- Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian American Professionals and the Challenge of Multiple Identities
Recent scholarship in Asian American studies has done much to uncover the political and theoretical stakes that underlie the very possibility for an "Asian American community" to exist. But considering the proliferation of historical and theoretical approaches as of late, the reintroduction of a sociological approach, as Pawan Dhingra presents in Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian American Professionals and the Challenge of Multiple Identities, forces a reconsideration of both terms and methodologies. The concept of "identity" has been widely recognized [End Page 226] as fluid, performative, and fraught with internal contradictions, as Stuart Hall suggested nearly two decades ago, but the initial celebratory acknowledgment of its abstractness as an overthrow of earlier definitions of identity as static has given way to a sense of overwhelming confusion. How can we conceive of identity in a politically useful manner while still acknowledging its contradictions and its tensions; that is, how can we re-actualize identity within a sociopolitical valence?
Dhingra tackles precisely these questions with his ethnographic study of young white-collar Indian American and Korean American professionals in Dallas, Texas. Utilizing the sociological diction of domain-codes and schemas, Dhingra brings us a quantitative approach, which at first glance might baffle the theoretician or historian of Asian American studies. But to ground identity politics and ethnic identity formation by combining numbers and voices, code-switching, and symbolic behavior is to offer a recasting of Asian Americans' attempts to navigate the rocky terrain of social and professional topographies. What has previously been seen as a relegation of ethnicity to the emotional, private space of domesticity, and a depersonalization of self in the "rational" workplace in which visible markers of culture and race are considered irrelevant or subsumed under "employee diversity," is contradicted by Dhingra's findings that ethnicity and professionalism become intertwined in Asian Americans' expressions of their identity. His informants "chose both to bring their ethnic minority status into the public realm and to bring their Americanized identity into the private realm. Their ability and desire to do so move us past the conventional notion of living in two worlds, which governs our thinking about the second generation" (229). But the dichotomy of "home" and "work," of "self" and "Other," remains for Dhingra not only relevant but often dictates precisely which behaviors are considered "ethnic" or "American" in the relative spaces. Rather than the consideration of liminality or marginality that has characterized much historical work in Asian American studies, Dhingra asserts that "there is no liminal or third space in this case" (229).
Following his departure from a traditional characterization of the second generation as the epitome of the "marginal man," Dhingra considers his informants' identities as representative of "the margins in the mainstream," as a merging of a highly ethnic identity with an American culture built on white masculine privilege. In a sense, Dhingra refuses Asian American identity as "living on the hyphen" between race and nationality, and instead he attempts to reconfigure that dichotomy as concentric and nested without denying its significance in subject formation. The debate over the proper syntax of identity, be it "Asian American," "Asian/American" or simply "American," reveals anxieties over representation that avoids a privileging of one over the other. To create such a term in any iteration, [End Page 227] however, suggests a possibility for pan-ethnic alliances under an umbrella term for political mobilization. Such a possibility is one that Dhingra's study comes into conflict with, for he notes that the second generation's interest in pan-ethnic organizing is symbolic more than substantial, particularly because they attempt to forge a nonconfrontational identity in the workplace, and "prioritizing a pan-ethnic or ethnic identity rather than an American one suggests a resistance or even hostility towards Whites" (10). Rather than forming what he calls a "reactive ethnicity," then, the second generation's affective ties to their specific ethnic communities far override an interest...