Is the World Ready For the New Face of America?
America’s multiculturalism, especially its Asian narrative, remains a well-kept secret in some parts of the world.
By many accounts, 2012 was the year Asian Americans ‘arrived.’ A report released in June by the Pew Research Center determined US Asians who trace their roots to dozens of countries in the Far East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. It was also the year Asians made a splash in US politics with the Asian vote becoming a hot ticket item in swing states and an unprecedented number of Asians running successfully for national and local office.
For all that, America’s multiculturalism, especially its Asian narrative, remains a well-kept secret in some parts of the world.
This is what the Southland’s Dinesh Dhamardasa (25) has been discovering since taking up a Peace Corps assignment last year teaching English at a school in Rozhniv a small town in the former Soviet Union state of Ukraine.
Ukraine with a population of nearly 46 million is Europe’s second largest country and is by no means isolated from the world. But despite a steady flow of global news and Hollywood entertainment, it is a place where the face of America remains frozen in time.
The idea of America for the Ukranians is from the 1950’s. You have to kind of prove your American-ness and that’s tough. It’s not something white volunteers face,” said Dharmadasa who was visiting his family in Los Angeles recently.
When he tries to explain he is American by nationality and Sri Lankan by ethnicity, his Ukrainian colleagues listen patiently, then pat him on the back saying, “Ah yes, but you’re really Sri Lankan, not American.”
Dharmadasa is the quintessential child of America’s new demographics. His parents migrated from Sri Lanka over thirty years ago with the proverbial two suitcases and have successfully built a travel agency. Born in Los Angeles, he enjoyed the usual comforts of a second-generation Asian immigrant and attended Cal State Fullerton, graduating with a degree in philosophy. The family is well known in the tightly Sri Lankan community in Los Angeles and has not lost sight of its cultural roots. Dad Upul Dharmadasa is a generous supporter of and a front-row presence at practically every community event.
But despite these strong ties to his ‘hyphenated ethnicity’ Dharmadasa considers himself very much mainstream American and took it for granted that the rest of the world was in step with America’s changing racial and cultural makeup.
The boy from LA had a rude awakening. What he learned was that not just the newer minorities, but even well-established Asians such as Chinese and Vietnamese face the same hurdles. Relating the experience of a Chinese Peace Corps colleague who also served in Ukraine, Dharmadasa said: “Seeing him was like seeing an alien. Imagine that there’s a race of people that you have seen on television but you have never seen at close range before. That first encounter can sometimes be amazing and that’s how it is for most Ukranians.”
Surprisingly, that first encounter is not so different from the experience Asian Peace Corps volunteers had more than two decades ago. Julian Do, who headed the Southern California office of New America Media for several years, recounts that people in Jamaica where he served as a PC volunteer in the early 1980’s were outright skeptical about his American citizenship. Do who immigrated from Vietnam at age 12 was constantly challenged numerous times to prove his American-ness. “It was even harder because I was a first generation immigrant. They had a hard time accepting someone with a foreign accent as an American.”
Since Do’s time, the Peace Corps itself has morphed alongside America’s growing landscape of foreign accents and foreign names. Taiwanese-born Elaine Chao who arrived in the US in 1961 speaking no English was appointed director of Peace Corps from 1991-92 and is credited with the initiation of Peace Corps programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Corps has also attracted a steady stream of young Asian American volunteers including well-known Japanese American internment camp survivor Mike Honda who went on to become a congressman.
Launched in 1961 as an independent government agency that would promote peace and friendship worldwide, the Peace Corps 27-month volunteer program is seen as a rite of passage for enthusiastic young college graduates, mostly whites. Increasingly, that idealism is catching on in Asian youth circles. Statistics obtained from the Peace Corps office show Asian Americans (5% of US population) outnumbering the traditional and larger African American minority (13% of US population) in the agency’s army of nearly 9000 volunteers. Asian Americans number 378 as compared to 362 blacks.
But other than general idealism, what accounts for the increasing lure of the Peace Corps among Asian youth stereotyped as nerdy high achievers whose parents insist on fast-tracked linear flight from high school to doctoral degrees?
For Dharmadasa the Peace Corps stint is an opportunity to see what his parents and other first-generation immigrants experienced as foreigners in a new country. While acknowledging there’s little comparison in terms of creature comforts and modernity between Rozhniv in Ukraine, where the toilet is a primitive outhouse, the shower just a bucket, and Los Angeles, he believes there are common tracks and universal narratives in all immigrant journeys.
“I had always wondered what it was like for my parents in the first years of coming to America. Now I can relate to some of their experiences of being stared at as a foreigner and getting adjusted to a whole new world.” He faces such experiences frequently when walking the streets or getting into a bus in Ukraine. “All the heads seem to turn at once when I enter a bus and I can feel their eyes on my back as if asking “who is this person?”
As a school teacher, Dharmadasa must also deal with the nuanced challenges brought by youngsters not just going through the usual cycles of rebelliousness but whose sociological and cultural backgrounds are new to him.
But it is in the context of America’s new demographics that he sees Asian Americans volunteers abroad carving new frontiers. According to Pew Center, immigrants and their children are expected to make up as much as 93 percent of the U.S. working-age population between now and 2050. It might take another generation or two before these power shifts are fully recognized and dark Asian Americans as readily accepted as their white compatriots on the world stage. Pioneers like Dharmadasa are making that happen, one classroom at a time.
“We’re changing the face of America within the U.S. and now we are doing something to change the face of America abroad, especially because we’re coming in contact with a lot of young people who will be the future leaders of their countries.”
Dharmadasa will complete his Peace Corps tenure later this year and plans on going to law school. Not surprisingly, he is also considering a career in politics.
Hassina Leelarathna is Editor of LA Beez and publisher of CivicLA.
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