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Social Construction of Chinese American Ethnic Identity

In the 1960s, immigration law and the civil rights movement marked the beginning of a new phase of immigration to the United States, which is referred to as the “new immigration” (Chin 2000). The 1965 Immigration Act did away with national quotas and gave preferential treatment to relatives of citizens and permanent residents and to those in needed occupations. Under the liberalized law, over 20,000 Chinese have entered the United States each year since 1965 (Coontz, Parson, and Raley 1999).

More than thirty years have passed since the influx of immigrants from China began. The children of those immigrants who began arriving in the late 1960s and afterwards, have now come of age. What does “being a Chinese American” mean to these young adults? Which group do they belong to, Chinese or American? Being born in China or a Chinese person, who grew up in Mainland China and came over to this country at 20 years old, whenever I met my second generation Chinese American friends from my age cohort, I would automatically make assumptions of my authenticity and their impurity of Chinese-ness. Sometimes, my assumptions seemed to be confirmed, especially in the situations when they tried to split every dime of a meal with me. Other times, my confidence of being an “authentic Chinese” was constantly challenged. For instance, I was always amazed by how much filial piety and obedience that my friends, especially females, showed to their parents and grandparents. However, most of the times, I had mixed impressions. Some of my America-born friends would criticize their parents’ rigidity and old-fashioned values on the one hand, and show their great respect and obedience to their parents on the other hand. I cannot help wondering about their culture and the meanings of Chinese and American cultures to them.

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Social Construction of Chinese American Ethnic Identity