The Great Divide: Class Distinctions, Denial and the Asian American Experience

Reading Min Jin Lee’s “Free Food for Millionaires” had me thinking about class and how it factors into the Asian American experience. I thought of all the Asian Americans I know, correlating their socioeconomic class with how they behave today and from all that speculation, grappled with the following question: When will we realize the grass isn’t greener on the other side?

Inner-city bred Asians who have the brains and ambition to get out of their ghettos pull out all the stops to get themselves into ivy leagues or notable institutions of higher education, even if it means exploiting affirmative action. Once there, they bend over backwards to climb the social ladder. To present a case study, I cite the archetypal fellow who grows up in the back alleys of Chinatown, goes to M.I.T. by taking out exorbitant private loans, then tries desperately to appear “white-washed,” like the suburbanite Asians he met in college, because that in his mind somehow correlates with upper middle class status. Such a fellow becomes fixated on the way he speaks–taking pains to enunciate the way a blue-blooded American would, and lose that inner-city slang or even accent he spoke with in his youth. He is obsessed with “sounding white,” “appearing white,” and if you ever casually tell him he in fact “sounds Asian,” he will begin to hyperventilate with paranoia. If they can, they will move to white suburbia where they may live out the rest of their lives denying their humble beginnings. If they could, they would dissociate from the Asian community altogether.

On the other hand, you have the upper-middle class suburbanite Asians who spent their childhoods and adolescence pampered with every material comfort your mind can think of, who went to a private all-white prep school, and who now, in their young adulthoods, have moved from their suburban permanent addresses to a run-down studio in the heart of a big city where the Asian population is 99.9%. They’ve become the hipsters and emo kids who shun wealth, shun the academy, glorify all things Asian, and who may even become an activist in a non-profit organization to help the indigent yellow plebeians. (Ever notice how almost every grassroots Asian-interest organization is run by whitebread Asians who are otherwise completely detached from the life experiences of those Asians they claim to represent?) They rant ad nauseum on marginalization, racial inequality, lack of voter turnout from the APA community, but never take the time to understand the existential struggles of working class Asians and why, maybe, these people don’t have the privilege of ranting on marginalization, racial inequality, or voting blocks.

And while both groups make their way to the other (supposedly greener) side, they still never hesitate to remind the world how much they’ve diverged from the path expected of them. The inner-city Asian glamorizes the poverty to his elite circles of friends to distinguish himself from them. “Look how far I’ve come,” he implies. “I worked to get here, while all of you had this life handed to you on a silver platter.” The suburbanite Asian will preface almost everything she says with, “I grew up in an all-white neighborhood…I used to be so white-washed…” This is what separates her from all the other Asians in the city she now lives in, the city that’s 99.9% Asian. “Look how noble I am,” she implies. “I left my castle for the village to come save you all from the plight I believe you’re in.”

Of course, more than two over-generalized categories exist here. You also have the inner-city Asians who never quite leave their neighborhoods, joined gangs, dealt drugs, and continued their cycle of poverty, becoming the great disappointment of their hard-working blue collar parents who sacrificed everything they had just to give their children a better opportunity those thankless children never bothered to take. Then there are the suburbanite Asians who neglect their Asian heritage for the full length of their lives and live in blissful ignorance believing they’re “no different from the white folk, no different at all.” These kids are not only white-washed, they’re brainwashed.

True, the great economic divide applies to all of society across all ethnic lines, but I am primarily interested in how class plays out in the Asian American experience. Social class has become yet another fault line in Asian America, inhibiting solidarity. Those suburbanite emo hipster activist kids have their hearts in the right places, but they fail to put themselves in the shoes of those they claim to represent. Inner-city Asians who run from their neighborhoods and never look back are selfish. Of all groups, they possess the greatest potential and capacity to foster change, and yet they do not.

The race card is pulled out all too often, but few dare to touch the class card. If any single factor could explain how Asian Americans act, then it would be social class. Lower class Asians want to hide their poverty by financing luxury model cars beyond their means and upper class Asians refuse to acknowledge the privilege they were born with. All of it epitomizes denial and few things rank as a truly Asian skill like utter denial.

Note: So as not to misrepresent Ms. Lee’s novel, “Free Food for Millionaires” had little to do with this tirade. It spoke on class issues, but not quite as unintelligibly as this posting has.

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About akrypti

small town roots. enthusiast of many trades. oh, and yeah, high-maintenance like you wouldn't believe. tweet with me @akrypti.
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