By Jenny Hones
In the 1940s, many Asian immigrants from Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines came to United States with the goal to earn enough money for a better life back in the home country. Most never intended to stay but, after building a life in America, many found brides through arrange marriages and started families. Some came for other personal reasons like my paternal great grandparents. They were from a small village in Japan. In those days, when children were born, they were often betrothed to their cousins. But, love has a way of changing our paths in life. So instead of marrying their parent’s intended choice, they decided to elope.
As you can imagine, this probably caused a major scandal in a small village. The embarrassment and loss of face for all families involved must have been very difficult indeed. But, young and in love, they followed their hearts and eventually ended up on the Big Island of Hawaii, where they worked the sugar cane fields. In their situation, I don’t know if they ever planned to return. So, regardless of why or how the many Asian immigrants came to the U.S., their children became the first Asian Americans. They are the foundation of Asian Americans today. My parents, aunts, uncles and relatives fall into this category. Today they are in their 70s, 80s, 90s and even 100s!
Although their parents were from different countries, these children shared a similar life being raised by hard working immigrants, unable to speak English, or getting by on broken English. They often had the responsibility of being translators, bridging the gap between the old country and America, following the traditions and cultures of Asia while learning and experiencing American culture. My grandparents ran a restaurant as my grandmother was a wonderful cook. Recently, I was surprised to learn that my father had to read the recipes for her. I didn’t realize she couldn’t read English! Funny how we learn new information from little stories like that.
Still the U.S. was a land of opportunity for the immigrants. Most worked the fields, railroads, mills, and manual labor jobs. I recall my mother telling me that when she was a young child, the best job for any Japanese in Hawaii was pumping gas. After WWII, life for Asians continued to improve and the American dream was attainable. By the time she was an adult, the first Asian Americans were well educated and there were many Japanese professionals including doctors and lawyers, who became prominent members of society.
Asian immigrants are continuing to arrive. Times have changed and the face of the Asian American no longer falls into one simple category. It is diverse as ever. Including those still searching for more opportunity; many come for religious and political freedom. Some are here through adoption. One of my son’s roommates in college was ethnically Thai and adopted into a white American family. And the younger generation keeps growing, that there are even fifth generation Asian Americans! Each carries a unique circumstance and story of his or her own. With the diversity of economic and social standards, no longer is there one stereotype.
But regardless of why we are here, what really defines us as Asian American? Is it really just the physical traits of black hair, and the smaller features and build? Or is it our mannerisms and character? Or could it be our way of thinking? Does our cultural traditions and background tie us together?
I find that being Asian American is really all of the above. Having the same physical traits puts us in the same category because our physical needs and abilities, as well as health and illnesses are similar. Although the emphasis of our cultural backgrounds and traditions may vary from one family to the next, it somehow resonates with who we are. It feels like home.
Many of us try to pass on many of our traditional cultures to the next generation. Yet, it’s not easy. Over time, some of us can’t speak the language of our native relatives. Some of us don’t know anything about our cultural heritage. It’s all okay, and we should just embrace each other and help one another along just like those first Asian Americans. Just being here in America gives us something in common, regardless of where we came from, who we are and how we live. No matter what we look like, or what we think or do, we are now American.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Honolulu, raised in Tokyo, I’m a Japanese American interior designer and feng shui consultant. My blog, Asian Lifestyle Design, is where I share my passion for Asian food, traditions, feng shui and culture!
[Photo courtesy of National Archives]