Ethnocentrism and the American Salad Bar

I grew up in an Asian American home, and we never really ate salads growing up. But I remember sometime in middle school, our family started to go to Fresh Choice quite often, and I would start eating the salads. I would skip most of the things in that salad bar, but I would get the Chinese Chicken Salad. But over the next few years, I would start to warm up to the other salads, and eventually I would start adding things to make my own custom salad.

At Cornell, I actually came to love Terrace Restaurant’s salad, and in the past few years I’ve come to really love Chick-fil-A’s salads.

More on this later.

On Tuesday I was invited to lead a seminar on evangelism at a college retreat. This retreat was for a college ministry that was predominantly Asian American, and like many of these ministries, there was a token white girl.

I was talking to her for a bit during free time, and the conversation led to me asking her about her experience being a minority in an Asian American majority culture. It turned out to be very fascinating, because so much of what she said was spot-on with how Asian Americans experience being a minority.

For example, she mentioned that there is this running joke about how she’s actually Korean inside, and there are times when she just wants to tell everybody, “No! I’m actually white!” As an ethnic minority, I found this to be quite similar to our common ethnic minority experience of having somebody from the majority culture say to us, “You are no different from the rest of us.” This is not an embracing of different cultures, but it is creating a literal melting pot—taking distinctives away from individuals and diluting them until they are the same as everything else.

Note: By the way, I don’t like saying that America is a melting pot. I say that America is a salad bowl.

She also mentioned that she felt like some Asian Americans didn’t quite know how to interact with her, or that they made assumptions about her. Again, many people I know who have spent a lot of time as ethnic minorities also report similar experiences.

But the one difference, and the most interesting thing for me personally, was when she said that she felt a bit confused sometimes when Asian Americans talk about their cultural distinctives, because she said that she identified with a lot of those distinctives as well. For example, she says that sometimes Asians would talk about how they take their shoes off in homes, and how that was an Asian thing. She said that she did that too, and that in her mind that was just a clean-person thing. Or at an even deeper level, sometimes Asians would talk about how they often have deep struggles with shame, but she would say that her family did as well. Her point was that often Asian Americans “claim” certain attributes and qualities, as if to say that they were the only ones who struggled with these things.

Now, she isn’t the first person that I’ve talked to who has said something like this. When I first heard something like that from someone who was white, I just assumed, “Oh that probably means that they relate more to Asian culture than white culture.” But this girl had literally zero Asian friends growing up. And I also realize now, in light of this girl’s persistence on being white, that that is perhaps an oversimplification. I think there is a lot of truth in what she is saying.

I think this is how it works. And I’m an Asian American, so I have at least some credibility here.

Many Asian Americans growing up have a bit of an identity crisis. Am I Asian? Am I American? How can I fit in with American culture? Why don’t my friends do this? Why are my parents so different? Who am I? And as a result, many Asian Americans go through this identity-search journey, and in that process, they find other Asian Americans who are on similar journeys. When these people come together, and they find out that they have similar experiences, they think, “Wow! You had that experience also? I thought I was the only one!” When this happens over and over, two things start to naturally happen.

The first thing is that the Asian Americans will start to create an identity for themselves. They “claim” certain attributes.

Are you good at math? That’s an Asian thing.

Do you have miscommunication with parents? That’s an Asian thing.

Do you fight over who pays at restaurants? That’s an Asian thing.

The second thing that happens is that the Asian Americans will start to create an identity for everybody else.

They’re not Asian, so they don’t understand what I go through.

I’m having difficulty with my parents, but I have to talk to an Asian friend about it, because my white friends will not get it at all.

I can’t believe what this guy said that to me! Well, he is white, so he’s probably never experienced discrimination or real suffering before.

Most people probably mean no harm when they use language like, “Oh, he’s white-washed,” or, “That guy’s an egg, white on the outside, Asian on the inside.” But all of that assumes an Asian identity that is culturally understood to be a certain way, and it assumes an everybody-else identity that is culturally understood to be a certain way. It is saying, “Asians are like this. This person is like this. Therefore, this person is Asian.” Or, “Asians are like this. This person is not like this. Therefore, this person is not Asian.” But the more we assign identities to ourselves and to others, dangerous things can start happening. Why? Because this fuels the melting-pot mentality. It is creating a majority-Asian-culture and expecting all “real” Asians to conform to that culture.

But there’s an even more significant potential danger to thinking in this way. These broad judgmental generalizations can come hand in hand with extreme forms of victimization and ethnocentrism.

Black people are like this. White people are like this. Asian people, on the other hand, are amazing. They persevered the racism, the discrimination, and the suffering. They work hard when everybody else slacks off, and they never get the credit. We need to rise up and take our well-earned places of leadership and influence in society.

While I’m not denying the pain that many Asians throughout history have experienced, I’m also weary of potentially putting others down in order to make a name for ourselves. This superior-race thinking is the same kind of thinking that fueled people like Yahweh ben Yahweh or movements like the Scramble for Africa.

As you can imagine, this isn’t just a potential Asian American problem. This is a problem that any ethnic, political, or socioeconomic group of people can fall into.

How is something like this prevented? Well, there definitely isn’t a formula. But for starters, we can be spending more time outside of our bubbles, interacting with those we have developed assumptions about. And hopefully, the goal won’t be to create more accurate generalizations but to not create generalizations at all. The goal won’t be to give people more accurate identities but to give space for people to create their own identities. The goal won’t be to have more developed opinions about people but to have more rooted relationships with people.

Personally I’ve been having to learn this over and over during the past half year. As a resident of Baltimore City, where I am a minority in all sorts of ways, I am constantly forced outside of my bubble. One man that I’ve been spending a lot of time with is B (no, I’m not going to tell you his actual name).

B is a white man in his 50s, and he has a mental disability. He grew up going to Catholic school, where nuns would call him retarded all the time. He can’t read very well, but he almost always carries this King James Verson Bible with him. His cell phone voice mail message is, “Jesus loves you.” I almost always leave a voice mail when I call him because I don’t think he knows how to answer phone calls. He has struggled on and off with homelessness for much of his life, and he knows all the places around the city that give out free food. He loves greeting people on the street, and he loves Christmas lights.

I met B through a food outreach that our church did last Thanksgiving, and since then I’ve been driving B to church and community group every week pretty consistently for about four months now. For Christmas, B gave me this shirt. I’m not too sure why he had a Morgan State University Security shirt, and though I can’t ever think of an occasion I would wear this, it meant a lot.

B Shirt

Yesterday, I was spending some time with B, and I asked him what his favorite childhood memory was. He thought long and hard, and then he told me it was when his parents got him his first sled for Christmas. And he told me about all the hills in Baltimore where he would go sledding. He told me about how he learned you could put wax on the bottom of the sled to make it go faster.

I don’t think I’ve ever been on a real sled before.

All of that is to say that as I am getting to know B, God has been doing an amazing work in my heart, and it is more humbling than anything else. I’m learning more and more about how quick to judge I am, how easily dismissive I can be. And I’m learning how to see people as individuals and not projects.

So I encourage you to put yourself out there. Let down your guard, and get out of your bubble. Get to know some of the other ingredients in the American salad bowl. You might just discover that you actually like some of the things that are out there.


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