Apr 16, 2012 5:00 pm ET
When I was young, I remember my mom telling me once that she really had only four big hopes for me. “You do these four things and I will be happy,” she said. “One, practice piano. Two, go to a good college. Three, become a doctor. And four, marry a nice Taiwanese girl.”
Thirty years later, and I’m two for four. I reminded her of this other day: “Remember that list you had for me back when? Well, I’m batting .500. In baseball, that makes me a superstar.”
“Well, in testing, 50% means you fail,” she retorted. I love my mother.
Anyway, the conversation came up because we’d independently emailed each other an article recently published in the New York Times “Style” section, detailing the latest hot trend to hit the Times breakroom: Apparently, more and more Asian Americans are defying convention by…marrying Asian Americans.
You see, based on a just-released Pew Research Center report, although Asian Americans are still more likely to outmarry than any other race — a full 28% of Asians marrying in 2010 wed a non-Asian spouse — this percentage actually represents a drop from 31% in 2008.
That’s interesting in and of itself. But it’s the reason given for this fall in Asian American outmarriage rates that really caught both of our eyes. According to Times reporter Rachel Swarns, the reason why younger Asians are choosing to marry other Asians is that they’re experiencing a “resurgence of interest in language and ancestral traditions,” and selecting partners that will help them preserve that precious heritage — particularly spouses who are first-generation immigrants, and thus closer to the original old-world source.
My mom subscribes to Cultural Bucket Brigade Theory, which is to say, every generation hands a pail of culture to the one that follows, and winces as the latter clumsily lets half of it spill out. So to her, the Times article was nothing less than a vindication. “Your kids barely speak any Chinese as it is,” she says. “I don’t know what would’ve happened to my grandchildren if you hadn’t married a Taiwanese girl.”
And she does have a point. My Chinese is approximately at the third grade level (assuming you’re talking about slightly slow third graders). By contrast, my older son Hudson, who’s actually in third grade for real, can speak Mandarin at the fifth grade level. Which is about where my Taiwan-born wife’s Chinese skills are. Look, mom, more water in the bucket!
But I certainly didn’t marry Heather out of respect for her middle-school language abilities or her pretty much nonexistent knowledge of Chinese ancestral tradition. And in talking to friends who dated mostly non-Asian people before settling down with an Asian, none of them cited a desire to “preserve culture” as a particularly important motivation either.
“This may sound weird, but when I was in my 20s, I really thought I should marry a non-Asian because I wanted to have mixed race children,” says Mina Lim, an editor and writer who lives in Baltimore. “I thought the human race needed to evolve, and I wanted to be part of the ‘beige-ing’ of the planet.”
Lim’s first marriage, which ended in 2003 — a half-decade after it began — was to a non-Asian, and she says that during their relationship, she constantly felt self-conscious. “If there happened to be another Asian girl-white guy couple, it always seemed awkward, especially if we got seated at adjacent tables,” she says. “And one of the worst experiences I had was traveling to Asia back in the late 1990s. Everyone we met thought I was his translator. Meanwhile, he expected me to have some kind of miraculous, mystical connection with my ‘homeland.’”
A few years after she and her first husband divorced, Lim met and then married an Asian American guy, and they’ve been happily together ever since. “It’s easier,” she says. “With him, I feel like I can just be myself.”
Mina says that that’s the case despite the fact that she and her husband aren’t of the same ethnic background. Although her family is Filipina and his is Taiwanese, there’s enough that’s just “understood” about their respective backgrounds that, in her words, “there’s no having to explain things” — important stuff, like the centrality of family and the significance of education; silly stuff, like taking your shoes off when you enter the house.
These are pretty basic values that aren’t, for that matter, strictly limited to Asian Americans. And they’re hardly what my mom means when she thinks of “culture”; just ask my sister, who had several uncomfortable conversations with my parents about the cultural differences between various East Asian ethnicities prior to her marriage to my Korean American brother-in-law. (Note: They’ve now been married over a decade, and my parents think he’s awesome.)
This, of course, brings up something that represents a real emerging trend among Asian Americans, almost entirely glossed over by the Times: Like Lim, my sister and a significant percentage of our social circles, more Asian Americans seem to be marrying Asian Americans that aren’t their particular flavor of Asian American.
And yes, the statistics back up that anecdotal evidence. C.N. Le, a professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, has done a remarkably in-depth analysis of Asian American intermarriage and outmarriage statistics and made it available on his public blog, Asian-Nation.org. His research has found that since 2006, the frequency of inter-Asian marriage has risen by more than 8% among all Asian Americans, and over 15% among Asians raised in the U.S.
This trend actually points to a much better explanation for declining interracial marriage rates among Asian Americans than the Times’s “back to our roots” rationale: More Asians are marrying Asians because there are more of them around.
“Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in suburban New Jersey, the only Asian girls I was exposed to were my parents’ friends’ daughters, and I never had any interest in them,” says Matthew Cha, a Korean American consultant who met his wife while working in Seoul. “All my girlfriends were white because that’s what was available to me.”
Similarly, Perry Manadee, a Thai American engineer who grew up in the Detroit area and who’s now married to a fellow Thai American, says that he also dated non-Asians “not necessarily by choice or desire, but due to the fact that the Asian American dating pool in Michigan was quite small,” he says.
Both Cha and Manadee essentially found themselves beginning to date other Asians when the option became more practical. (From personal experience, I can say that dating the daughters of your parents’ close friends is not practical.) This coincided with travel to Asia, or attending top universities — where there’s a disproportionately high concentration of Asian Americans — or moving to major cities on the East or West Coast, where Asian Americans cluster. And given that the overall Asian American population grew by approximately 46% from 2000 to 2010, the fastest of all racial and ethnic groups, this also explains much, but not all of the downtick in Asian interracial marriage: The more Asian fish there are in the Sea of Love, the more likely it is that you’ll net one — though not necessarily one from exactly the same coral reef.
And given the spike in Asian interethnic marriage, that’s apparently increasingly okay. Far from obsessing over common language or tradition, most of my other interviewees mentioned the same thing Lim did: The general shared experiences and expectations they had with their Asian partners led to a comfort zone in which aspects of life other than race and ethnicity could come to the fore.
For instance, Lim notes that she feels comfortable traveling with her second husband and consuming weird, awesome food without having to deal with her first husband’s visceral reactions of shock or disgust. “And then, of course, there’s the golf,” she laughs. “We both love golf.”
It’s not that a sense of easy common ground can’t be found with non-Asian partners — it certainly can. Nor is it guaranteed that two Asians, hailing from communities that comprise a staggering amount of diversity, will be reading from the same page. But if you look at the individuals spoken to for the Times’s article — Xin Gao and Liane Young, Ann Liu and Stephen Arboleda, Ed Lin and Lily Lin, and Chau Le and Neil Vishnav — two out of the four, half of the couples she interviews, are interethnic, a fact the Times writer totally ignores.
As my mom says, “50% means you fail.”
There’s another reason people frequently mention for more Asian Americans marrying other Asian Americans, and that’s the fact that the media’s depiction of Asians has gotten decidedly better over the past ten years — particularly Asian men, who have gone from being relegated solely to the netherworld of houseboys and henchmen to — well, if not necessarily hunks, than at least humans.
A key pivot point in this transformation occurred in 2006, when “Survivor” had its controversial “race wars” season — where the show’s four initial tribes were divided into a white tribe, a black tribe, an Asian tribe and a Hispanic tribe. Those of you who followed the show know that the season’s million-dollar prize was ultimately won by Korean American lawyer and management consultant Yul Kwon — whose combination of smarts, nice-guy appeal and devastating washboard abs instantly catapulted him to People magazine’s lists of “Sexiest Men Alive” and “Hottest Bachelors.” While it may be excessive to say that Kwon singlehandedly reset society’s impression of Asian men — I will say between him and Jeremy Lin, it’s gotten a lot harder for the rest of us to keep up — there’s no question that his prominence changed the conversation.
Kwon has been a little off the pop-culture radar recently, accepting an appointment as deputy chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the FCC, while crushing the hopes of women everywhere by marrying his girlfriend Sophie Tan (who’s Taiwanese American — another data point!); the two now have an 18-month-old daughter, Genevie.
As of last week, however, he’s back — having accepted a role as host of a new PBS television series, “America Revealed,” which premiered last Wednesday and will run for four episodes.
Kwon jokes that, despite the potentially naughty implications of its title, the series “isn’t about America’s love affair with Speedos, thongs, and hot pants.” (Come on, kids: PBS.) Instead, it explores the four pillars of our nation’s economy and infrastructure: Food, energy, transportation and manufacturing.
“You’re probably thinking this is a wonky show, but the visuals are absolutely breathtaking — we use aerial photography, GPS tracking, computer animation, and field interviews to reveal these systems in a way you’ve never seen before,” he says. “Plus, you’ll feel a whole lot better about yourself than if you spent an hour watching hot pants.
During the show, you get to see Kwon show off some of his Survivor-esque skills — jumping out of a plane, rappelling down the blade of a 300-foot wind turbine, flying an ultralight aircraft over Shasta Dam, and riding in the pace car at the Daytona 500. “I spent a lot of time curled up in a fetal position trying not to have a panic attack or throw up,” he says.
What you won’t get to see is the famous Kwon washboard. “Becoming a father and working in the federal bureaucracy haven’t been kind to my waistline,” he says. “I promise you’ll see things on this show you’ve never seen before. The one thing you won’t see are my abs — that ship has already sailed.”
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Tao Jones is Jeff Yang’s weekly column for Speakeasy on Asian and Asian American media, entertainment, technology and culture. Tune in next week for the next installment. Follow him on Twitter at@originalspin.