By Greg Hugh, Staff Writer 

American-born Chinese is usually abbreviated in the Chinese community as just ABC.  Like many immigrants, ABCs are often lost in a cultural gap, especially if they are the first generation born in the United States.  Many try to find a way to fit into both the Chinese culture and American culture but some ABCs find this confusing and seek to better establish their identity.  For such individuals seeking to reaffirm or refine their identity, it’s a matter of choice as to what satisfies their desire to know their ethnic background or whether this has much deeper roots.

According to Wikipedia, an American-born Chinese or "ABC" is a person born inthe United States of Chinese ethnic descent, a category of Chinese American. Many, but not all, are born after the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 relaxed limits on immigration from East Asia to immigrant parents who are naturalized U.S. citizens.

ABCs were found to assimilate as rapidly into the American culture as other previous ethnic groups, such as the Irish and the Italians. They also were less likely to speak Chinese, although many still speak some Mandarin and Cantonese. In some households, ABCs may be able to speak the Chinese dialect of their parents, but may not know how to read or write Chinese. The majority of American-born Chinese are native English speakers, with some bilingual to varying degrees in Chinese. Usually, only the children of immigrants speak Chinese daily at home. Some parents have taken steps, such as sending them to Chinese school, to ensure their children retain ties to their heritage. 

The connection ABCs have with the Chinese culture is varied, depending very much onthe area where they live. The coastal areas on both sides of the United States tend to have strong Chinese communities, due to large Chinese populations and continuing immigration from Chinese-speaking countries, allowing ABCs to maintain a stronger connection with Chinese culture. In Middle America, where Chinese communities are more sporadic, the ABCs assimilate into the main stream more quickly. Assimilated latter-generation Chinese Americans may often adopt abroader pan-Asian American identity. The large Asian American population in Hawaii is an example of such a community.

One institution well-known among ABCs is the Overseas Chinese Youth LanguageTraining and Study Tour to the Republic of China, a summer program sponsored by the ROC government whose official purpose is to teach overseas Chinese (namelythose with family connections in Taiwan) about Chinese culture, but is almostalways known as "the Love Boat" because it is commonly seen as an opportunity to establish romantic attachments with other ABCs.

Traditionally, American-born Chinese have not been well-represented in mainstream media in the United States. Martial artist Bruce Lee, a native of San Francisco, is the foremost icon of Middle America's view of Chinese people. Before Bruce Lee came onto the scene, Asians (women in particular) were mostly viewed as docile,obedient, and feminine. Asian men were regarded as asexual and powerless buthard-working as servants. Lee broke some of the stereotypes by demonstrating that they could be tough and masculine, but in opening new doors, he created new stereotypes—that all Chinese men know Kung Fu or other forms of martialarts. Surprisingly, some American-born Chinese believe in these stereotypes of Asians, due to their disconnection with Chinese culture.

There are few American-born Chinese actresses who have become famous for their work. One examples is Lucy Liu, who starred in the Charlie's Angels movies and the television series Ally McBeal.

Many American-born Chinese have settled in Asia to pursue careers or education. Locals often stereotype them as being rich and arrogant, and having a poor command of Chinese, an image which is reinforced by their portrayal in serial television dramas; however, many have contributed significantly to the development of the entertainment industry as musicians, actors, or VJs1.

A non-exhaustive listincludes:* Kevin Cheng * Mandy Cho * Justin Lo * Wilber Pan * Jennifer Su * Lee-Hom Wang * Daniel Wu

* Vanness Wu

Some criticize the term for deemphasizing American nationality. By using"Chinese" as the noun, and using "American-born" to modify it, the nuance is that the person in question is not really an American, but just a Chinese person who happens to be born and/or living in the United States. In light of the stereotype of the "perpetual foreigner" in the United States, it is argued that terms that reinforce this notion must be used with special caution.2   In contrast, with the terms "Chinese American", or "American of Chinese descent", the focus is on the "American-ness" of the person. Some prefer to simply use the term "American."

While Chinese immigrants are no different than immigrants from European counties in their assimilation into American society, a major difference is that they are white and Chinese are noticeably physically different.  Thus it is easier for these immigrants toblend into their new environment and no one expects them to maintain thetraditions or customs of the country of their origin as they become Americanized.  However, since Chinese are different inappearance, they are perceived to be outsiders and are subjected to additional pressures in their efforts to becoming Americans.

Adding to the identity issue for ABCs is how they are sometimes perceived within their own community where they are sometimes labeled as a jook-sing. According to Wikionary jook-sing means a grain-measuring container made of bamboo (compare the term senk daw, daw being a kind of rice measurer). Bamboo is hollow and compartmentalized, thus water poured in one end does not flow out of the other end. The metaphor is that jook-sings are not part of either culture: water within the jook-sing does not flow and connect to either end. It may or may not be derogatory. Use of the term predates World War II.3

Alternatively, jook-sing is another term for a bamboo stick in Cantonese. While the original Cantonese term jook-gon (bamboo stick) sounds like dry bamboo or fallen bamboo(which also means "unfortunate" to Cantonese people) Cantonese speakers use jook-sing (rising bamboo) instead. The implication is that a person is Chinese outside, hollow inside.

In the United States and Canada, the term is pejorative and is used to describe Westernized American-born or Canadian-born Chinese. The term originates from Cantonese slang in the United States. Jook-sing are categorized as having Western-centric identities, values and culture. These traits may be viewed as positive or negative.

While the aforementioned terms are specific to American born Chinese used within theChinese community, there are other terms that are used to describe American born Asians in general.  Two of the most common are banana and Twinkie (yellow on the outside and white inside).  Some may perceive these to be demeaning labels but they are no different than similar labels applied to other ethnic groups.    Whether or not these terms would be construed as derogatory would be determined by the context in which itis used by the user. What is not readily evident when such terms are directed at someone is actually what such a person holds closest to their heart and not so much the physical attributes that we are unfortunately judged by.

As a Chinese individual, you are expected to live up to more Confucian ideals, the view that education will promise you a good job in life, that you will be obedient and respect authority without much question. Yet, as an American itseems to be much more free-spirited and you end up stuck in this rut of how to work with these different cultures. You want to have more freedom, but you don't want to disappoint your parents who will literally pour money into SAT prep, and drill you to the ground with work in the hopes that you will make them proud. But what do you do when American values clash with the values of your family? If you please your parents, you’re unhappy, but if you don’t please them, they’re unhappy.

Also influencing the Chinese assimilation into American society is the tendency for the Chinese community to maintain a low profile while seeking to over achieve inareas such as education and professional status.  There is a reluctance to be active inpolitics and a preference to resolve problems within the community and not participate in government-sponsored socialized programs.  Furthermore, as a civilization with over 5,000 years of history and culture, being Chinese means that there is an additional 4,700 years of tradition that needs to be dealt with and, as a ABC, it is difficult to ascertain the background from any source that is prepared to assist you in learning about this background.

So if you’re an American-born Chinese, it’s easy to understand that you may experience an identity problem. From different perspectives, you may be too American to be Chinese and too Chinese to be American. 

For those of you that are interested in additional articles on this topic, we invite youto submit any experiences you wish to share with us on the subject of American-born Chinese.  Please feel free to contact Greg Hugh, (952)-472-4757 or e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’sNote: Some of the material in this article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia articles"American-born Chinese" and “Jook-sing”.  The writer, Greg Hugh, is a first generation ABC and was born and raised in Chicago’s Chinatown.

1. RobertIto (11 Feb 2007). "Stuck in Asia, dreaming of Hollywood", New YorkTimes. Retrieved on 14 Feb 2007.2. Racismand the Experience of Asian American Students.

3. EmmaWoo Louie, Chinese American Names, McFarland & Company, 1998, ISBN 0-7864-0418-3 Douglas W Lee, Chinese American history andhistoriography: The musings of a Jook-Sing, 1980.

4.Wikipedia, American-born Chinese. Retrieved on 23 Oct 2008.

5.Wikipedia, Jook-sing. Retrieved on 23 Oct. 2008.

CAAM Horizweb2

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