AAPI Heritage Month - Biculturalism: Reflecting on My Identity

Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Considering the increased violence AAPI communities are facing this year, and the fact that May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to give students a platform to share their perspectives from the intersection of their identities as students, future mental health professionals, and members of the AAPI community. We are thrilled to share Jeea Yang’s essay, “Biculturism: Reflecting on My Identity,” and Induni Wickramasinghe’s “Notes on Asian Americans in Psychology.”  

Biculturalism: Reflecting on My Identity

By Jeea Yang, MA, Doctoral Student in Clinical Psychology
For AAPI Heritage Month, I started reflecting on a categorization that I came across while living in a multicultural community in Hawaii shortly after college. This label represented the accumulation of all my experiences as an immigrant, forced to adapt to the majority, while I still held onto my upbringing, heritage, and values. This label brought understanding and relief that there was an end to my “who am I?” wanderings. My identity no longer carried shame and confusion, and I finally felt like I belonged as I gladly wore my new clothes as a “Korean-American.” Many years later, I acquired another word called “biculturalism” which was simply defined as the coexistence of two different cultures at the same time. For me, these two cultural identities clashed into each other, and it took many years of open conversations, boundaries, reflections, and empathy to find a middle ground. 
When Biculturalism was originally defined in the literature it represented behavioral choices such as speaking two languages, or watching shows from one’s two cultural backgrounds (Berry, 1997). Others suggested biculturalism as the ability to pick and choose best qualities between their two cultures to create a tailored blend (Benet-Martínez, Leu, Lee, & Morris, 2002). 
But what does biculturalism mean to me? What is my lived experience of this identity so far? Below I name seven lenses of view that are seen through my bicultural glasses.
  1. Korean lens: Derived through interactions with first generation Koreans, my parents, interactions with Koreans from Korea, and Korean mainstream media. Upholding of old traditions of hierarchical systems such as respecting older people through formal speech, being obedient and choosing to self-sacrifice before personal gains to keep harmony in the family. Performance-oriented and visible success are highly valued as it all goes back to represent the “face” of the family. You heed the advice of elders and create a life path that pleases and honors your family. Their opinion matters more than my own. 
  2. American lens: What I learned from school, mainstream US media, social interactions with other Americans, and workplace values. Self-care first, advocate for yourself because no one else will, it is okay to be different, one to one give and take relationships. There is freedom to be whoever you want, do whatever you want, and no one has the right to say anything against it. You create your own path and listen to your own voice. 
  3. Macro level: Lens of disconnect between my outward appearance (Asian exterior) and my cognitive identity (American ideology through education and socialization with Americans). I still feel like a foreigner in my own country (I gave up my Korea citizenship to become an American citizen, I vowed to fight for America if a war broke out between the US and Korea). 
  4. Micro level: How my American identity sometimes interferes with my innate Korean values of familial hierarchical relationships, roles and obligations (as the first born, the only child, the only daughter), responsibilities (as the only proficient English speaker, tech-savvy, have better understanding of American system). Whereas I want independence, and less dependence from my parents. Having to choose self-care boundaries in multiple intertwined situations with parents.
  5. Immigrant lens: A new culture of survival, performance, and success. How the meaning of suffering and survival as a foreigner is defined differently for me than my parents as first-generation immigrants. The oscillating scale of my immigrant identity (between 1.5 and 1.8) relative to who I interact with and how much knowledge I have gained of each culture. The continued experience of discrimination and disadvantages of access and resources because of my ethnic identity. Constant pressure to acculturate, to lose my Korean identity to fit in, to become “normal,” in the mainstream society. To actually make it in America, I have to act against my ethnic practices of respect, honor, yield, and be more aggressive and selfish. You bring shame upon the family if you don’t show visible signs of success by getting into a good school, getting a good job, and getting married at the appropriate time. There is a lot of pressure to succeed on the children of first-generation parents, for all their sacrifice and hard work of laying a foundation for the next generation.  
  6. Out-group lens: Continued misunderstanding of my Korean American identity by other foreigners or Americans and having to explain my identity repeatedly. Being aware that sometimes I’m the only Asian in the room, and choosing to not feel awkward with some onlookers. When other Americans may doubt my American identity, I stand in my belief that I belong here, and America is my home too.  Sometimes I still feel like an imposter when I am called out in my own neighborhood as the “Chinese who started the virus” at a supermarket. I am lumped into a category of being “Asian” where intricate and distinct layers of my Korean heritage are ignored and dismissed.
  7. In-group lens: Experiencing a tight and supportive bond with other immigrants of other cultures, ethnicities and nations because we understand being on the “outside.” We hold onto our heritage; we celebrate our differences that make us unique. We become more aware of microaggressions as false kindness, and we begin advocating for our needs by voicing who we are as distinct cultures. Within the Korean community, first generations unite by looking out for each other more, and sharing their immigrant stories with each other and finding comfort. Korean Americans are rising up to acknowledging one’s unique identity and proudly representing who we are to others. We strive to maintain our Korean heritage, language, values, and culture by staying connected to our first-generation family, watching Korean media, eating food, or even by going back to Korea to immerse directly in the source. 
There is a dish in Korea called “bibimbap” that translates to mixed rice. The dish is a rice bowl topped with all sorts of seasoned sautéed vegetables, marinated meat, a fried egg sunny side up, finished with a sprinkle of sesame and generous dollop of a sweet and spicy red pepper paste sauce. Bibimbap is a perfect reflection of my seven lenses of biculturalism.  Each ingredient with its own texture, color, and taste plays a vital role when they come together harmoniously as you mix them together and a new profound taste arises. Also, there is so much variability in what vegetables and protein you can choose to put in the dish so my bibimbap will look differently from another Korean American since no one is the same person even in the same ethnic identity. 
What is the final taste for my bibimbap? I answer this question by saying the list is not exhaustive as I continue to discover new layers of my bicultural identity. I am thankful for AAPI Heritage month for affording me this opportunity to share my perspective with others. I am also thankful for my unceasing journey as I am finding more peace, pride, and celebration in my identity and it is no longer a hassle to share this knowledge with other Americans of other cultures. As a budding Clinical Psychologist, I am all the more aware of how intricate and delicate our cultural identities are and I strive to operate from a perspective of cultural humility, recognizing that we all have unique stories that is worth sharing to the world. 
Berry J.W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 46, 5–34.
Benet-Martínez V., Leu J., Lee F., Morris M.W. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism: Cultural frame switching in biculturals with oppositional versus compatible cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 33, 492–516.
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