March 25, 2010

Census counts more than numbers

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity at 2:20 pm by dinaheng

The 2010 Census form arrived at my parents’ house, urging everyone living there to fill it out and be counted.

In a modern-day democracy, I rather like the image of paper documents still going out to every household. One day, I’m sure, the Census will be taken by computer chips embedded in our homes, if not in our bodies.

Each time we survey the nation’s residents, we come closer to understanding how different we are, and how much we have in common. Hopefully, that means a greater acceptance of who each of are, as well.

Last weekend, the family gathered for dim sum — a Chinese equivalent of weekend brunch — and the discussion turned to racial identity.

One brother-in-law joked about how people often ask Asians, “Where are you from?”

“I tell the ones who are just curious that I’m Chinese,” he said. “The ones who keep digging, thinking you’re just a recent immigrant, I have a little fun with. I tell them my dad served during the Korean War in the U.S. Army.”

“Yeah,” said another brother-in-law, who’s Korean American. “I tell them, I’m from Seattle. And when they ask where are your parents from, I say they’re from Seattle, too.”

It’s interesting how racial identity has changed over time. Years ago, anyone with an Asian heritage would have checked “Other” on government forms that recognized mainly Caucasians and African Americans. Moving forward, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander entered the lexicon. Now, Asian has broken out into different ethnicities — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.

Being American no longer means just being part of a melting pot of nationalities. Today, people of different nationalities and races are inter-marrying, and their multi-racial children may have numerous racial backgrounds in their ancestry.

What hasn’t yet changed enough, though, is the psychological angst of figuring out “who am I” among bi-racial individuals whose parents grew up identifying with different racial identities. Not long ago, I held a friend who is half Asian and half Caucasian as she cried, telling me that she’s never come to terms with who she really is.

“Outside, everyone thinks I’m white, but inside, I’m Chinese,” she said, relating to the cultural values that her mother embedded in her. “I never feel like I fit in anywhere.”

Knowing where we belong — that we belong — is at the core of defining who we are. Regardless of our race, whether we were adopted, or whether we know our biological heritage, we all seek a sense of family in life.

One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll no longer struggle with which box to check on a Census form. We’ll just accept that we all belong to one race — the human race.

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