Saturday, May 20, 2006

Identity Crisis

In response to a half-posed question from Tseen Khoo.

I identify as Viet-Australian. This is very easy for me to do because both my parents are Vietnamese and I was born in Viet Nam. My family became refugees when I was two, and we arrived in Australia when I was three. I am not literate in Vietnamese, although I can speak it conversationally (provided the conversations are about neutral topics such as food and family; conversations about politics and history are beyond my Viet language abilities). When I was travelling in Viet Nam recently, I made a most amusing faux pas. Instead of saying my Vietnamese was “not very good” (do), I said my Vietnamese was “naughty” (hu). After that I said my Vietnamese was “nothing special” - binh thuong.

I also use the terms Asian-Australian and Asian to identify myself, in relation to others. Generally speaking however, I am resistant to pan-Asian terms.

Throughout the past few weeks I have been making notes about why this is. Having never articulated it clearly to myself, I decided a process was required to gain an answer. The question has been stewing throughout a week of my interactions with the world; as thoughts surface from the bubbling miasma of my everyday life, I try to capture and record them. One weeknight was set aside for handwritten stream of consciousness note taking. And then I spent a day attempting to make coherent those disparate thoughts and musings. I decided to let the post simmer on, becuase I was not yet happy with it.

Some other posts I read, and the comments made in response, also provided fodder for my pontifications.

Jenn of Reappropriate found herself defending past dating habits, as a reaction to persons who - so it appears to me - are spuriously attacking her failure to 'support' Asian-American men by dating non-Asians. I wish I could more easily dismiss these people whose personal attack on Jenn is incredibly repulsive. The position that a female Asian's failure to date Asian men is somehow racist strikes me as ludicrous. There may be a level of internalised racism in some Asian persons' dating habits (Bao Phi writes an excellent piece about his epiphany of his own racism -read Introductory Essay), but limiting your loves to only other persons who are the same race as you is racism of a different order.

I don't know Jenn at all, other than what I read on her blog and even then I've not engaged with her via her blog, and I don't always agree with her, but her posts are often complex, sometimes angry and always well thought out.

Sume also writes of her difficulty with the concept of identifying as 'Asian in General'. Her post made me wonder about what comprises the notion of a particular culture / ethnicity / race. Some of the comments in response to Sume's post raised ideas / concerns about belonging and community, and not merely identification. Some of the comments devolved into concern about ethnocentricity; but saying “I am Viet / Asian” does not equal saying “Viet / Asian is best” - and this is very much connected, as I see it, to Jenn of Reappropriate's arguments about fighting sexism within the 'Asian Community' (whatever that is).

Sume also made the very accurate statement:
"Is there really a such thing as an "Asian Community"
or is that just a term incorporated into the American Salad
by people who simply couldn't tell Chinese from Japanese from Vietnamese, etc?"

As with all my thinking, I don't consider my view fixed. Rather, I expect my reasons will wax and wane in their cogency and I will accordingly be more, or less, persuaded by myself as I age.

The overarching theme that emerged about why I resist a pan-Asian description of myself (and other people) is that I am concerned about what I (and probably others) have elsewhere called Diversity in Otherness. This theme was reiterated in my readings of the various blogs I visit throughout the week.

Not being of Anglo-Saxon or Northern European Caucasian appearance, I am a 'minority' to mainstream Australia. I am an Other.

Asia encompasses so many countries with vastly different cultures and of vastly different appearances. For some from the United Kingdom, 'Asian' might conjure up images of people of Indian and Sri-Lankan background. To rather too many mainstream Australians, 'Asian' conjures up an image of the dreaded northern invaders – the Japanese. 'Asian' also too often is perceived to be persons of Chinese background, possibly because the Chinese have had a lengthy and geographically wide diaspora. The outsider Asian – of whatever origin – will be the perceived racialist stereotype commonly held by the mainstream: the Curry, the militant Jap, the Oriental.

It is quite apparent that persons from the white mainstream can have complexities in their backgrounds but, to the mainstream, Asian people become all the same. There are experiences and descriptions that might be common to all Asians (that “Where are you from?” moment for eg, or having a white person assume your differently Asianed friend is your sibling); and to all Viet people (I can't think of anything right now).

These common experiences stem from the group's otherness from the mainstream, not experiences that unify them as a group. The experiences might structure an identity and interests that allow for the formation of a community – eg the web-based and what appears to me academia-oriented Asian Australian discussion forum – but do not, of themselves have any universal application to all Asians, or all Asian-Australian.

I found this while reading backwards through the Asian-Australian discussion forum, and it is a more articulate and eloquent rendering of what I am trying to say:

"... just as feminists have found the limits of appeals to 'women's identity', so Asian- Americans may find with ethnicities and cultures as diverse as Chinese, Indian, or Vietnamese that their racial designation itself provides little common ground. ... Where perhaps racial categories are most politically significant is in their contested relation to racism. Racism attempts to reduce members of social groups to their racial features, drawing on a complex history of racial stereotypes to do so."

* This quote was made by Natasha Cho, but unattributed on the forum.
In the short time of composing this post and being happy enough with it,
I have not succeeded in locating its author.
I apologise for not properly attributing and would be more than happy to be corrected.

** Tom, also from the AA discuss forum, has kindly advised that the authorship of the above quote is:-
Heyes, Cressida, "Identity Politics",
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

I am trying to educate people, but the mainstream in particular: by calling myself Viet-Australian, I am making a clear statement that the Viet form a separate and distinct group from 'Asian'. I do not however suggest that the Viet form a unified or monolithic group. By being myself and proudly Viet, the moment when that person thinks (or, as occurs rather too often for my liking, *says* to me) “Gee, she's not very Vietnamese,” is also the moment when they acknowledge diversity within a group – whether they realise it or not.

There is, of course, the concern that descriptions like mine will become clunky. If my partner and I have a child, will it be described as Viet-Irish-long-time-Australian? And what if we migrate to another country, will I become Viet-Australian-Candian (insert other country)? In some ways, this is moot because one is and should be self-described and self-identified. The continued need for tags is, in itself, racist and leads to the awful question of: is there a minimum requirement of 'blood' to allow one to identify oneself with a culture / race / ethnicity? I do not want an answer to this question. I do not think it is an appropriate question.

Perhaps there is a requirement of some kind of connection: what the criteria of that connection must be, I do not know. But I do believe that criteria should be multifaceted and fluid, and, in the language of logic, each criterion should be sufficient, but none should be necessary.

The mere existence of difficulties and complexities does not mean one should cease to attempt complex, accurate and fulfilling self-descriptions and cultural identity. I am willing to be wrong – I am eager for cogent arguments that would persuade me to alter my position. I hope that I will always be engaging with my self-identification and with how others identify me. And I seek community, I seek people with common experiences because I believe I can learn from them, and others can learn from me, and we will all be enriched.


sume said...

Thanks for writing your thoughts, Oanh. The rusty wheels of my mind spinning in about a thousand directions at once. It's difficult to sort through all the chaos. You touched on some very important things here.

One thought that comes to mind is that there will always be a conflict in how society defines/labels an individual and how an individual chooses to define/label himself or herself. This leads me to ask if a balance should be struck between the two or if the individual's right takes precedence? Maybe I'm just overcomplicating things or missing the point altogether.

Unlike race, I once thought ethnicity was a given, but no longer feel that is true since people can grow up within a certain ethnic group and not totally "belong". The lines defining race are much more elusive and get even more so when you factor in "mixed" children. What exactly "defines" a race? Appearance? Place of birth? Genetics?

You've also brought up some good points about interracial dating/marriage but I'll save my thoughts on that for a blog post of my own (even though this subject has been talked to death to no good ends).

laziicat said...

i always had a problem with being a 'viet' while growing up. i hated that i was considered different from all my 'white' friends. i denied my heritage like the plague. and was always as vague as possible when asked about it.

things have changed now. i have gotten to know myself better and have begun going in search for my 'roots'. but that had to do with alot of things. mainly experiencing life first hand.

but in the end. when i am asked where i come from. i say i am australian. and if they push any further i say vietnamese background. just cause i dont believe that i could ever be truly just viet. (they would laugh at me if i said i was viet in vietnam) and i dont feel 'pure' viet either. no matter that both my parents are viet and i was born in VN.

but yeah. tis a difficult path to tread on. especially for those who have come over at a young age like ourselves...

will be a totally different story for those who are born here...

sume said...

"just cause i dont believe that i could ever be truly just viet. (they would laugh at me if i said i was viet in vietnam) and i dont feel 'pure' viet either."

That is very true and an important point. I'll probably "re-label" myself a few more times before I settle on one which seems to be pretty common.

OTT said...

Sume -

You do overcomplicate things ;-) but I find that preferable to simplifying them.

I would probably argue that the individual's self definitions are paramount - mostly because society is structured of individuals, so society's definitions and labels could, presumably, change over time because of how individuals have used them.

I think also that I attempt to change society's definitions and labels, and furthermore (self serving statement coming up) that it is a good thing to be engaged in creating / changing definitions labels - whether of oneself or of others.

I guess having labels and using defintions is important, but that I would be more interested in the fluidity of those labels, in expanding their borders, in expanding my own pre-conceptions, than of fixedness in the labels and definitons.

And in respect of myself? My defintions/labels are in continual flux. Once, I was an Arts/Humanities student - a dreamer, an historian, an activist. Now I am a lawyer - a doer, a pragmatist. But I am also still a dreamer and an activist (less an historian). I gather some and I discard some. I've got heaps of labels, and heaps of definitions - and I suspect you do too ...

Laziicat - 'pure Viet'? what is this? I have to admit, however, that I have often thought the same things of myself - I am not, and cannot be pure Viet. And yes, children in Viet Nam laughed at me when I told them I was a 'Viet person'.

Re being Australian - I guess this is why Viet-Australian is my tag. I am a proud Aussie (most of the time, although I abhor our leader) but it took me a long time to become a proud Viet, and I'm not letting that go either.

I actually think that the next generation will have more difficulty - I perceive confusions in my nieces and nephews that are similar to my experiences, yet entirely different too.

and yes - a difficult path. But isn't it great to know we got to HERE; the epiphany of the beauty of OUR heritage. The troublesome journey to self-realisation is all the more magnificent when you reach a goal of 'happy with me'. Well done, you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Oanh

The comment from the AA discuss list that you quoted comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. To be more specific, it's from the entry on 'Identity politics' and it's written by Cressida Hayes. I've found this article to be quite useful. You can read the full article at:

Tom (from the AA discuss list)

OTT said...

Tom -

Thank you!


Anonymous said...

how is life as an asian in austrailia ?? is it better than in the US ???

i am in USA right now.

OTT said...

tseten98 @ hotmail . com:-

That's a question I cannot answer. At best, I can tell you what life is like, as me, who identifies as Asian-Australian, in Australia. I have never travelled to the US of A, so I have no experiences with which to compare. There are some links in my blog-roll to Asians in America who I think write well and whose blogs I enjoy. They may also enlighten you.

Keep reading and you're bound to find out some random things - some might even be useful.

But I must insist that I speak only for myself and my experiences, and no one else's.

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Sarah said...

Looks like my boyfriend fell asleep on me again. Oh well, I do it to him all the time.

sume said...

Everyone is writing about the history journal but honestly i'm so nauseated and tired ughhhhh arr


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