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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.2 (2001) 182-186

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Book Review

Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Toda

Struggles for Ethnic Identity: Narratives by Asian American Professional

Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. By Mia Tuan. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Struggles for Ethnic Identity: Narratives by Asian American Professionals. Edited by Pyong Gap Min and Rose Kim. Walnut Creek, California: Alta Mira Press, 1999.

Are you Chinese or Japanese? Where are you from? No matter where most Asian Americans reside in the United States, these are questions that most Asian Americans usually cannot escape. Even after several generations, race still matters and Asian Americans are identified by their phenotype. Through life narratives and in-depth interviews, these two books utilize sociological qualitative research methods and analyses to explore how Asian Americans feel about race and identity.

In Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, sociologist Mia Tuan interviews ninety-five middle-class Asian Americans, mostly Chinese and Japanese Americans, about their earliest memories of culture, ethnic traditions, identity, racism, and feelings toward Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Her respondents tell her how they've responded and coped with both racism and nativism. [End Page 182]

At the beginning of the book, Tuan refers to the Asian American experience to that of the racialized ethnic experience. Race, rather than ethnicity, shapes how others identify Asian Americans. Tuan questions whether the assimilation model is necessarily true for racialized ethnics. Unlike white ethnics, racial ethnic minorities over time do not become part of the mainstream. Asian Americans by the color of their skin remain non-white. On the other hand, the white ethnic experience is completely different from the Asian ethnic experience. For example, others can consider the American born Irish as American but for Asian Americans their physical appearance marks them as "un-American" even after several generations.

The next two chapters focus on how parents and neighborhoods affect how Asian Americans grow up thinking about their culture and identity. In her chapter on "Cars, Girls and Baseball-But With an Asian Twist," Tuan discusses the role of the family in passing down ethnic traditions and values. She writes that there is a general disinterest among Asian American parents to transmit cultural values on to their children. Parents have both intentional and unintentional reasons for not wanting to pass on their culture. One unintentional reason is that many parents are unaware themselves of the meaning of many of the cultural traditions. An intentional reason for not passing on culture to the next generation is to prevent racist remarks and attacks by abandoning any aspects of culture that appear foreign.

Tuan's most powerful chapter is how neighborhoods affect culture and identity. In her chapter, "I Knew That I Was Different: Child Neighborhood Influences," she discusses how many Asian Americans have moved from urban centers to suburban neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles county. Tuan discusses how the racial and ethnic composition of a neighborhood impacts upon the self-esteem and identity of Asian American children. Many of her respondents learned the meaning of race and ethnicity by how others responded to their physical appearance. She writes that those who grew up in Asian centered neighborhoods, where Asian Americans were the majority, experienced culture and identity quite differently from those who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods. Those who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods experienced painful moments of stereotyping and racist prejudice. Some of her respondents were the first and only Asian in the neighborhood and became a representative of Asian race and culture. Many were subjected to racial slurs and racial violence. For her respondents who grew up with Asian Americans, these individuals had seen Asian Americans in leadership positions. Tuan proposes that these particular respondents experienced racial privilege, usually only [End Page 183] accorded to Whites. These individuals had the freedom not to have to think...


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