I mentioned in my last post that like many people, my family and I were traveling over the holidays to visit relatives out of state. In these travels, one relatively minor incident in the airport security lines illustrated for me just how complex — and in some ways even contradictory — an Asian American identity is for many of us.
Fortunately, this particular incident did not involve any type of racial profiling against us or somebody else in our presence that made national news, as at least one Muslim American family unfortunately had to endure over the holidays. Instead, this incident was rather ordinary, even mundane, and probably a common occurrence in the lives of many Asian Americans.
Here’s the scene: we were at the St. Louis airport going through the airport security x-ray machines on our way to catch our flight back home to Massachusetts. A few people ahead of us were a relatively young Chinese husband and wife. Perhaps it was their first time traveling through an American airport because they were clearly “unprepared” — their luggage was too big to go through the x-ray machines and should have been checked baggage and they had not separated out their liquids into the standard three ounce containers and baggie.
As a result of this, the airport security workers were trying to explain to them that they were out of compliance with the regulations and what they needed to do to correct the situation. The airport workers were actually polite and understanding but the Chinese couple, perhaps complicated by the fact that their English wasn’t perfect, were understandably a little flustered.
The result of this was that they were holding up the other travelers behind them in line, including my family and I. Initially, everyone was patient but after a few minutes, it was clear that some were getting a little frustrated. Nobody said anything the whole time we were all waiting but there were the inevitably sighs and rolling eyes as the Chinese couple and the airport workers tried to clear everything up.
Initially, that included me as well. My first reaction was also to get a little annoyed and soon thoughts such as “Come one, haven’t ever been through an airport security line before?” and “It would help if you knew English a little better” floated through my mind. I will presume that the other people in line probably had similar sentiments as well. In other words, this was a typical reaction from Americans towards foreigners in such a situation.
But after a while, I caught myself and consciously took a step back from my initial reactions and tried to apply a little sociological thinking to the situation. In doing so, I came to have a little more sympathy for the Chinese couple. First, I kept in mind that for all Americans, each of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time or another. And for me personally as a Vietnamese American, that included my own parents.
I remembered that my own parents went through similar incidents in the past, especially in the early part of our resettlement into the U.S. as they tried to assimilate into American society after leaving Viet Nam. Perhaps not in an airport security line, but my parents almost certainly encountered such cultural embarrassments checking out at a supermarket, talking with a teller at the bank, ordering at a restaurant, and probably many other situations in which they were just trying to become mainstream Americans.
Along with that, even today as an Asian American, I still encounter situations in which even though I am thoroughly Americanized and speak English perfectly, other Americans automatically assume that I’m a foreigner just by looking at me, based on the persistent stereotype that all Asians are foreigners. As Asian American scholars and any average Asian American would confirm, this lingering bias is still a big hurdle for many Asian Americans to overcome as we try to live our lives here in the U.S.
Secondly, I tried to personalize the Chinese couple’s situation by asking myself, How well would I do if I were trying to navigate through a foreign airport for the first time and had to understand its specific regulations and customs, formal and informal, whether it be in China, Brazil, Russia, or any other foreign country that did not speak my native language?
Based on these thoughts in which I indirectly sympathized with the Chinese couple’s situation, I contrasted them with my initial reaction of annoyance at them and came to realize that this was a perfect illustration of just how complicated and even contradictory an Asian American identity is for many of us.
In other words, as Asian Americans, were may feel implicitly obligated to sympathize and be in solidarity with our fellow Asians (foreign and American), either for political purposes or because of our direct ties to our family, relatives, and ancestors from afar. But on the other hand, as a “typical” American, it’s hard to escape sentiments that lead us to feel aggravated when others cause us inconvenience (however brief) or run afoul of our American customs and practices that we ourselves have already internalized into our lives in our own quest to be “mainstream” Americans.
There is no easy answer here. There is no “right” or “correct” way for Asian Americans to react to or handle incidents like this that involve other Asians who are simultaneously similar to and different from us.
Nonetheless, as I reflect on this incident and my initial and secondary thoughts about it, I also see that I’m really glad that I’m a sociologist who has learned the tools to make sense of the multiple levels of factors and the intersections of so many different issues that come into play in situations like this.
That is, as I tell the students in my classes, sociology teaches you to do two seemingly contradictory things — to personalize and depersonalize things at the same time. Being able to personalize and depersonalize an issue or idea then allows you to understand that there are multiple levels of analysis for that issue/idea — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. In a nutshell, this is the first lesson of Sociology 101.
To personalize something is look at a particular idea or situation and to say something like, “Yeah ok, I see how that theory or example can apply to my personal experiences. I can relate to that.” On the other hand, to depersonalize something would be to say something like, “Hmmm, that particular theory or example doesn’t really apply to my personal experiences, but I can see how other people might look at it in that way.”
I also tell my students that the basic foundation of virtually all instances of disagreement, conflict, and even hostility around a race/ethnicity-related issue such as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, etc., is when people can’t properly personalize or depersonalize the issue and unfortunately, end up talking at each other from different levels of analysis (i.e., one person is expressing their opinion from an individual level while the other is coming at it from an institutional level).
In this instance, I personalized the Chinese couple’s situation by relating it to how I would fare in a foreign airport for the first time and by remembering my own parents’ struggles to fit into American society. I also depersonalized the situation by recalling that all of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time and that Americans from all backgrounds share a common set of behaviors and that it upsets our sense of a collective identity when a “foreigner” violates such customs.
In the end, I think the lessons here are (1) for anybody in general but Asian Americans in particular, it’s natural and inevitable to have complicated or even contradictory feelings about one’s identity as an “Asian” and how to relate to other Asians and (2) when such contradictions and confusion arise, there are ways to make sense of them — by knowing when to personalize and when to depersonalize and understanding that there are multiple levels of analysis to any issue.
In other words, there are many ways to “do sociology” in our everyday lives.