Language is a big part of what makes us human. It also separates us into different groups of people. Asians have been coming to America for many years, whether it is for their kids or education. Many came here years ago as slaves. No matter what, their children have faced the biggest impact of this change. As much as we hate to admit it, our culture is a huge part of our identity. Culture and language are one and the same.
In the 2000-2010 census, Asian Americans in the United States have been on the rise. They show no signs of stopping anytime soon. In just 2020 alone, there were 5.9% of the population who indicated they were “Asian alone” (US Census Bureau). This covers roughly 19 million of the total population. Many Asian American kids today face the challenge of connecting to their heritage. They have been categorized as either “white-washed” or “FOBs” because of their experience with their native language and culture. The impact that language has brought about on Asian American children is much rougher than from the eyes of an outsider.
Culture affects language use
Being part of two different cultures means having to balance them both as equally as possible. Many teens who have no other people to relate to can find this to be quite a difficult task. This can cause them to discard their culture completely, which many times ruins their relationship with their families.
In the article Parent-Adolescent Language Use, Vivian Tsing and Andrew Fuligin talk about just that. Being a teenager comes with many problems. As if fitting in wasn’t hard enough, having to fit in while balancing two different cultures can be quite a chore. Kids who do not feel as dedicated and involved in their culture tend to throw away their language. They try to blend in with the other people around them, who tend to be Americans who only speak English.
Parent-Adolescent Language Use
“ A theory of language shift suggests that movement toward English language use among children from immigrant families increases at a dramatic pace during the adolescent years as youths spend more time in contexts outside the home” as well as“ adolescents who communicate in the native language with their peers may find that their peers do not have sufficient language competencies to aid them in retaining the native language as it is used in the home with parents” (Tsing & Fuligni, 2000).
The cause of this is due to parents putting a priority on their kids learning English at a young age and not teaching them about their native language. It can lead to the kids being disinterested in it later on in life as well. Many times, 1st generation parents put pressure on their kids to excel in school.
They can adapt with the majority rather than “waste their time” with their native language, expecting them to know it and learn it when they are older. More often than not, that time never comes until it is too late. This tends to, later on, backfire on the parents as they have kids who cannot communicate in their native language to them or even to their relatives back home. Parents don’t understand this and get irritated and they retaliate by being harder on their kids. It then leads them to have more stress and pent-up anger towards themselves and the world around them.
Result of open communication
Foreign parents have always been hard on their kids. That leads their kids to not communicate with them as they should be doing. They have no one to talk to or explain their situation either. Even if they do end up meeting others like them, it’s not something Asians like to talk about in general. Having to balance their two worlds while also knowing it will never be the way others expect it to be can cause them to have traumatic experiences and dislike their cultures, even more, leading them to shun that part of themselves.
In Tsing and Fuligin’s research, they were able to conclude that youths “who reported that they and their parents mutually communicated in the same language indicated having greater cohesion and discussion in relationships with their mothers and fathers than adolescents who reported that they and their parents communicated in different languages” (Tsing & Fuligni, 2000) as shown in Table 1.
Asian American Youth Language Use: Perspectives Across Schools and Communities
Shalini Shankar discusses the importance of how language affects the identities of many Asian American youths. This includes their relationship with their social life, schooling, and other personal relationships. Language centres around the US are set up to teach Asian Americans about their native language and get them to read and write. Many kids grow up learning their native language even before they learn English in these Youth Centers. They can accustom themselves to their roots before the seeds of American culture and language are planted.
The author mentions that “language use is a central arena thought which young people enact identities and understand these practices in context” (Shankar, Lee, & Reyes, 2011), which helps to explain to these kids the culture of what their parents grew up with back home. Many first-generation and some second-generation kids come to America or are born here.
Language teaching centres
These teens never get to witness first-hand their native cultures. American shows pull them into assuming what growing up with a family should be. Their version of a family will be very different from the one their parents grew up with. This is something the parents cannot accommodate automatically. By schooling these kids on their cultural identities, they get to witness a life that they would never have understood.
If they can understand even a bit of their native language, they have already opened the doors to learning so much more than what schools in America can teach them. It teaches youths how to balance their multilingual family and culture more positively. This is much better than having to deal with that struggle alone. These schools are also an important reminder to the kids of their background. It also keeps them grounded with their families.
Culture and Language
“The rate at which second-generation youth acquire English is correlated with the same for their parents, and these measures are used to quantify acculturation. Based on youth ethnic identification and self-report, they conclude that English-speaking ability is an important component of youth identity. Their analysis of “selective acculturation” reveals that youth who “retain” their parents’ culture and language feel less of a generational clash than those “youths who have severed bonds with their past in the pursuit of acceptance by their native peers” (Shankar, Lee, & Reyes, 2011)
In the quote above, we can dissect it into different parts. The main point of it is to state that kids who spoke in their native language and kept their culture alive within themselves were more likely to maintain better communication and relationships with their parents than kids who refused to be part of their native culture anymore.
She goes on to say that those who were able to keep the language and culture alive within themselves even if they were proficient at it were also able to pass it to their children versus parents who did not learn their native language. The importance of language and how it can relate to one’s culture goes to show just how important language can be in opening doors they didn’t think was possible. This brings about a question of how these kids who many times feel alone in their culture can relate to others, and that is through the presence of multimedia platforms.
How social media platforms are breaking boundaries
Many kids go to schools with only a few people they can share cultural similarities with. For them, it can be hard to want to continue to show your native pride. Many kids feel self-conscious and try to hide their language and culture in fear of being ostracized and bullied. In the 21st century, with all the social media platforms, it has never been easier to communicate and share one’s commonalities with those hundreds and thousands of miles away. This is creating using a new form of language which only those who can relate understand. The media “is one way through which youth explore their status as “the Other Asian”. It is in a way that differentiates them from wealthier, higher-achieving Asian American youth” (Shankar, Lee, & Reyes, 2011).
In the Indian American community specifically, memes have been a great way to keep kids feeling bound to their cultures while also letting them know they are not alone. The most common one that is popular right now is from TV shows such as the “Karama Family”. It is a show about modern Indians, which adolescent kids can relate to and laugh at. It creates a community that they did not know was available to them before. Social media were able to make this possible for them, but it also had some negativity to it. As stated before, there are different groups of categories that kids place themselves in based on their culture. Whether they are “FOBs” or “whitewashed”, kids classify themselves into these categories, which is quite harmful.
On the topic of social media, there is often a topic called “whitewashed ___ check” on the app TikTok. The For You page recommends videos that relate to you. As an Asian American, I received so many American Indian TikToks to determine if I am whitewashed based on random questions. In one of the videos, two girls say they cannot speak their native language and don’t eat Indian food daily. This meant they were whitewashed, not FOBs. Other groups of Asians have their version of it, but each one relates to whether they consider themselves to be FOBs or whitewashed. Once again, language becomes one of the biggest barriers that put them into the genera they have created.
By just having a person to speak our native language to or someone to relate to when it comes to their native culture, it can change a person’s experience for many generations.
School vs. Culture
In American schools, they teach us how to be American students and lead an American life. But, there is so much more to these kids than just that. They have another life that teaches them things that are slightly different which schools don’t always accept. In my experience of this, it was doing math; something simple that no one would even think of.
For me, learning math at home was pretty different than at school, because I was taught to divide and multiply using the Nepali way. In school, I was told that was wrong and told to learn it the American way, which I found confusing. I was picked on for not understanding English slang and doing things the American way, but that never kept me away from my culture.
Language is Culture
Ahern writes “speaking is itself a form of social action, and language is a cultural resource available for people to use” (Ahern, 2011), which made me once again think back to my past.
Had I restricted myself to learning only the American way and given up on my language, would I have become the person I am now? Would I have friends in the Nepali community that I have now?
While I would still be able to be friends with them, I would have lost the ability to communicate with them in the way I do now. Even with my limited vocabulary and not being able to read and write in Nepali feels like a setback. Not being able to talk to them in Nepali would be extremely sad. As Ahern says, it is a cultural resource that was available for me to use. By using that, I learned so much more about who I am as a person and the culture that I was separated from at a young age.
Language is an important fact in what makes us who we are. Many Asian American adolescents refuse to abide by their native cultures due to outside factors such as racism and being an outcast. This separates them from their parents in the saddest way possible. So many have forgotten where they come from and who they are, as stated by the studies above. Some people were able to get it back with the help of social media. While it is a good thing, this has also led to other problems of putting people in categories. Being whitewashed or FOBs isn’t a good thing, but all of this comes from one powerful tool called language.
As Mulan once said, “when will my reflection show Who I am inside?” a lot of Asian Americans feel as though their outer looks do not define their personalities. They have a story that is larger than being a FOB or whitewashed.