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Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001


Mixing it up in the States

THE SUM OF OUR PARTS: Mixed Heritage Asian Americans, edited by Teresa Williams-Leon and Cynthia L. Nakashima. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001, 296 pp., 22.95 (paper)

High intermarriage rates, massive waves of immigration, and the easing of restrictions on global travel are blurring racial and ethnic boundaries more than ever. This was highlighted in 1997 when, in an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show after he won the Masters, golfer Tiger Woods identified himself as "Cablinasian" -- a word he himself coined to describe the mixture of Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian in his family tree.

Concepts of race and identity have become so complicated that we no longer have an effective vocabulary to describe them, as Woods realized. Not only has this become troublesome for individuals, it has become problematic for the state. American census-takers have become hard-pressed to establish categories for race and ethnicity. How should the daughter of a Singaporean Chinese-American mother and a half-French national, half Malay-American father identify herself when classifying her race on a census form? Beyond the question of checking the right box, individuals must ask themselves the difficult question of "Who am I?"

A few hundred years ago, the racial mix in America consisted largely of whites, blacks and Indians, but the need for labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Since then, large numbers of Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, South Americans and other groups have also settled in the U.S. and created a huge variety of potential racial and ethnic combinations. People of Asian heritage have played an important and ambivalent role in this history of immigration: They are often stereotyped in American society as paragons of success, creating feverish competition for admission to good colleges, but memories of "the yellow peril" and internment camps follow close behind.

"The Sum of Our Parts" is not a history, nor is it a booster for the individual and collective successes of Asian-Americans of mixed heritage. Rather, it is a collection of sociological essays describing the ways in which multiracial Asian-Americans have formed their own identities. The editors, Teresa Williams-Leon and Cynthia L. Nakashima, should be commended for choosing essays that appeal to both general and academic audiences, as well as for the consistent clarity and jargon-free style of the writing.

"Mixed" nonwhites are projected to become the new American majority by the middle of the 21st century -- a process that pundits have dubbed "the tanning of America." "The Sum of Our Parts" allows us to take a peek into this future; it focuses on the "mixed races" that will soon dominate America's social landscape. Gone are the notions of majority and minority races; they will be replaced by minority/minority and minority-within-minority relationships. The only question remaining is whether this volatile mix will become a harmonious melting pot or a smoldering caldron.

Although high intermarriage rates within the Asian-American community suggest the former, many individuals of mixed descent, lacking a specific history, tradition, or the support of others like them, fail to take in enough cultural nutrients to sustain their identities. A few have had to disassociate themselves from one part of their heritage or guiltily "pass" in order to avoid ostracism. In one essay, Japanese-Caucasian Kathleen Tamaga laments, "The trouble with me is my ancestry. I really should not have been born." Tamaga sought to cultivate her Japanese roots, but was rebuffed, and finally reconciled herself to a middle-class white identity with few Japanese connections.

Establishing an identity is even more challenging for those from two minority groups. A young Black and Japanese-American tried to hide any connection to his African-American heritage: "I would lie about what I was because I did not think they would accept me because I was black. I would ask them what they thought I was. They thought I was Hawaiian . . . So I said . . . my mother was Japanese and my father was Hawaiian."

Many mixed Asian-Americans try to gain full acceptance as Americans by searching for a mythic racial purity. The contradictions involved in this approach can be seen in the essay "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall," which takes us into the grand ballroom at San Francisco's Cherry Blossom Queen pageant. It describes how mixed-race Japanese women apply heavy makeup to their eyes to make them appear more almond-shaped or insert brown contact lenses to hide their "blue, non-Japanese eyes," while full-blooded Japanese women try to make their lips fuller and their legs longer and slimmer.

In some ways, these adjustments mirror what another author labels "doing the mixed-race dance" between mixed-race Vietnamese people and the greater Vietnamese community. She outlines the series of choreographed questions that are used to place her on a Vietnamese social scale. "Are you male or female?" (males rank above females); "Is your father or mother Vietnamese?" (a Vietnamese father denotes a higher status because of stereotypes about bar girls); and "Were you born inside or outside of Vietnam?" (being born outside of Vietnam removes the negative association of being a war baby).

In the final essay of this book, we return to golfer Tiger Woods. On Woods' first trip to Thailand, he was given a hero's welcome and claimed as a Thai (Woods' mother was a Thai but his father was an African-American soldier). Thai public relations firms were employed to bolster his image in their country; they emphasized his father's Green Beret status and his upbringing as a Buddhist. Criticism and local jealousies began to mount, however, and the whole campaign began to unravel. Tired of those who would either make him a Thai or an African-American, Tiger Woods stubbornly resisted placing his race before his humanity. When he returned to Thailand to win the Johnnie Walker Classic tournament, he was quoted as saying, "Yes, I'm Thai. Yes, I'm American. Yes, I'm black. I'm Tiger Woods!"

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