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Asian-American Children

The Shared Asian-American Heritage, Differences among Asian-American Cultures

Asian Americans are a diverse group of individuals made up of several "micro" cultures under the umbrella of a larger shared "macro" heritage. It is important to note this inner diversity—Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asian heritages—as the various groups are at times as different as they are similar. Nonetheless, there are some common features that may help in better understanding Asian-American children.

The Shared Asian-American Heritage

Before considering some of the shared values and practices of Asian-American groups, it is necessary to reiterate that these groups are exteremly diverse and that individual differences must be kept in mind as these broad generalizations are discussed. There are, however, some similar threads found in various Asian culutres, including the tendency to be more collectivistic (as opposed to the more individualistic Western orientation), as well as the tendency to view the role of the family as central to existence. In addition, the value given toward preserving honor and harmony may be common across Asian-American individuals. These commonalities will be discussed before attention is turned to some of the differences present between the various Asian-American groups.


Valerie Pang and Li-Rong Cheng have called collectivism "one of the most powerful values" found in Asian-American communities (Pang and Cheng 1998, p. 6). Collectivism is characterized by a value system such that the group has more value than the individuals of which it is made. In this orientation, individuals sacrifice their own goals for the greater good of the community, and norms and traditions are emphasized. Virtually every Asian culture is collectivist in nature, in contrast to the more individualistically oriented American framework. This has special implications for Asian-American children, as they may incorporate both Asian and American value systems into their own beliefs. This can be difficult for them as they straddle both cultures. An example is the extreme focus on independence as a positive quality in Western value systems such as that in the United States. An Asian-American child might allow his family more of a role in decisions regarding career or marriage and may thus be viewed in a negative light because of "dependence" on his family. It is important to understand that collectivist societies such as those in Asian cultures may have different values and priorities than those adhered to by Western societies.

Deep Familial Ties

The role of family as central is another common tenet in most Asian cultures, and this familial devotion is often seen in Asian-American children as well. Brian Leung discusses these deep familial ties, noting that Asian-American parents are often seen as sacrificing their own needs for the needs of their children, and in turn adult children are often expected to care for their elderly parents. Also, respect for elder family members is more common in Asian-American cultures than in Western societies.

It is also important to note that not all Asian-American families are at the same stage in their own process of acculturation to the United States. Leung divides these families into three potential groups: recently arrived immigrant families, immigrant-American families, and immigrant-descendant families. Recently arrived immigrant families may struggle with involvement in educational practices in America because of differences in beliefs about the educational system, language barriers, and employment demands. Immigrant-American families are those that consist of parents born overseas and children born in America, as well as entire families born overseas that have lived in the United States for a substantial amount of time (twenty years or more). These parents will most likely have more involvement in their children's education, as they are more accustomed to the culture of America. Differences may exist in opinions and values between parents and children as their levels of acculturation may be at different stages, and this can at times cause conflict in an Asian-American family. Finally, American-born families are those in which all members of the family are American-born. These families may subscribe to many Asian values but may practice them to a lesser extent.

Preserving Honor and Harmony

A third major tenet shared by many Asian and Asian-American cultures is the presence of behaviors designed to "save face" or preserve honor and harmony. Saving face is important not only for oneself but also for others with whom one might be interacting, including groups outside of the ingroup. Disagreements are usually avoided and maintaining a polite and conscientious appearance is more important than winning an argument. This approach must be understood as appropriate in Asian-American children, though it differs from Western viewpoints about asserting oneself. Even children from American-born Asian-American families may retain these types of behavior patterns, as they are central to the Asian value system.

There are, of course, many differences between the various Asian-American cultures as well. On one level, traditions and customs, language, and dress differ from group to group, while on another level, differences exist in the immigration practices and regulations of the different groups, as well as in historical experiences. These differences may cause Asian Americans to develop culturally in different ways.

The Effect of Immigration Practices on Asian-American Children

Chinese Americans are the Asian-American group that has been in America the longest. Many Chinese individuals immigrated to the United States to find jobs and fortune in the early 1800s and were welcomed at first because of the cheap labor they provided. Soon sentiments turned negative, however, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act prevented immigration from China and lead to discriminatory practices in the United States, including lack of access to certain legal rights and segregation. In addition, the prevention of immigration created a Chinese-American population comprised mostly of men, leading to lower numbers in subsequent generations. This act was not repealed until 1943 and had extreme influences on both the physical and psychological well being of Chinese Americans. Such practices had an effect on the children of these Chinese immigrants as well, as feelings of shame and the results of discrimination and poverty were passed on from previous generations. Good education is often a main focus for these families and is a key reason for their immigration to the United States. Thus, educational achievement remains an immensely important goal for Chinese-American children.

Korean individuals arrived in America about a century later than the Chinese and also served as laborers. Again, attainment of better education was a major goal of these first Korean immigrants. The anti-Asian sentiments that continued to effect all Asian-American populations at this time in the United States caused many Korean and Korean-American families to settle close to one another, forming tightly knit communities. It is important for those working with Korean-American children to respect these communities and to try to work within them, making attempts to involve parents as much as possible. Though most Korean-American parents are highly respectful of teachers and educational administrators, they may not see it as their place to enter into the educational forum, deferring instead to teachers. Using material in the language of the parent is one way of ensuring more involvement.

Japanese individuals first immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a desire for better education and financial opportunities as the primary force behind their immigration. While welcomed at first, anti-Asian sentiments resulted in the halting of immigration practices from 1931 to 1940. Whereas immigration was prevented quickly for the Chinese, this process took longer with the Japanese, allowing time for both males and females to immigrate to America. Thus, the Japanese-American population was not affected by the same setbacks suffered by the Chinese-American population. As a result, the Japanese-American population continued to thrive with two-thirds of the Japanese population being American-born by the 1940s. The discriminations directed against the Japanese-American population during World War II affected the acculturation of these citizens drastically, however, leading to less identification with America in some and highly overt identification, to the destruction of some of their own customs and practices, on the parts of others. World War II's relative recentness means that many Japanese-American children might come from families directly affected by its events.

The central roles of family and culture are common tenets in most Asian populations. A young girl wearing traditional Southeast Asian clothing holds an American flag for Independence Day festivities in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Kevin Fleming/Corbis)

The Effect of Historical Experiences on Asian-American Children

Historical experiences also differ for the various groups of Asian Americans. As mentioned before, during World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps in the United States, an event that continues to affect many Japanese-American families. Though two-thirds of these individuals were Nisei, or second-generation individuals who had been born in America, the U.S. government viewed them as a danger to their country following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This indignation resulted in most Japanese-American families losing all that they owned, leading to a step backward in their solidification as productive landowners and business owners. Because of the emphasis placed on the tenet of honor in Japanese societies, many of these families did not speak of the internment for many years afterwards, and Japanese-American children might be just beginning to understand the effects of this imprisonment on their own families.

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the immigration that followed provides another example of a historical influence on a different group of Asian Americans. This group of Southeast Asian immigrants came from three different countries: Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although the first immigrants who came to the United States around 1975 were generally wealthy and quickly established themselves in their new country, immigrants that followed came from more desperate circumstances, escaping refugee camps and war-ravaged conditions in their homelands. Following these immigrants came the people released from reeducation camps and many biracial Asian children whose American fathers were in the service during the Vietnam War. Understanding which group the families of Southeast-Asian-American children are associated with can provide those working with them in schools and elsewhere with crucial information about their backgrounds, value systems, and behaviors. In the Southeast-Asian-American community, there is a high level of respect for education and those who provide it, and thus good grades and hard work are emphasized by these families.

Having more knowledge about the value systems, practices, and histories of Asian-American children can aid all those who work with them in better understanding their differences from and their similarities to non-Asian-American individuals.



California State Department of Education. A Handbook for Teaching Korean-Speaking Students. Sacramento: California State Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Bicultural Education, 1983.

Leung, Brian. "Who Are Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Korean-American Children? Cultural Profiles." In Valerie Pang and Li-Rong Cheng eds., Struggling to Be Heard: The Unmet Needs of Asian Pacific American Children. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Pang, Valerie, and Li-Rong Cheng, eds. "The Quest for Concepts, Competence, and Connections: The Education of Asian Pacific American Children."Struggling to Be Heard: The Unmet Needs of Asian Pacific American Children. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Tran, My Luong. "Behind the Smiles: The True Heart of Southeast-Asian-American Children." In Valerie Pang and Li-Rong Cheng eds., Struggling to Be Heard: The Unmet Needs of Asian Pacific American Children. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 1