My Friend Stefano Tells Me About the Future of Asian Americans

I wonder if Asian Americans will become "white." Every year as we observe Asian American Heritage Month, I meditate on the question. As with almost all such inquiries, I doubt the easy answers, both as predictions and as prescriptions.

I asked a friend over lunch the other day about his background. Stefano is a European immigrant. He came to America from Italy when he was old enough -- but only just -- to remember the "old country." His father was a business executive who traveled extensively.

The elder continued to work abroad, even though his family lived here. He frequented an old-time ethnic club, the type of association where men hung out with their compatriots, reading newspapers, playing games, drinking.

The son was amenable to conversation -- I am sensitive to avoid casting anyone as a representative, a reluctant one at that, of a group defined by characteristics over which they have no control. Most of us do not wish to be assigned the spokesperson role for "your people."

Books have been written about the process of a line of "races" becoming accepted as "white," making the points through ample evidence that, for example, "Italian" was previously a "race;" that it was adjudged separate from "white;" and then it was amalgamated into a more expansive category that made up the majority.

Stefano, an amiable fellow, is thoughtful in everything he says. He explained that when he was young, he tried to Anglicize his name exactly once. In a basketball league, he became "Steve." He did not like it, because that word referred to someone else and not him. The experiment ended. He remained "Stefano."

If he had decided, however, to become "Steve," with a corresponding adjustment to his patronymic, he would have passed. He could have declared any common mixture of bloodlines that he pleased. It would have ensured equality.

His children have done so without effort. They are normal, ordinary, not out of place.

He is proud of them. I'm sure they have their own personalities.

They do not distinguish themselves by heritage in any meaningful manner. They have no interest in joining the associations to which their grandfathers belonged. For that matter, Stefano himself recalls the social club with nostalgia but without yearning. He is not inspired to seek out its contemporary counterpart; it is not a missing part of his days.

I followed up. Was this adaptation, I asked him, commendable, lamentable, or inevitable.

Stefano did not hesitate. It was the last: inevitable. He might consider dual passports, he said. If his progeny carried them, they would be able to pursue opportunities overseas. It would be beneficial. Even if they went through the bureaucratic formalities, they would be thoroughly American.

I tend to agree. Over time, I have become less judgmental about these decisions -- how you introduce yourself to the basketball team -- that individuals no less than communities make, without even realizing that they chosen an identity by increments. In many instances, they do not have meaningful choices.

When I was young, I was insistent on assimilation. Due to circumstances, I was intent on being the same as my classmates.

I am ashamed to admit it now, but I was embarrassed of my parents. Every child is to an extent. But among the American-born descendants of obvious newcomers, the sentiment is traumatizing. It is the constant dread of being called out for differences as real as imagined.

Over time, I became less enamored of the effectiveness of this strategy. My ability to mimic my social superiors only made me seem desperate. I could acquire greater knowledge about the cultural heritage they insisted I study while denying I could claim it. That did not lead to acceptance.

Yet I am reconciled to the dynamism of the world. Pop culture overwhelms. Perhaps more powerful than any divide between East and West is the allure of mass media and the trends of consumer capitalism. Young people are baffling to older people, universally. And those of us like me at an age that I thought was old when my father was as I am now are further surprised that we no longer are counted within the class of those with potential to change the world, alas.

Kids are attracted to phenomenon with instant global appeal. A cat video that goes viral by definition does so at once everywhere. The internet has made "international" an anachronism. In Asia, they covet vintage American jeans and the latest high-end purse. In America, they enjoy J-Pop, K-Pop, anime, even imported soap operas.

If Asian Americans cross the color line, I am not so sure it should be applauded. True as north, such success would mean the arrival of Asian Americans. By that virtue though, it would emphasize the exceptionalism of African Americans.

Be that as it may, as Stefano concluded our chat he joined me in speculation about whether Asian Americans would be like "white ethnics." He last remark highlighted the superficiality of the means by which we divide ourselves. He said the distinction between him and his kin and me and mine was that he looked like the conventional picture of the white American. All he had to do if he wanted was drop a syllable from his name.