think the difference is between immigrant countries and non-immigrant countries. I think Asians born in immigrant countries will more likely identify themselves according to their nationality rather than ethnicity because of the fact that everybody else is originally from a different country. In other words, the concept of being “American” is separated from ethnicity. This was part of the point of my original post. The word “American” or “Canadian” or “Australian” is not an ethnicity, it’s an identity.

            I also don’t think America has more open racism than other countries. If anything, Americans are super PC. And if someone is being openly racist, they will be highly criticized. I would say the only exception to this is racism towards Arabs; that seems to be ok right now.

            In the end, I think what contributes the most to your identity is 1) whether or not you were born in an immigrant country, and 2) the people you grew up with. If you mainly grew up with other ethnically Chinese people then I think you’re more likely to identify yourself as Chinese. This might help explain why the Asians in Toronto don’t identify themselves as Canadian.

          • Daniel

            “I also don’t think America has more open racism than other countries. If anything, Americans are super PC. And if someone is being openly racist, they will be highly criticized. I would say the only exception to this is racism towards Arabs; that seems to be ok right now.”

            Super PC? Ya, unfortunately you’ve lost most of your credibility with opinions like these. I wouldn’t even know where to begin responding to your post. America is one of the most racist and dangerous countries in the world. When you speak about identity you are really just talking about nationality as well.

          • Jason Chen

            I would like to know what examples you have that show that American is not PC. I already gave my examples to how I think it is. For example, how in Germany the term “black music” is used commonly and how the olympic basketball team in Spain took a photo in which they made the “Asian eyes.”

            I remember Shaq doing a “ching chong ching chong” bit when he was directing a comment to Yao Ming and he got highly criticized.

            So I would like to see your examples of racism in America that would be unacceptable in other countries.

            I think a black person’s life in China would be worse than a black person’s life in America. Do you agree with that?

            In the end, I think America is more PC than Europe and less racist than China. I don’t know how America compares with Canada though.

            Identity is not the same as nationality because there are ethnically Chinese people born in other countries that identify themselves as Chinese.

          • Jason Chen

            To clarify my point, I am of course basing my opinions on personal experience. I can’t think of a good way to objectively rank different countries on their racism. So from my experience living in Germany, I feel the US is more PC. From my experience living in China, I think US is less racist. Note that I treat the terms “PC” and “racist” as separate.

            There is no doubt a lot of racism in America, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of the worst.

  • Jay

    I don’t get it – I’m a white American but no one ever asks me if I consider myself American or European. Why would I ever consider myself European if I was born in the US? Sure, I value my ancestors and their history – but I would never think of myself as European. Why would a person born in America consider themself to be Chinese just because their ancestors were Chinese?

    • Jason Chen

      It’s just a matter of time. If you’re a later generation, then you’ll less likely identify yourself with your ethnic roots. The closer you are to your immigrant ancestors, the more likely their culture has influenced you and the more likely you will have adopted that culture. I think most Asian Americans are either 1st or 2nd generation so they’re in a different situation than many whites or blacks.

      Also, there is an impression that American means White so if you’re Asian then it doesn’t fit the picture. Asians understand this notion so they also take that into consideration when thinking about themselves. I think this mental picture of America will change though.

  • Jing

    I think whether or not you identify yourself as “American” or “Chinese” depends on how you were brought up. For me, my parent has always reinforced my Chinese identity when I was growing up; put me in Chinese language courses, family trips to mainland China, and every year we would have Karoke parties at our house. Good times.

    I’ve always been baffled by why most 2nd generation Chinese Americans don’t know a word of Chinese? Is it because their parents has never reinforced it? Is it because they refused to learn Chinese out of childhood rebelion against their Authoritarian Chinese parents? :S Anyway, i was just thinking out loud.

    • Jason Chen

      Yes, I agree. Your identity heavily depends on how you were raised. I was actually forced to go to Chinese school when I was little. I hated it. I mean who wanted to be at school on Saturday? I barely learned anything.

      I think many 2nd generation Chinese Americans don’t speak Chinese because they simply don’t use it enough. Also, I’m sure some parents never reinforced their ethnic roots and some children just rebelled. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I mean I think it’s bad that these children don’t speak a 2nd language, but I don’t think the fact that they don’t speak specifically Chinese makes it worse.

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