Stranger in a Strange Land

In my last column I related the confusing experience of being born and raised in China as an ethnic Korean and then immigrating to the U.S. at age seven. I belonged to one of the largest of the 56 state-recognized ethnic minorities in the People’s Republic of China known as “Chaoxianzu,” or ethnic Koreans. In fact, growing up as an expatriate in a foreign country is becoming increasingly commonplace in an increasingly globalized world. With the advent of new technologies and the mobility it allows, hundreds of thousands of people in Asia and around the world have immigrated to countries that they would not have been able to even visit a century ago.

Meiri Anto, a fellow freshman at Swarthmore, is also part Chaoxianzu as well as part Manchu, and also spent most of her childhood in mainland China. Born in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku in Japan to self-identified Chinese parents, she would “bounce” back and forth between China and Japan due to her parents’ work, spending months at a time going to school in each country. In 2001, Anto immigrated to Fremont, CA, at age seven with her parents and younger brother. Though there existed a sizable Asian-American community in Fremont, she moved to Menlo Park in the Bay Area two years later and then Mountainview in the tenth grade, both of which were predominantly white. “I felt like it was very racially self-segregated,” she recounts. Throughout all the dramatically different places that she has called home, Anto has found that it has been difficult to completely “fit in” to any one of the cultures that have shaped who she is today.

The first challenge Anto expressed in growing up in a foreign country was the linguistic barrier. “It was really confusing,” she explained. “As a kid, you pick up and forget languages really quickly so every time I moved I had to make a shift in language. My parents only spoke to me in Chinese so every time I was in China for six months I would forget Japanese.” She even had two surnames, her Chinese family name, Lu, and an unrelated Japanese surname, Anto, in honor of her mother’s hometown. Yet language wasn’t the only hurdle she had to overcome. In addition to “a lot of cultural differences,” the feeling of social alienation was perhaps the most painful part of growing up for her as a foreigner in a foreign land. “Even when I moved here I was definitely an outsider. I didn’t have this experience of having childhood friends I’ve known since I was in diapers.”

When asked “are you Chinese or Japanese?” while growing up in Japan, Anto would answer, “I’m both.” Because she spent equal time in both countries at the time, her answer would depend on the question “what did I feel like?” But when she asked her parents how she should respond, they said, “of course you say you’re Chinese. We’re Chinese.” Though Anto’s parents identified clearly with China in terms of culture, language, and nationality, it wasn’t so simple for her. “It depended on the time but my parents always put priority on my Chinese heritage so we always spoke Chinese around the house… I didn’t feel like that for a while until I forgot my Japanese.” Her groups of friends in Chinese and Japanese schools made things even more complicated. “Socially, I felt like I was nothing because I didn’t fully fit into either.”

Living their lives as “permanent immigrants” in Japan, Anto’s parents were naturally very conscious about their cultural identity and that of their daughter. “My parents purposely rejected Japanese culture. Even when they went to America they were very protective of their own identities. They were quite insular about it.” Perhaps her parents had good reason to be so guarded. “I think the reason they decided to become Japanese citizens was because having a Japanese passport made it much easier to travel. But they didn’t have a very good time in Japanese society.” If you know anyone with Chinese, Japanese, or even Korean heritage, you’ve probably heard something about the deep-seated tensions between different East Asian nationalities. “Chinese and Japanese people have a long, awkward history,” Anto explained candidly. As a result, her parents were not treated as equals in Japanese society, even when everyone in the family obtained Japanese citizenship. “In the workplace they faced discrimination. Even though eventually they spoke Japanese as well as any Japanese person, when people found out they were Chinese there was subtle discrimination.” Confronted with prejudice based on race as well as gender in a rather socially conservative society, her parents made the decision to emigrate to the United States with their family when Anto was seven years old. “The biggest reason my parents left was because they don’t treat working mothers very well; there’s a stigma against it.”

Anto demonstrates, however, that growing up as a minority immigrant is not the same in every country. She explains that her childhood experience in America was fundamentally different from that of Japan. “Growing up in America also threw away a lot of assumptions I had with my parents’ Chinese values.” Being a minority in two countries gave her and her family a unique outsider’s perspective on cultural norms that can so easily be taken for granted by native-born citizens. “There was a lot of questioning both ways and I think it helped me become a better thinker in terms of deciding what kind of values I wanted for myself.”

Her unique cultural insights and experiences contribute to the free marketplace of ideas that gives the United States a unique place in the world, illustrating why being a land of immigrants has strengthened and enriched the polychromatic fabric of American society, not weakened it. In fact, it seems what Henry David Thoreau termed the “tyranny of the majority” on a minority arises most easily – and viciously – in more culturally uniform, homogeneous societies, as evidenced by ancient Greek city-states and the Jim Crow South. The dynamic and often violent interaction of cultural and ideological perspectives in a nation as large and diverse as the United States has placed our country at the forefront of complex racial issues. In the words of James Madison in Federalist 10, “The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it… and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority… the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression.”

Nonetheless, Anto suffers no illusions of the U.S. as some idyllic utopia of perfect racial harmony. “There were a lot of stereotypes about Asians that I had to find out through people making fun of me. I didn’t know that was a thing.” One such one was “you’re Asian so you must be good at math.” She relates one instance of prejudice that she encountered at a young age. “I remember there was this one time they made fun of me for being Asian. They said ‘I don’t want to hang out with you because you’re Asian.’ They were Hispanic, black, and Indian. You’re not the mainstream either; how do you have the right to make fun of me? It got me to think how little kids institutionalize the way we think.”

Anto is a staunch proponent of positive psychology, which suggests that one’s childhood experiences during what Freud terms the “formative years,” or the first five years of one’s life, yield a powerful impact on shaping identity later on in life. Perhaps the only way to permanently dislodge racial prejudice from our collective consciousness it to teach against our prejudicial instincts at an early age. And more importantly, because open mindedness to diversity cannot be simply transferred from parent to child like a gene, we ought to immerse our children in a multicultural environment amalgamating different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, to ensure that they will be properly equipped to address racism when it arises as they grow up and inherit a discriminatory world.

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