Friday, July 12, 2002

(The following is an email I wrote to Steve Sailer in response to his recent article "Who exactly is Asian American?", which suggests reclassifying the race of South Asians as Caucasians, where the Arabs, North Africans, and West Asians are already classified, an idea which does seem to have some merit when considered from a linguistic, genetic, and even cultural viewpoint. I discuss the various troubles of social interaction and political coalition building between East Asians and South Asians. Hope it's of general interest.)

Dear Mr. Sailer,

I read your recent article "Who exactly is Asian-American?" While I found your discussion of cultural and genetic differences between East Asians and South Asians quite fascinating, I can't say I agree that reclassifying the South Asians as Caucasian would benefit the fight against racial bloc politics. First, S. Asians and E. Asians are even more different than Dominicans, Bolivians, and Argentineans, because Hispanics at least share an ancestral language and a few threads of behavior acquired from the colonizing Spaniards' Mediterranean culture. Furthermore, the present arrangement actually dissuades many East Asian students from participating in pan-Asian racial activism, because it requires working together with South Asians, who are so culturally dissimilar to us.

(This is rather long and rambling, sorry, I'm not sure how much you know about the Asian social scene at universities or the modern Asian youth culture in American these days, so I'm trying to describe everything in detail).

Ethnic-specific clubs in universities (i.e. Chinese Students Association, as opposed to the Pan-Asian Student Association) grow and prosper because they provide a social arena in which everyone follows largely the same cultural rules of social interaction (such as indirectness in speech and argument, respect for senior students even one year older, and loyalty to friends to an extent which most whites would regard as interference in their personal lives.) It's a place to relax, be yourself, and make friends. Let's call the people who join clubs just for that reason the Socialites, in contrast to Activists who join clubs for politics. Socialite clubs, despite the ridiculous lack of funds and endemic laziness among board members, do quite well in terms of numbers, especially when they throw a party.

These categories aren't immutable - usually Activists can slowly push some Socialites onto the Activist track over a long period of time through repeated exposure. But in the present arrangement, the Activists don't often get that chance. They don't tend to promote their politics on the rare occasions they show up to the ethnic-specific Socialite clubs. They want to build coalitions and achieve big numbers. so they flock to the Pan-Asian students clubs.

However, those clubs have trouble attracting other members not just because the heavy tone turns off all those politically apathetic students, as is commonly assumed, but also because a Pan-Asian students club including both S. Asians and E. Asians can't provide the same type of common social arena I mentioned above, due to the differing styles of social interaction between the two groups (some E. Asians feel that S. Asians' style of social interaction bears too much resemblance to the white style - perceived as louder, less respectful, and less loyal to one's friends - which they joined monoethnic cliques to get away from in the first place). So the Socialites don't go and don't get converted to Activism.

Right now, either the Japanese clubs tend to act as the de-facto pan E. Asian student organization for the Socialites (e.g. the vice-president of the Japanese American Student Alliance at my university is a Chinese citizen from Hong Kong), or there exist two separate pan-Asian organizations - one for the Activists, which includes S. Asians, and another which also claims to be pan-Asian but really exists to hold social functions catering to E. Asians. The Activist types rarely show up because of their conviction that excluding S. Asians from Asian groups is racist. This depoliticizes the E. Asian identity. E. Asian Socialites go to parties and chill with Vietnamese guys chatting up Korean girls and Japanese guys w/ Chinese girlfriends, and never have a thought of giving up our studies of productive fields to become Leeches ... ah, professional Activists, because we rarely meet others who think along those lines.

Throwing S. Asians out of the Asian category would create a new and unfamiliar problem: pan-East Asian-American clubs which put the Activist types in the same room with hundreds of Socialites. The Socialites would attend meetings mostly just to be around people who share their style of social interaction, but probably wouldn't mind donating a few hours to whatever political cause the Activists think is worthy. They'll see it as a bonding experience with other members rather than an overtly political act. Nevertheless, E. Asians seeing other E. Asians getting involved in ultra-left "Asian" politics will encourage more of us onto the Activist track and into a life of drawing a salary out of taxes and donations which could have been put to productive use. I think you'd agree with this would be a disaster for the community and for the USA.

One other unusual caveat I thought of: Asian political activism doesn't follow the commonly-perceived pattern that the most ethnically identified on a personal level are also the most tied to racial bloc politics. E. Asians who completely abandon their ancestral culture still don't move beyond bloc politics as you might hope - in fact the widespread perception in the Asian community is that such people are the MOST likely to get drawn into the world of "Asian" activism. This may be a result of the fact that E. Asians who hold white standards of social interaction as their own find little social divide between themselves and S. Asians, so they are well-suited to pan-Asian Activist-dominated clubs. In contrast, those who retain more of their ancestral customs and habits on the personal level seem less comfortable in such politics, at least as long as it requires S. Asian/E. Asian coalition building.

Looking forward to any questions or thoughts you have on this matter.

Your Reader,
Eric Lien

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